James & Dolley Madison

A Widow for a Second Time

On June 28, 1836, Dolley Madison became a widow for the second time in her life. As Paul Jennings described his death, James Madison “ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”  Dolley mourned for months, writing to friends and family of the seemingly insurmountable loss she had suffered. She confided in close friend Eliza Collins Lee that “I have been as one in a trouble dream since my irreparable loss of him, for whom my affection was perfect.” 

Selling Madison's Notes

Indeed, Madison’s death shook the entire nation and especially those left at Montpelier, but Dolley understood her responsibility to “proceed to fulfill the trust [Madison] reposed in me, of many things – especially in finishing the little left to be done, in copying his writings before their publication.”  Much of Madison’s time prior to his death centered on editing his papers with the help of Dolley and her brother, John Coles Payne. Dolley’s primary goal after Madison’s death was to publish these papers, which included Madison’s notes from the 1787 Constitutional Convention and other writings and correspondence. In addition to confirming his legacy as a politician and an intellect, Madison intended that the sale and publication of his papers (and subsequent proceeds) would sustain Dolley financially for the rest of her life. Madison (over) valued his papers at $100,000 which would have been more than enough to provide for Dolley and allow her to settle his will. In reality, Congress only paid Dolley a total of $55,000 for Madison’s papers, $30,000 in 1837 for the first three volumes and $25,000 in 1848 for the remaining four volumes.

Dolley's Health Deteriorates

During Dolley’s later years she suffered from a debilitating eye condition that one doctor referred to as ophthalmia, or inflammation of the eyes. At times the eye condition made it difficult for Dolley to read and write, and consequently she either delayed in responding to her correspondents or relied on others to write for her. She sought various treatments for her condition including ointments, salves, and washes of milk and water and sassafras tea. Furthermore, sensitivity to light forced Dolley to spend time away from “the beauties of Spring [which] would lure me to my garden” for the “shaded chamber[s]” of Montpelier.  During late summer 1837, Dolley visited the Warm and White Sulphur Springs in current day Bath County, Virginia and Greenbrier County, West Virginia respectively. Dolley bathed her eyes a dozen times a day in the springs and according to her, “the effect was excellent.”  Dolley also struggled with rheumatism in her right hand and arm. 

The Sale of Montpelier and Permanent Return to Washington

After Madison’s death, Dolley split her time between Montpelier and Washington. Unable to effectively run the Montpelier plantation and strapped for cash, Dolley transplanted to Washington permanently in 1844 after selling Montpelier to Henry Moncure. Residing at the Cutts-Madison House on Lafayette Square, Dolley continued to be in high demand at Washington social gatherings. Samuel F. B. Morse selected her to be the first private citizen to send a telegraph: “Message from Mrs. Madison. She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered,” a cousin in Baltimore.  Congress granted her franking privileges, allowing her to send and receive mail without paying for postage, and she was an honorary seat on the floor of the House of Representatives. In Washington, Dolley attended services at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, where she and her niece were confirmed on July 15, 1845.

Despite the payments Congress made to Dolley for Madison’s papers and the sale of Montpelier in 1844, Dolley struggled to provide for herself financially during her remaining years. She relied heavily on the kindness and charitableness of her Washington social circle. Paul Jennings, a former enslaved domestic servant for the Madisons, famously noted in his Reminiscences : “While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to [Mrs. Madison] with a market-basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket.”

Dolley died on July 12, 1849 in Washington. She was honored with a large funeral four days later and was initially laid to rest in the Congressional Cemetery. In 1858, Dolley’s remains were removed to Montpelier, where she was reunited with her husband, James Madison.

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"Indeed I have been as one in a troubled dream since my irreparable loss of [Madison], for whom my affection was perfect, as was his character and conduct thro' life."

-Dolley Madison to Eliza Collins Lee, July 26, 1836