The Colorful Dolley Madison

In 1794, at age 43, the shy, awkward, small and sickly James Madison, “Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” was still single. James was friends with Aaron Burr, who introduced Madison to a 26-year-old widow, Dolley Payne Todd.  Dolley’s husband, and one of her two sons, had recently died from yellow fever on the same day.

Dolley was smart, vivacious, and very popular. She had a “photographic memory” for names and faces, and she loved hosting and entertaining guests.  She was the social opposite of James, and she had enough personality for both of them. 

After a four-month courtship, James and Dolley were married.  Sadly, Dolley was excommunicated from her Quaker church for marrying a nonmember.

 James had no children, but adopted Dolley’s surviving son, John Payne Todd. He was known as “Payne,” and he was a “royal pain.” He was an alcoholic addicted to gambling. He brought James and Dolley a boatload of grief. 

Dolley put her social gifts to good use when the couple lived in Washington, beginning when James was Secretary of State to President Thomas Jefferson. With the White House still under construction, and President Jefferson a widower, Dolley selected the furnishings and decor. She served as Jefferson’s de facto First Lady for eight years.

When her husband became president, Dolley became the official First Lady. Dolley used her social skills to advance James’s political agenda and boost his popularity. 

During the War of 1812, the British landed an army off the Chesapeake Bay and marched on Washington D.C.

As the British approached the capital, James Madison borrowed his secretary’s pistols and rushed to the front lines.  He became the only sitting president to engage in combat with his troops. His pistols were useless against the British long rifles and cannons, and so Madison helped with an artillery battery. As the rockets, bullets, and cannon balls started flying past, Madison either panicked and fled, or was escorted away, depending on different accounts and interpretations. He then led the American army in retreating from the city. The US Marines were left behind to stall the British advance, so the president and army could retreat in safety. The Marines stood their ground and were slaughtered. 

 In his retreat, Madison “forgot” one thing. Dolley was waiting for him in the White House.

'George Washington' by Gilbert Stuart Painting Print

Confident of an American victory, Dolley had prepared a celebration feast for her husband and his generals. While she waited in the White House for her husband, Dolley finally received his message, which read, in essence, “Run for your life!” The courageous Dolley took time to load wagons full of irreplaceable presidential papers and government documents. She also personally saved the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

 When the British entered the White House, they discovered the Dolley’s feast.  After “pigging out,” they burned Dolley’s beloved White House to the ground. They then burned the rest of the capital to the ground, except for the headquarters of the Marine Corps.  (Marine legend is that the British saved the Marine Headquarters out of respect for the bravery the slaughtered Marines had demonstrated during the battle.)  

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 After the war, there was a groundswell to return the capital to Philadelphia or New York City. Dolley Madison successfully defeated this movement.

In her 8 years as official First Lady, Dolley was so popular and respected, that she was given an honorary seat in Congress. No other first lady has been so honored.

James Madison left office in 1817 at age 65. He retired to their home Montpelier, in Virginia, where a steady stream of prominent guests came to visit. 

The popularity of Montpelier was due largely to Dolley’s social skills. Dolley sat at the head of the dinner table. She was the life of the party.  Small and shy James sat on the side. When Dolley invited the guests to play games at the main table, James invited one of the guests to sit at a small table off to the side and play chess.

James and Dolley spent most their retirement years together organizing the 12,000 political papers and government documents. 

James Madison died at Montpelier on June 28, 1836.  In his will, he made donations to the University of Virginia, where he had served as second president, and Princeton University, where he was the first graduate.

James left Dolley $30,000. This should have been enough money for Dolley to live comfortably.  Sadly, she turned management of the plantation and her finances over to her son Payne who squandered her inheritance on gambling debts and alcohol.

In desperation, Dolley tried unsuccessfully to raise money by selling her husband’s papers. Finally, she was forced to sell her loyal and beloved personal servant Paul Jennings to the famous Daniel Webster, who allowed him to work to earn his freedom.

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Dolley was also forced to sell her precious Montpelier and move in with her sister in Washington DC.  She had to sell the mansion, the plantation, the slaves, and the furnishings in order pay off outstanding debts.

Paul Jennings recalled:

“In the last days of her life, before Congress purchased her husband’s papers, [Dolley] was in a state of absolute poverty, and . . . suffered for the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her 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 of money from my own pocket. . .”

Can you imagine? Dolley was so destitute that her former slave was taking money out of his own pocket to ease her suffering.

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In 1848, a congressman introduced a bill to buythe remaining James Madison Papers for the sum of $25,000. When the bill passed, the congressman rushed to Dolley’s residence to share the good news.  Somehow, she had already heard. She responded, “Oh Mr. Stephens! It was good of you to get my bill through today, but you made a very grave mistake. . .You told Congress that I was eighty-two years old. I am not eighty-two: I am only eighty.” Because of the purchase of the papers Dolley lived the last year of her life in comfort. 

Dolley Madison died in 1849 at the age of 81. She was first buried in the nearby Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but she was later reburied at Montpelier next to her beloved husband.

Dolley Madison is another great founding mother and wonderful role model.

(Mrs. Madison, her contemporaries, and scholars, spell her first name “Dolley.” “Dolley Madison” is the founding mother. “Dolly Madison” is a bakery. Of course, the popular bakery has given name recognition to this wonderful founding mother.)

(Sources: Multiple personal tours of Montpelier; Research for personal talks, “James Madison: Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” and “Stories of the Founding Mothers;” Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation; “Ladies of Liberty,” American Ride, BYUtv; “Dolley Madison,” Wikipedia.)

6 thoughts on “The Colorful Dolley Madison

  1. Me too! WOW! WOW! WOW! Thank you for introducing me to this amazing lady -instead of just a name in the history books. I want to know her more now….grin. Thanks Again “sister”

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  2. It’s a shame we weren’t taught more about the fabulous Founding Mothers in school. I have always been impressed with Deborah Sampson and those women who pretended to be men so they could fight for freedom.

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    1. Yah. And learning these stories seems to connect us to them. That’s thrill. Also, I’m glad things were different then; we don’t have to refer to any of them as ‘Founding Transgenders,’ or ‘Founding Transmutations.’
      Sorry — that’s a shallow, moot sliver of thought to be sure.

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