Dolley Madison: Creating The Role Of First Lady

american-first-ladiesTheme of the month on Gazette665 in February 2017 is “American First Ladies,” and we’ve picked history and biographies of four presidents’ wives to share with you.

Today, we introduce Dolley Madison, wife of the James Madison who was the fourth president of the United States. Her life, sparkling personality, and precedent setting make Mrs. Madison an exceptional example of an American lady from the founding era of our country’s history.

Dolley Madison, c. 1800

Dolley Madison, c. 1800

Miss Payne, Widow Todd

Born on May 20, 1768, Dolley Payne spent her youth in North Carolina and Virginia before her father decided to move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1783. The Payne Family were strict Quakers and became part of the Quaker Society in the city. Fifteen-year-old Dolley seemed to thrive on city life, making new friends and watching history unfold in one of the largest cities in the new United States.

Bankruptcy and religious difficulties caused trouble for the Payne Family; shortly before he died, Mr. Payne asked his daughter Dolley to marry John Todd, a lawyer and Quaker friend. On January 7, 1790, Dolley and John married, and, from their few surviving letters, seem to have been happy. Two sons were born before the tragedy of 1793.

Yellow Fever spread through Philadelphia. Mr. Todd sent his wife, young son, and baby out of the city, but he stayed behind to care for his parents and manage his law practice. John Todd and the infant son died on the same day.

Alone with her surviving toddler, Dolley fought for her inheritance and tried to plan for her future. For the time, she decided to stay in Philadelphia with her family and friends.

Mrs. Madison

It wasn’t long before bachelors started noticing the very beautiful Widow Todd; a girlfriend teased her that she should hide her face since so many men stared at her when she went walking.

James Madison – “Father of the U.S. Constitution” – had been successful in politics, but unlucky in love…until he met Widow Todd. Smitten with her beauty and friendly personality, he convinced their mutual friend, Aaron Burr, to introduce them. And the rest, as the history goes, was a romantic whirlwind – at least for James Madison. It’s not quite clear how Dolley felt, but on September 15, 1794 – about four months after they met – James and Dolley married.

Dolley Madison had married outside of Quaker society, and she was “read out of Meeting” (meaning she couldn’t belong to the Quaker society any longer). The Madisons eventually travelled to their plantation estate in Virginia where they spent a few years in a settled country home life, entertaining or corresponding with friends and raising Dolley’s young son.

James Madison

James Madison

During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency (1801-1809), James Madison served as Secretary of State. Dolley embraced life in the muddy-street capital of Washington City. She made friends, hosted wonderful parties, and tried to smooth over the etiquette faux pas that Jefferson was determined to make. She watched and learned what should and should not be done. And when election season came, she quietly and effectively campaigned for her husband by hosting gatherings, making formal calls, and using her social “power.”

First Lady @ The White House

In 1809, James Madison became the U.S. President, and the Madison’s moved from their private home to the White House. Dolley began a redecorating campaign to refurnish the White House with elegance and style, while still keeping with republic ideals. (Whenever possible,  she chose all-American made furniture and artwork!)

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison became famous for her social gatherings at the executive mansion. Her sense of fashion, etiquette, and friendly character brought political enemies into the same rooms where conversation and understanding could begin. She carefully aligned her social work to support her husband’s politics and often helped him make new political friends and allies.

One of the most famous incidents in Dolley Madison’s life was during the War of 1812. As British troops approached the capital, she waited, hoping the president would return before she had to flee. Eventually, she was forced to leave, but insisted on sending George Washington’s portrait to safety before she left, ensuring that the British could not capture it as a war prize. The British burned the capital buildings, including the White House, but after the raid, the Madisons returned and sent a clear message that they would not abandon the city or national leadership.

After Madison’s presidency, the couple retired to their estate in Virginia. After James Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley struggled financially, impoverished by her son’s gambling and loose living. She eventually returned to Washington City, becoming a beloved “celebrity” in the capital; she was granted many privileges, including an honorary seat to watch Congressional proceedings, receipt of the first telegraph message ever transmitted in the U.S., and free delivery for all her correspondence. Respected and honored for her role in early American history, Dolley Madison was given a state funeral when she died in 1849.

Photograph of Dolley Madison in 1848

Photograph of Dolley Madison in 1848

Mrs. Madison’s Legacy

Dolley Madison defined the role of “First Lady of the United States.” True, she was the third first lady – preceded by Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. (Thomas Jefferson wasn’t married during his presidency). But Dolley Madison was the first to take a very active and public role as national hostess.

She set precedents for hospitality, White House decoration, charitable work, fashion, and the first lady’s role in politics. Mrs. Madison’s high standards continue to influence the position and activities of first ladies in the modern era.

Skillfully, Dolley Madison took the best of American republic ideals combined with a sense of fashion and etiquette to create tradition for the executive mansion. Her charm, strength of character, and understanding of appropriate feminine social power granted her a permanent place in political and national society, and her legacy continues in the ceremony and protocol observed in the White House for last two centuries.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Is there a particular historical account about Dolley Madison that stands out to you?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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6 Responses to Dolley Madison: Creating The Role Of First Lady

  1. Jillian says:

    I saw the First Ladies’ dresses display a few years ago at the Smithsonian in Washington. They were so tiny! 🙂 I think Dolly Madison was a brick, from the bit I’ve read about her. I love that she turned the role “wife of the President” into a respected position.

    A couple questions: I thought Martha Jefferson took on the role of First Lady for her father? At least for part of his term? I only read this in passing recently, so perhaps not? Also, is it true that the term “First Lady” was invented by a British reporter for Mary Todd Lincoln? Every time I read a novel and see an early wife of the President referred to in real-time as the “First Lady” I cringe a bit, because I believe that’s an anachronism?

    Thanks for sharing this, Sarah! Great series. (I read your blog often; I just rarely comment.) 🙂

    • Hi Jillian,
      Thanks for commenting. I believe one of Jefferson’s daughters did help with hospitality occasionally, but the biography of Dolley Madison by Catherine Allgor suggests that the daughter spent most of her time in Virginia, leaving her father to host political dinners his own way and not emphasize social gatherings.
      I’m not sure when the term “First Lady” was first used. That’s a great question. I’ll do some investigating and probably share the results on Facebook and in a reply comment here.
      Hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the series!

  2. Pingback: Abigail Powers Fillmore: Promoting Literature & Education As First Lady | Gazette665

  3. Zanese B Duncan says:

    Jane Hampton Cook’s “The Burning of the White House” is a well-researched book from 2016 about Dolley and James.

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