July 12 marks the anniversary of Dolley Madison's death
One hundred and sixty-three years ago today, Dolley Madison died at approximately 10:15 in the evening, “at peace with the world & it with her.” According to James Madison Cutts, Dolley’s nephew, America’s first First Lady “expired without an effort & without apparent pain.”1 Dolley was the last surviving member of the founding generation, living as a widow for thirteen years after the passing of James Madison. Sick for some time prior to her death and “still linger[ing] in the last stages of life,”2 Dolley suffered from increased “feebleness” and “failing health & strength” in her final weeks.3
Dolley’s life spanned eighty-one years—she witnessed the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia which took the life of her first husband and infant son, the development of Washington City as the new nation’s capital, and the British attack on the President’s House during the War of 1812. She served the diplomatic corps as the wife of the secretary of state and president, and was known to have, among other favorable attributes, “a very pleasant & affable” manner.4
She even lived long enough to sit for a daguerreotype taken by noted photographer Mathew Brady.
Dolley’s state funeral, the largest of its time, was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on July 16. All government offices closed to allow mourners—friends, family, and political colleagues—an opportunity to pay their last respects. Naval officer Horace Bucklin Sawyer noted Dolley’s funeral in his memorandum book: “This mornings paper announces the Death of the Venerable and Gifted Mrs. D. P. Madison – Widow of the late President Madison,” who left “a blank in the Society of Washington, which cannot be filled.”5 While no extant record of his eulogy exists, it is widely believed that Zachary Taylor first coined the phrase “First Lady” at Dolley’s funeral, describing her role as national hostess.
Dolley was originally interred at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but in 1858 her remains were transported to Montpelier and now rest alongside her husband’s in the Madison Family Cemetery. We invite visitors to Montpelier to explore all aspects of the mansion and surrounding grounds, including the permanent resting grounds of the first couple of American politics. Today, we pay homage to Dolley, the first lady of Montpelier.
1. James Madison Cutts to James Buchanan, July 12, 1849, Buchanan Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
2. James Madison Cutts to John Young Mason, July 12, 1849, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
3. James Madison Cutts to James Buchanan, July 12, 1849, Buchanan Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
4. Alexander Dick, Journal Entry, June 7, 1809, Alexander Dick Journal, 1806-1809, MS 4528, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia.
5. Horace Bucklin Sawyer, “Memorandum Book Washington, DC, 1846″ entry [Dolley Madison's Death], July 14, 1849, box 1 Naval Historical Foundation collection, MS 536D, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Mathew Brady, Dolley Madison, Washington, D.C., ca. 1848, daguerreotype, Private Collection (LMF2008.8).