John Payne Todd

James & Dolley Madison

Born February 29, 1792, John Payne Todd was the eldest son from Dolley’s first marriage to John Todd Jr. Dolley’s husband and youngest son, William Temple, perished in the Yellow Fever Epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793, leaving her a widow with a toddler. Dolley subsequently established a trust for Payne using her late husband’s inheritance. When Dolley married James Madison in September 1794, James informally adopted the two-year-old Payne, raising him as his own son. By all accounts, Madison was a dutiful and loving father figure for the young boy, who referred to Madison as “Papa.”

St. Mary's Seminary

Between 1805 and 1812, Todd attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University, a Catholic boarding school in Baltimore. There he studied French, Spanish, Classical Studies, History, Math, Rhetoric, and Dance. At some point during his childhood, Todd also took up the piano. His skill prompted Dolley to yearn to “hear his darling fingers again on the Piano” when he was away from home in 1806.

Attaché to the Treaty of Ghent Delegation

Following the completion of his formal schooling, Todd traveled to Europe as Albert Gallatin’s attaché on a diplomatic mission to end the War of 1812 conflicts. His 1815 passport describes him as 5’ 11” tall with blue eyes, a long chin, black hair, and a brown complexion. Abroad between 1813 and 1815, he did not serve as an official member of the delegation and was therefore not paid a stipend for living expenses. In addition to a small amount of funds provided by Madison, Todd utilized his late father’s inheritance for initial funding. Through journal entries and letters, it is clear that he spent considerable time in Europe pursuing leisure and cultural activities with other members of the delegation, enabling him to collect artwork for his parents to hang at Montpelier. Todd returned to Virginia in September 1815, having spent $8,000 on his grand tour, including money lost in gambling. Madison assumed Todd’s debts and in a letter to Albert Gallatin, Madison acknowledged he “was not unprepared for a heavy demand for expences of J. P. Todd.”


After his return from Europe, Todd spent his time split between Washington (during the winter and spring months) and Montpelier (for the summer and fall seasons). During the 1820s, Payne traveled to Philadelphia and New York, where he gambled, drank, and accrued significant debt, including a stint in a debtor’s prison during the spring of 1826. Of his 1829 time “within Prison bounds,” Dolley wrote, “My pride – my sensibility, & every feeling of my Soul is wounded. Yet we shall do something – what or when, depends on Mr M[adison’]s health, & strength, to do business – his anxiety, and wish to aid, & benefit P. is as great as a Fathers – but his ability to command mony in this country, is not greater than that of others.”

A lifelong bachelor, Dolley concluded that “a good wife would add to [Todd’s] happiness, & I’m afraid…he is difficult to suit.” Dolley compared Todd to Edward Coles, prior to his marriage to Sarah Logan Roberts – “a great fidget & is hard to mary [sic]…tho I should like a fine daughter much.” Todd never married, though he was involved with women throughout his adulthood. After hearing of an alleged engagement with a Miss Morse in 1816, Dolley affirmed, “In truth I am afraid he will become as difficult to please, or to fall in love as [Edward Coles], & consequently – become a rover.” Seventeen years later, in reference to a woman known only as “his Dulcenia,” Dolley writes, “I can scarsly tell you how Payne’s affair of the heart goes on, but it seems that a spell rests upon him.”

Entrepreneurial Pursuits

In the late 1830s and 1840s, Todd returned to Virginia, where he established the Montpelier Marble Company. Orange County residents patronized Payne and he provided stone for several neighbors’ mantel pieces. The Company eventually closed after it was determined the marble had a noticeable vein of quartz running through it. Payne also used this time to establish a home called Toddsberth, not far from Montpelier. Dolley once observed that “Payne’s favorite occupation had long been to improve and embellish his house, and grounds.” One structure on the property was a circular ballroom, thirty feet in diameter, erected about 1840, with a wine cellar and icehouse situated below. In March 1841, while Todd was in Richmond, an accidental fire destroyed the main house entirely. The tempered winds spared the outhouses, where Madison-family furniture was saved from destruction.

Financial Problems and Death

Todd’s debts and financial irresponsibility contributed to the decline of the once prosperous Montpelier. Soon after Madison’s death, George Featherstonhaugh wrote to William Cabell Rives, fearing Todd would squander the $30,000 paid to Dolley for Madison’s papers: “It is however too well known that his intimates are the Blacklegs and Gamblers of Washington…and this money will in all likelihood be lost to Mrs Madison if he has any power over it.” Upon his mother’s death on July 12, 1849, Todd presumed he would inherit $10,000 from the sale of the second set of Madison’s papers to Congress. Anna Payne, Dolley’s niece, also inherited $10,000. Dolley’s final will and testament, written just three days before her death, divided the sum between her two closest heirs. While previous versions of her will bequeathed all possessions to Todd, Dolley made a last minute adjustment, dividing the assets between the two. Todd contested this provision, going so far as having a fraudulent will prepared (presumably by James Madison Cutts) declaring him the sole heir and removing all trustee clauses present in previous versions–to no avail.

John Payne Todd died on January 17, 1852 at the age of 59. His death certificate, signed by Cornelius Boyle, M. D., states the cause of death as dropsy. He was interred at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington on January 18, 1852. A public sale took place at Toddsberth on November 11, 1852; several Madison family members were present. Todd’s will, which stipulated that his slaves be manumitted, was contested because of the dire financial situation in which he died. Joined by other slaves, the Taylor family (Ralph, Catherine, and their children) petitioned James C. McGuire, administrator of the estate, and were granted their freedom in 1853. [See more here]

Often portrayed as a ne’er-do-well who succumbed to alcohol and gambling vices, Todd was hardly one-dimensional. Writing to Dolley, a friend described Todd as “one of the most amiable youths in the world and worthy of such a mother [as Dolley]” and “a fine young man.” His established interest in the arts--through studies at St. Mary’s, aptitude at the piano, a passion for theater--likely led to his acquisition of artwork for the Madisons at Montpelier. Further, Todd kept journals, sometimes written in code, which today provide a valuable, if sparse, glimpse of daily life for the son of an American president.

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An Art Enthusiast

Evidence suggests that John Payne Todd acquired Pan, Youths & Nymphs, as well as other pieces of art, while traveling in Europe during the Treaty of Ghent delegation.