Dolley Madison Juvenile/Educational Biography
Dolley Payne Todd Madison
(May 20, 1768 – July 12, 1849)
Dolley Madison—the very name brings images of parties, gaiety, and flamboyance. Yet this First Lady was raised a Quaker! The Quakers are a religious group that, in the past, insisted on quiet colors, usually dove gray or brown. Although they supported education for women, they also viewed a woman’s place to be at home, with the children, and involved in activities for the betterment of her family. Dolley was not the typical Quaker!
Birth, Youth, and Marriages (1768-1794)
Dolley was born to John Payne and his wife Mary Coles Payne, on May 20, 1768. Home was near Guilford College, a small community near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina. She grew up in a large family—four brothers and three sisters. Her father was never a good businessman and, eventually, he moved his family to his wife’s family plantation where they lived in a separate house. Dolley grew up in some degree to wealth and social position. While living in Virginia at her grandparents’ plantation, Dolley attended a nearby Quaker school when she learned to read, write, and “do sums.”
At the end of the Revolutionary War, her father freed his slaves and moved his family to Philadelphia where he started a laundry starch business. It did not succeed, and in addition to losing his business, he was disowned by his fellow Quakers because he had fallen into debt. In addition, one of Dolley’s brothers died.
Dolley had grown up to be a tall, black-haired, blue-eyed beauty. She married a wealthy lawyer, John Todd, who was a fellow Quaker, in January 1790 when she was twenty-one. Two sons were born to Dolley and John, but her happiness did not last. In the fall of 1793, Philadelphia was devastated by yellow fever. This dreaded disease killed over 5,000 citizens in just a few weeks. Among those who died was John Todd and the younger of his two sons, Dolley’s baby.
A young widow responsible for her surviving son, Dolley had many friends who looked out for her. One introduced her to the man she called “the great little Madison.” James Madison was seventeen years older than Dolley and one of the most brilliant minds in the United States. He was short, standing only five feet four inches tall, slightly built, easy to overlook, and painfully shy. As so often happens, opposites attracted, and the couple was married September 15, 1794. The Quakers cast Dolley out of meeting.
Jefferson’s Hostess (1794-1809)
The early years of her marriage to Madison were years of learning for Dolley—not book learning necessarily, but learning about the social world of Washington, D.C. Madison was never far from the center of power during the Washington and Adams administrations. The Madisons were always invited to all the “right” parties. When Madison became Secretary of State (1801-1809) for President Thomas Jefferson, Dolley frequently served as Jefferson’s hostess. He was a recent widower and his two adult daughters could not always make it to Washington to do the entertaining at the White House. The job fell to Dolley and made her the focal point of the Jefferson administration. Her home in Washington, D.C., also became the center of many social events that only enhanced Madison’s reputation.
Since she was no longer a Quaker, she discarded the dull colors of her Quaker background and began to wear the newest fashions, gowns in creams and bright yellows, with turbans that became her fashion trademark. She learned to make people feel comfortable in large gatherings and to keep a room circulating to meet her husband. In short, she developed the social skills of a Washington hostess. On the campaign trail, Dolley was formidable. Charles Pinckney, defeated by Madison for president, stated flatly, “I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.” When Madison became president in 1809, Dolley was ready to step forward as the nation’s First Lady.
The White House Years (1809 – 1817)
One of Dolley’s first acts as First Lady was to invite some Senators and Congressmen to visit the President’s House, as the White House was called, to see for themselves how run down and ill-furnished it was. In those days, Presidents brought their own furnishings for not only the family quarters upstairs but also for the public rooms downstairs. When Mr. Jefferson returned to his Monticello, he took all his furniture with him. Money was quickly appropriated for rebuilding and redecorating the dwelling. At a time when men viewed their homes as an extension of their own power, it was unusual that James Madison entrusted the task of overseeing the renovations to his wife and the architect chosen by Congress, Benjamin H. Latrobe. However, between the two of them, the White House began to take on a new, more polished, look.
The Madisons had grown to love all things French. So it was not unusual that it was to the French-style décor that they turned for furniture, fabric, crystal, silverware, and china. They planned for a parlor in which Dolley would receive callers and an Oval room (later the Blue Room) for formal receptions and for the “Squeezes” or informal open houses for which she was famous. Congress withheld the funds because of the “foreign” look for the President’s House.
It was back to the drawing boards, literally, for Dolley and Latrobe. Instead of the French furniture, Dolley chose American pieces made by the best furniture-makers in Philadelphia, furniture that was both elegant, as befitted the President’s House, and comfortable. Many credit her with this unique blending of American comfort with European elegance, a style that was uniquely her own. And it was against this background that Dolley entertained graciously over the next few months. She often entered a reception room with her parrot on her shoulder and carrying a book (usually copies of American authors such as James Fenimore Cooper or Washington Irving) as a means to break the ice with shy, quiet guests who were often overwhelmed by being invited to the White House.
During the War of 1812, Dolley sharply reduced her social calendar but did not eliminate public receptions. She thought they boosted public morale, especially when the receptions celebrated American victories. However, in late August 1814, the mood changed drastically.
News reached Washington that the British had landed in Maryland and that their troops were marching toward the city. Madison insisted that Dolley leave at once for their home in Virginia while he headed for the front lines. Dolley flatly refused. Just after lunch on August 24, 1814, the roar of cannons was heard in the distance. She ordered her carriage be brought to the door and commandeered a large wagon passing on the street. With the help of several volunteers, she loaded the wagon with Madison’s working papers from his desk, his books, and the White House silver and china. She then went back into the White House and began removing the paintings from the walls. In the midst of this, a young lieutenant rode up warning that the British were approaching rapidly. Dolley again went inside, this time to rescue the famed Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Servants handed it down to her and she fled the city, secure in the knowledge that she had saved what she could from British destruction.
Not long after Dolley’s departure, the British entered Washington, D.C. They looted and burned public buildings, including the President’s House. Then, as a thunderstorm broke over the city, they left.
Dolley waited on the Virginia side of the Potomac for word—word that her husband was safe and that the city was safe to re-enter. The next day, Madison found her in Falls Church, Virginia, but after assuring her that he was safe, he returned to the front lines. He did not return to Washington until the evening of August 27. To his surprise, he found Dolley already there. Instead of staying in Virginia, she had returned to the city as soon as she heard the British were gone! And her return had been triumphant. People had learned of her bravery and lined the streets, cheering as she passed. “We shall rebuild Washington City,” she declared. “The enemy cannot frighten a free people.” When praised for saving valuable papers and paintings, she replied, “Anyone would have done what I did.”
Because the President’s House had been gutted by fire, the Madisons lived in the Octagon House, the second largest home in Washington, but the following year the couple moved to a group of connected buildings known as “Seven Buildings.” Dolley decorated this unorthodox home with second-hand furnishings and items borrowed from friends.
Last Years (1817 – 1849)
At the end of Madison’s second term in 1817, the couple retired to their Virginia home, Montpelier. There, Dolley continued to entertain lavishly, playing hostess to visitors such as the Marquis de Lafayette. Madison’s health declined, and Dolley seldom left his side. After his death in 1836, she decided to return to Washington. Her arrival in June 1837, after an absence of 20 years, created great excitement. Despite her delight in being in the capitol city again, she was worried about finances. Her only son had turned into a playboy and Madison, who had treated the boy as his own son, had kept the size of the young man’s debts a secret from her. She was forced to sell Madison’s beloved Montpelier to pay off her son’s gambling debts and keep him out of prison. Her financial situation was so serious, Congress bought Madison’s papers, including the notes he took at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and later set up a trust fund that gave her a very modest income.
When Dolley died on July 12, 1849, Congress immediately adjourned. President Zachary Taylor paid tribute to the “First Lady of the Land,” one of the first times the term was ever used. Her funeral, five days later, was attended by not only many of her friends from over 75 years of life in the public eye but also by the President and his entire Cabinet. She was buried in Washington, DC, and only years later was she re-interred beside her beloved Madison at Montpelier in Virginia.