Dolley Madison’s Biography
Dolley Payne was born May 20, 1768 in Guilford County, North Carolina. Her Quaker parents, John and Mary Coles Payne, moved their family there from Virginia in 1765, eventually joining the New Garden Meeting of the Society of Friends. The Paynes then returned to Virginia in 1769, settling in Hanover County. In 1783, Dolley’s planter father freed his slaves (although it was not a condition of Quaker membership at the time) and moved his family once again, this time to Philadelphia. John Payne began to work as a laundry starch merchant to support his growing family.
Marriage to John Todd Jr. and the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic
In Philadelphia, Dolley met Quaker lawyer John Todd Jr.; they married in 1790.Their eldest son, John Payne, was born on February 29, 1792 followed by William Temple, born the summer of 1793. A yellow fever epidemic struck the city that same year. Five thousand Philadelphians perished in the epidemic including Dolley’s husband and infant son who both died on October 14, 1793.
Marriage to James Madison
Meanwhile, John Payne’s starch business failed in 1789. The Pine Street Meeting of the Society of Friends subsequently expelled him for the offense of insolvency, which to the industrious Quakers was representative of a weak character. He died financially and emotionally bankrupt in 1792. Dolley’s mother, however, persevered, turning the Payne residence into a boarding house. During this period – and until 1800 – Philadelphia was the new nation’s capital, and among Mrs. Payne’s boarders was Congressman Aaron Burr. His colleague, James Madison, had distinguished himself in the founding of the new government, and took notice of the newly widowed Dolley. In May 1794 Madison asked Burr to arrange a meeting between the two.
After a courtship of only four months, the 26-year-old Dolley and the 43-year-old Madison were married by Rev. Alexander Balmain at Harewood, the bride’s sister Lucy’s home in present-day West Virginia, on September 15, 1794. Of the union, Dolley remarked, “I have everything that is soothing and greatful in prospect – & my little Payne will have a generous & tender protector.” Like Lucy, whose husband was the president’s nephew, George Steptoe Washington, Dolley “married out” of the Quaker community and, in turn, was expelled from the Society of Friends. Dolley later noted that the “Society used to controle me entirely & debar me from so many advantages & pleasures.” Following their wedding, the Madisons honeymooned at Belle Grove, the home of Madison’s sister, Nelly Hite, near Winchester, Virginia. The newlyweds then returned to Philadelphia where Madison resumed his leadership duties in Congress.
While their marriage would prove to be childless, when Madison married Dolley, he informally adopted her two-year old stepson, and by all accounts he raised Payne as his own biological son. When in 1797 Madison temporarily retired from public service and returned to Montpelier, it was with a family of four. The fourth member was Dolley’s sister Anna, younger by 11 years, whom Dolley referred to as her “sister-child.” During this time, Madison oversaw the addition of four rooms onto his parents’ home – two over two – similar to a row house design. Since the original exterior wall was left intact, the completed structure acted as a duplex with one side occupied by Madison Jr. and his new family and the other side occupied by James Sr. and Nelly. Madison, as the eldest of seven siblings, was in line to inherit his father’s estate. By the close of 1798, Madison noted that the “vortex of Housebuilding” was at a “degree of completion which is to satisfy us for the present Winter.” In early 1799, Madison notified his friend and colleague James Monroe that “we have now been nearly six weeks settled in our new domicil.”
Once they were married, few letters pass between James and Dolley that provide domestic details because they were rarely apart. It was not until 1805, when Dolley sought medical treatment in Philadelphia for an ulcerated knee that letters, often containing sentiments of adoration and love, passed between the two. Madison’s letters contained such declarations as, “My anxiety for [our reunion] you can better feel I trust than I can express,” and “Consoling myself now with the expectation of soon having you with me.” She rejoined, “My beloved, our hearts understand each other,” and expressed her determination to leave her doctor’s care, writing, “I would risk every thing to join you.”
The Madisons Move to Washington
The year 1801 brought significant changes to Montpelier. On the home front, James Madison Sr. died, and though Nelly “Mother” Madison would live nearly another three decades, James Jr. and Dolley were now the master and mistress of Montpelier. The plantation was home, as well, to approximately 100 enslaved men, women, and children, but Montpelier’s day-to-day oversight would be left to farm managers, overseers, and drivers. The year 1801 signaled a political sea change as well, and James and Dolley were to begin a 16-year adventure in the new capital city, Washington. With the Federalists out of power the Republicans took over with Thomas Jefferson as the newly elected president. Madison, Jefferson’s closest political ally and co-founder of the Democratic-Republican Party, would serve as his secretary of state.
The Madisons did not arrive in Washington until May 1801 because Madison had to finalize his father’s affairs. James was now 50-years-old, Dolley 33, and Payne not yet 10. Dolley’s sister Anna continued as part of the immediate family until she married Congressman Richard Cutts in 1804. Initially, the Madisons lived in the President’s House, with the widower Jefferson, but by 1802 they had their own house two blocks away on F Street.
Jefferson never remarried after the death of his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, in 1782. Upon taking office as President in 1801, he needed the aid of a hostess, a position traditionally filled by the president’s spouse or daughter. Although Jefferson was very close to his oldest daughter Martha, she only visited Washington twice during the eight years her father was President. Jefferson then called upon Dolley Madison.
First Lady & Official Hostess
Madison took the oath of office on March 4, 1809, defeating Charles Pinckney to win the presidency. By his side was his wife and official hostess, Dolley Madison. Dolley received little formal schooling as a child, but she was observant, adaptable, and a quick learner, “educated” in the social and political spheres of Philadelphia and Washington, and thus prepared for the historical role she assumed in 1809. She was the first president’s wife to preside over the emerging society of Washington. Because she was working with a blank canvas, the ways of this first First Lady would forever influence the Federal City’s style and culture. Dolley’s winning personality was also advantageous in the role as the Nation’s Hostess. She was sociable and engaging by nature. New York author Washington Irving described her as, “A fine, portly, buxom dame who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody.” Dolley’s close friend Margaret Bayard Smith noted that, “Every visitor left her with the pleasing impression of being an especial favorite, of having been the object of peculiar attention. [Dolley] never forgot a name she had once heard, nor a face she had once seen, nor the personal circumstances connected with every individual of her acquaintance.” Dolley complemented her husband’s reserved personality – her animation made up for his reserve in large groups. Held every Wednesday, Dolley’s weekly levees or drawing rooms, were popular among Washington politicians and socialites of all political persuasions.
In the early nineteenth century Washington was a swamp, and Jefferson initiated the tradition of closing down government business for the late summer of “sickly season” to avoid malarial diseases. Madison, in his turn too, left for Montpelier every summer (generally sometime between late July and early October) and conducted the nation’s affairs from his home in the Virginia Piedmont. Dolley continued to entertain at Montpelier where her legendary hospitality was as much in evidence as in Washington. For an Independence Day feast in 1816, Dolley described “ninety persons to dine with us at one table – fixed on the lawn, under a thick arbor.” The crowd did not seem to faze her: “I am less worried [at Montpelier] with a hundred visitors than with twenty five in Washington.”
During the War of 1812, the low point came in the summer of 1814 when invasion by British forces of Washington was imminent. Madison joined the troops to Bladensburg as the city’s residents evacuated, but Dolley remained, packing state papers, silverware, and other valuables. With the help of Madisons’ manservant Paul Jennings, chef “French” John Sioussa, and gardener Thomas Magraw, Dolley facilitated the removal of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. Dolley entrusted financier Jacob Barker and New York merchant Robert De Peyster with the safekeeping of the now legendary “Lansdowne” portrait. After the British plundered the city and burned the President’s House, the Madisons temporarily relocated to the Octagon House and then the Seven Buildings where Dolley continued holding weekly “squeezes.”
The Madisons Retire
In 1817, James and Dolley retired to Montpelier. During their Washington years, the mansion was enlarged and remodeled. Two large wings now flanked the main structure with separate kitchens on the cellar levels. The rooms and kitchen on the south side were for the use of Mother Madison who continued to run a largely separate household until her death in 1829 at 98-years-old. Builders and architects made openings in the brick wall that once separated the living quarters of the two generations of Madisons, now allowing full access throughout the house. Enhancements, such as the addition of a handsome center door, harmonized the former duplex into a pleasing whole.
During their retirement years, the Madisons were greeted by hundreds of visitors. As the years went by, the visitors included not only invited guests but those on a quest to meet the “Sage of Montpelier,” and Dolley greeted each with her characteristic hospitality. Madison, too, was aware of his legacy and used his retirement to organize his papers for publication, especially his notes from the Constitutional Convention. In this effort, Dolley served as Madison’s helpmate, even stepping in as his secretary when rheumatism kept him from writing.
Madison died on June 28, 1836, when, according to the eye witness account of slave Paul Jennings, Madison “ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.” After her husband’s death, Dolley found life at Montpelier challenging. It had fallen to her to publish Madison’s papers, and they did not bring the money she had hoped would carry her through the end of her life. Financial hardship and the eventual sale of Montpelier to Henry Moncure led to Dolley’s permanent return to Washington in 1844. Dolley took up residence in Lafayette Square at the Cutts-Madison House. Dolley Madison died on July 12, 1849 at the age of 81. The funeral, one of the largest of its kind at the time, was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on July 16. Thousands paid their last respects including friends, and political colleagues. Dolley’s remains were originally placed at the Congressional Cemetery, but in 1858 were transported to Montpelier and now rest alongside her husband’s in the Madison Family Cemetery.
Sometimes referred to today as the first First Lady, the title originates from then-President Zachary Taylor. Taylor referred to Dolley as “the first lady of the land for half a century.” Her final legacy was to inspire the term by which the presidents’ wives have been known ever since.
During Madison's presidency, Dolley hosted weekly parties known as squeezes, levees, or drawing rooms. Held every Wednesday evening, these parties were frequented by the president's colleagues of all political persuasions and the who's who of Washington society.