Born a Quaker in Guilford County, North Carolina, Dolley Payne Todd Madison is best remembered as the charming and diplomatic wife of the fourth president of the United States, one-half of America’s first political power couple.
Known for her signature hospitality, Dolley served as both Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s official hostess during their respective presidential terms. For sixteen years, Dolley was a staple in the Washington social and political scene. From facilitating the retrieval of national treasures from the President’s House just prior to the British invasion in August 1814 to hosting lavish weekly parties, known as squeezes because of the crowds, Dolley Madison helped define what it meant to be a first lady and in turn, a political partner.
In 1817, after Madison’s second term as president came to a close, the couple retired to Montpelier. During their retirement, the Madisons welcomed hundreds of guests to their Piedmont Virginia home including political statesmen, diplomats, abolitionists, close friends, and neighbors. Dolley continued to entertain at her country estate and once wrote “I am less worried here [at Montpelier] with a hundred visitors than with 25 in W[ashington].” In addition to entertaining, Dolley spent much of her retirement assisting Madison with editing his papers, including his notes from the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the proceedings of the Continental Congress, and personal correspondence about science, political theory, and philosophy.
After Madison’s death, Dolley faced financial hardship and sold Montpelier in 1844. She returned to Washington permanently, where she lived until her death in 1849. In his eulogy of her, President Zachary Taylor referred to Dolley as “the first lady of the land for a century.” Her final legacy was to inspire the term by which presidents’ wives have been known ever since.
Dolley Madison made her way through Washington society and the politics of the early republic by balancing her inherent charm and beauty with an unmatched political savvy. At an 1838 New Year’s Party hosted by Dolley in Washington, attendee and Kentucky politician Henry Clay famously stated, “Every body loves Mrs. Madison.” To this, Dolley replied, “Mr. Clay, I love every body.”
"Every body loves Mrs. Madison."
-Henry Clay, New Year's party, 1838