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Becoming America's First Lady

How Dolley Madison conquered the Nation’s Capital

On July 16, 1849, eight white-uniformed marines bore a bronze casket from St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square.

Thousands of people lined the sidewalks of Washington D.C. to watch a procession of 48 horse-drawn carriages, including one carrying enslaved domestic servants, pass through the streets to the Congressional Cemetery. It was the largest funeral the city had ever seen—and it honored an impoverished 82-year-old widow who had never voted, let alone held public office.

How had Dolley Madison become America’s most famous woman?

Sitting President Zachary Taylor, a distant cousin of James Madison, was among the mourners at Dolley Madison’s 1849 funeral. — "Funeral of the Late Mrs. Madison," Daily National Intelligencer, July 17, 1849

The Early Years

Dolley Payne was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, into an established Virginia family. Her father converted to the Quaker faith of her mother and, when Dolley was 15, John Payne moved the family again, this time to Philadelphia, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the new United States and the center of American Quakerism. Dolley’s father was devoted to his adopted religion, and, having already freed his slaves and left a plantation in Hanover County, Virginia, he attempted to reinvent himself as a starch merchant. In an ironic twist, the business failed and Payne was read out of the Quaker meeting for taking on more debt than he could repay. He spent his last three years severely depressed and bedridden. Before he died, he urged 22-year-old Dolley to marry John Todd, a Quaker lawyer with a promising future, and she complied with her father’s dying wishes. She bore two children in three years of marriage to John Todd, and, at that point, seemed destined to live the sort of domestic life, dependent on men for major decisions, that nearly all women of her class lived.
Sitting President Zachary Taylor, a distant cousin of James Madison, was among the mourners at Dolley Madison’s 1849 funeral. — "Funeral of the Late Mrs. Madison," Daily National Intelligencer, July 17, 1849

Tragedy struck the family in 1793, when a yellow fever epidemic ravaged Philadelphia, killing nearly one-fifth of the capital city’s population. Over a period of a few days, Dolley lost her in-laws, her husband, and her newborn baby. When the epidemic was over, she found herself alone with an 18-month-old son, John Payne Todd. At 25, an eligible widow with property, Dolley had legal standing and options, yet she would not remain single for long. As an acquaintance wrote, “Her smile, her conversation, and her manners are so engaging that it is no wonder that such a young widow, with her fine blue eyes and large share of animation, should be indeed a queen of hearts.” Dolley and her mother, in the years prior to her father’s death, had run a boarding house in Philadelphia that was frequented by the country’s new class of lawmakers, who hadn’t failed to notice Dolley’s charms. Aaron Burr was among those boarders, and became close enough to Dolley that she named him guardian of her son in her May 1794 will.

In May 1794, James Madison, 42, chief framer of the Constitution and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, asked his Princeton friend Burr to arrange an introduction to Dolley. On September 15, 1794, after knowing one another only a few months, Dolley Payne Todd and James Madison were married. The decision to marry James Madison was Dolley’s alone and she expressed complex emotions surrounding it, writing to a friend, ”…in the course of this day I give my Hand to the Man who of all other’s I most admire …In this Union I have every thing that is soothing and grateful in prospect—& my little Payne will have a generous & tender protector..” At first signing herself “Dolley Payne Todd,” she added a note after the ceremony: “Evening. Dolley Madison! Alass!”

When Dolley accepted James’s marriage proposal in 1794, he wrote, “I can not express, but hope you will conceive the joy it gave me.” Dolley wore his engagement ring always, and died with it on her hand. — Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site. Photo by Philip Beaurline.

The decision also had public consequences. Dolley was expelled by the Quakers for marrying outside the faith, but she seemed to have lost little sleep over it, later confiding to another lapsed Quaker that “neither of us were very faithful representatives of that respectable society.” Perhaps more significantly, Dolley had married back into the elite Virginia planter class into which she had been born, and her fate would be linked with one of the country’s most famous men.

During John Adams’s presidency, James and Dolley lived for the first time together at Montpelier, enlarging and then sharing the two-winged residence with Madison’s parents and establishing their own domestic household. Dolley had gone from a free single woman in a city in which slavery was frowned upon, to a married mistress of one of the oldest Virginia plantations west of Fredericksburg, home to almost 100 enslaved people. She had also gone from being the wife of a Congressman to being the mistress of a rural estate dependent upon the labor of enslaved men, women, and children.

The Washington Years

In 1801, Dolley and James moved to Washington D.C. James had been named Secretary of State by his best friend and political collaborator, Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president. Because Jefferson was a widower, Dolley periodically assisted Jefferson as hostess when ladies were present.

In January 1811, author Washington Irving stepped into “the blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison’s drawing-room. Here I was most graciously received; found a crowded collection of great and little men, of ugly old women and beautiful young ones, and in ten minutes was hand and glove with half the people in the assemblage. Mrs. Madison is a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody.” — Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

In an era when women were restricted to operating in the domestic sphere, Dolley took advantage of the access to new social circles that Washington’s political society afforded her, employing her social skills to help her husband accomplish his political goals. She sometimes explicitly served as Jefferson’s White House hostess, but more importantly, she created an alternative social center and power hub at the Madisons’ F Street house. A Washingtonian of the time observed, “After the president’s, the house of the secretary of state was the resort of most company.” Politicians and diplomats “could not resist . . . [Dolley’s] conciliatory disposition, . . . her frank and gracious manners, but frequented her evening circle and sat at her husband’s table.”
Dolley recognized the symbolic importance to the fledgling nation of following established diplomatic protocol and etiquette. Jefferson, on the other hand, consciously cultivated an informal style at the White House, ignoring the established European custom by inviting guests to seat themselves at random for dinner instead of by diplomatic hierarchy. It was at the center of this clash of manners and political values that Dolley applied the gifts that would make her a national figure. 

In one early example, Jefferson created a serious international incident in 1803 by pointedly escorting Dolley to the dinner table instead of the wife of British ambassador Anthony Merry, as protocol would dictate. Dolley attempted to prevent the offense but Jefferson ignored her advice. The Merrys, as representatives of Great Britain, felt snubbed, and, as insignificant as it may seem to us today, the “Merry Affair” escalated already disquieting political tensions between the two nations. In a time when communication of letters across the ocean was painfully slow, ambassadors were quite literally representatives of their kings, and to offend them meant offending the states they represented. Dolley worked within the social sphere, particularly with the women connected in diplomatic circles, to defuse the situation. She befriended Elizabeth Merry and conveyed conciliatory messages through a common friend, the wife of the Spanish ambassador, eventually succeeding in inviting the Merrys to dinner at her own home.

To fill the White House’s unfurnished oval drawing room, Latrobe designed these chairs with a nod to the ancient democracy of Greece. The drawing room, with its thirty-six Greek chairs, four settees, two sofas, and brilliant crimson velvet curtains, opened to the public for a New Year’s Day reception in 1810. — Image ID 1961.130.1.1, Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

Dolley has, for better or for worse, been known to history as a “hostess,” a term that doesn’t fully represent the substance and range of her influences in the early days of the new nation. In addition to her unofficial role as a power broker and conciliator, Dolley also played a primary role in establishing the manners and styles of a country still trying to forge its identity. By the time Madison was elected president in 1808, Dolley had established herself as the most prominent woman in the capital. Following the election, she worked with architect Benjamin Latrobe to refurnish the public rooms of the White House, creating the perfect setting for Wednesday evening receptions that were often called “squeezes” because they were so popular and crowded with politicians from both parties.  Dolley deliberately chose a neoclassical style to reflect not only the latest fashion, but to display the Founders’ commitment to the ancient republican ideals of civic virtue and responsibility. Her personal fashion was no less remarkable. She mixed the high-waisted, low-cut dresses of the period (think Jane Austen characters) with the turban, an exotic accessory that became her calling card. Dolley was making conscious material decisions to communicate powerful ideas; she was personally helping to define the public image of American womanhood.

Margaret Bayard Smith credited Dolley’s snuff box with a “magic Influence ... For who could partake of its contents, offered in a manner so gracious, and retain a feeling inimical to its owner?” — Property of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site

But her work in the political sphere as a partner to her husband cannot be underemphasized. Dolley managed her Wednesday evening “squeezes” so skillfully that one congressman wrote, “By her deportment in her own house you cannot discover who is her husband’s friends or foes.” Dolley knew the difference, though. On one occasion, when members of the opposition party “refused to dine or come,” but then returned after James’s supporters crowded into her receptions in great numbers, Dolley wrote, “such a ralying of our party has alarm’d them into a return.” In another instance, Dolley acted as her husband’s surrogate when James couldn’t reach out directly to new War Hawk congressmen like Henry Clay. Dolley found a most apolitical way to bond with Clay – they dipped snuff together – leading a friend to comment, “her snuff-box had a magic influence.” Dolley also played a discreet role in securing government jobs for people who asked for her patronage. Her niece later recalled, “Many, whom the world little knows, are indebted to Mrs. Madison for independence and position in society.”

A Woman’s Legacy

Supporting her husband’s political agenda often meant Dolley was holding herself back: from complaining, from responding to enemies, and even from appearing too sexual. The male-dominated political landscape of the time was rife with personal animosities and accusations, and many ended in duels. Dolley’s status as her husband’s tacit political partner, which was not common even for wives of her standing, meant she wasn’t immune to the same attacks. Jefferson’s political enemies spread rumors that he had offered sexual favors from Dolley and her sister to foreign dignitaries, and Madison’s political enemies loosely suggested that Dolley’s physical affections were too liberal. Dolley had no way of explicitly defending herself against these types of accusations, but her response was to actively manage her own public image. Her long-time friendship with the Washington social correspondent Margaret Bayard Smith was a particularly useful tool.

Take the famous story of Dolley rescuing George Washington’s portrait from the White House before the British could burn it during the War of 1812, which became a national symbol of the American resistance to foreign power and a defining part of Dolley’s public legacy. What history knows about this event comes mainly from a letter Dolley wrote just before evacuating the White House – a letter which Dolley edited and gave to Smith for publication in 1836. According to the letter, Dolley insisted on staying at the White House until the portrait was secured. With no time to unscrew the frame from the wall, Dolley ordered the staff to break the frame and give the portrait to “two gentlemen of New York” for safekeeping.

This Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington took on symbolic meaning during the War of 1812. Dolley Madison ordered it to be removed from the White House as British troops approached, so that it would not be destroyed or taken as a trophy of war. It was returned to the White House in 1817 and hangs there today. — White House Collection/White House Historical Association

By the late 1840s, other people made conflicting claims of saving the portrait. One of the “gentlemen of New York,” Robert dePeyster, asked Dolley to vouch that he had carried the portrait away. Dolley agreed, but reminded him that she was the one who gave the order to save the portrait, “not that I felt a desire to gain laurels – but should there be a merit in remaining an hour in danger of life or liberty to save the likeness of anything, the merit in this case belongs to me.”

A later account of the event written by Paul Jennings, who was enslaved by the Madisons for most of his life, showed how the racial and gender hierarchies of the time complicate the way we understand roles in historic events. Jennings wrote that Dolley “had no time for” carrying the painting away; “all she carried off was the silver in her reticule.” Jennings credited door-keeper John Sioussat and gardener Thomas Magraw, who “took it down and sent it off on a wagon,” rather than crediting Dolley for giving the order.

Dolley’s active management of her role in saving George Washington’s portrait shows how important it was to write your own history. Dolley wasn’t going to be left out of the ultimate moment of her public career, so she controlled how the story was told and she employed her friendship with Smith to achieve her ends. It’s just one example of how she worked to cultivate her image as America’s leading woman.

As a widow, Dolley lived on Lafayette Square (President’s Square) in Washington, in the house that had formerly belonged to her brother-in-law Richard Cutts. St. John’s Church and the White House were nearby. — Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, HABS DC,WASH,29--26

Dolley held onto her image as the queen of the American republic even after she and James returned to Montpelier following his second term as President, which ended in 1816. She had spent 15 years at the center of life in the Nation’s Capital, often returning to the Virginia Piedmont for respite and to continue the ongoing work on the Montpelier home and estate. She hosted legions of visiting relatives, friends, and dignitaries, and helped her husband with his retirement project of organizing his papers for publication, most significantly Madison’s “Notes on the Constitutional Convention,” which remain the defining account of the formation of our national government.

The yellow house where Dolley Madison lived as a widow still stands in Washington, although significantly altered and converted to government office space. Once the location for Dolley’s celebrated New Year’s receptions, it was used by NASA for the first press conference with the Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959. The building is now occupied by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. — White House Collection/White House Historical Association

But plantation life brought its own concerns. A succession of bad crops and difficult markets combined with the gambling debts of Dolley’s son, Payne Todd, caused great financial strain for the Madisons. From 1813 to 1836, James and Dolley spent roughly $40,000 (the equivalent of almost a million dollars today) bailing out Payne Todd.

Detail. Dolley Madison’s white turban and black dress were old-fashioned by the time Mathew Brady took this daguerreotype about 1848, reflecting her status as a Founding Era icon, as well as her personal poverty. — Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy, item #5520

After years of caring for her increasingly frail husband, Dolley was widowed in 1836. Montpelier became to her a place “where my cares accumulate.” She spent more and more time in Washington, living there full-time by 1843, in a house the Madisons owned on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. She sold Montpelier in 1844 and broke up the enslaved community, selling some people with the plantation or to slave dealers, deeding others to her son, and taking a small number of enslaved domestic workers to Washington. Although abolitionist newspapers publicly criticized her as a slave-dealer, and her financial position was precarious – even Paul Jennings, whom she had once enslaved, pitied her enough to give her money – Washington society welcomed her home. Despite her relative poverty, each New Year’s Day, Dolley’s open house was just as crowded as the sitting President’s at the nearby White House and she enjoyed the honor of a designated seat in the gallery of the U.S. Congress. Only months before Dolley’s death, military officers from the War of 1812 paid her a courtesy call after their official White House visit. In short, through her old age Dolley remained a central figure in the capital city and in the minds of the American public.

It’s easy to romanticize or trivialize Dolley Payne Todd Madison. Like most women of the nineteenth century, her public facing life was focused on husband and home. But she was also a woman who played a major role in an extraordinary period of our nation’s history as a formidable partner to her husband, President James Madison. Half a century after she first moved to Washington D.C., a newspaper obituary referred to Dolley as the “first Lady in the land,” and so she has been called “America’s first First Lady.”

For further reading on Dolley Madison, we suggest:

  • Holly Cowan Shulman and David B. Mattern, eds., The Selected Letters of Dolley Madison (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003).
  • Catherine Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006).
  • Catherine Allgor, The Queen of America: Mary Cutt’s Life of Dolley Madison (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012)
  • The American Founding Era version of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition, The University of Virginia Press, copyright 2008-2017 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia