During the formation of the United States, male politicians, writers, and philosophers were at the forefront in establishing the government for the new country after the Revolutionary War. However, one woman had indirect influence on early America. Born in Guilford County, North Carolina, she used her charm to become one of the most prominent First Ladies in the history of the United States. Her name was Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth president of the country.
In 1766, John and Mary Payne, a Quaker couple who had immigrated from Virginia to North Carolina, had moved to Guilford County with other families of the Quaker faith. Two years later on May 20, 1768, the fourth of the couple’s eight children was born, and the Payne’s named their daughter, Dolley Payne. Several months after Dolley’s birth, the Payne family moved back to Virginia, and then again in 1788 to the political hub of early America, Philadelphia.
During her time in Philadelphia, the young and attractive Dolley Payne attended numerous social events and ballroom dances. As a fair skinned, blue eyed Southern belle, the emerging socialite gained lasting experience and she developed her charm and manners at these social gatherings. While she was at one of these events, Dolley met her first husband, John Todd, a fellow Quaker and lawyer. When she was twenty-years old, Dolley married Todd on January 7, 1790, and the couple would later have two sons. Although the marriage went well for the young couple, Dolley lost both her husband and one of her sons to yellow fever in 1793.
After Dolley’s father had passed away, Dolley went to live with her mother for a short time. Dolley’s mother sought new means to raise her family since her husband had not left a substantial wealth behind his passing. In 1792, Mary Payne opened a boarding house for Congressmen and other politicians at their Philadelphia home. One Congressman who stayed at the Payne boarding house was New Yorker Aaron Burr, and Burr would later introduce Dolley to Virginian Congressman James Madison.
On September 15, 1794, after several months of courtship, James and Dolley Madison were married at the “Harewood” Estate in Charles Town, Virginia (now in West Virginia). Shortly after her marriage to Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Dolley was asked to entertain and host social events at the White House because of her charm and many contacts in Philadelphia. Jefferson, a widower, could not host without a female’s touch and entertaining important guest and Washington politicians became a chore for the laid-back Jefferson. So who better to fulfill the role of White House hostess than Dolley Madison? From 1801 to 1809, Dolley served as unofficial “Presidentress” and she also even garnered support for the Lewis and Clark exploration.
James Madison ran for office as Jefferson’s presidential tenure came to an end, and Dolley’s reputation and wide regard did much for her husband’s campaign. However, a Federalist newspaper outlet attempted to cast Dolley in a blemishing light during the 1808 election race. The newspaper alleged that Dolley and President Jefferson were involved in an affair, but upstanding reputation eventually negated the rumors and the soon-to-be First Lady to surpass the stigma; James Madison won the presidency. On March 4, 1809, Dolley Madison organized the first inaugural ball at Long’s Hotel on Capitol Hill. Over four hundred guests attended the dinner and ball, and Dolley, dressed in a velvet dress, pearl jewelry, and a plume-covered turban, impressed all that attended, including the French and British Foreign Ministers.
During her husband’s presidency, Dolley was not just a simple guest hostess, but she used her role as First Lady to serve the interest of the citizens of the United States. When foreign ministers visited the president, Dolley led conversations to figure out where politicians and their spouses stood in relation to James Madison’s Administration. In addition to understanding foreign ministers, Dolley even influenced politicians to accept her husband’s position on certain issues pressing to the United States.
Dolley Madison’s most legendary act occurred during America’s second war for Britain during the War of 1812. On August 17, 1814, 4,000 British troops landed at Patuxent River which was only thirty-five miles from Washington. President Madison could only call several hundred militia to defend the Capitol city, and as British forces neared the Capitol, Dolley remained resilient, writing to a friend: “I am not the least alarmed at these things but entirely disgusted & determined to stay with him.” For the first time in the nation’s history, the president of the United States joined the nearly 6,000 militiamen who gathered to suppress the encroaching British army. On August 23rd, Dolley remained at the White House even though her “friends and acquaintances [were] all gone” and she “determined not to go [herself] until [she saw] Mr. Madison safe.” However, a day later, Major Charles Carroll approached the White House and told Dolley that it was best to evacuate since the British army was alarmingly close to the Capitol. According to a White House steward, as Dolley packed her carriage with important documents and china sets, the First Lady noticed the portrait of George Washington in the dining room. She told Major Carroll that she did not want the British to desecrate the portrait, and she informed servants to take the painting down. Dolley entrusted the portrait of the first president to two family friends, telling them to keep the portrait from the Brits at all costs. In addition to the famed portrait of Washington, Dolley managed to save a copy of the Declaration of Independence on her way out of the White House. The British made it to the White House hours after Dolley Madison’ escape, and the army set the presidential quarters ablaze.
James Madison finished his presidential career in 1817, and the couple moved back to Virginia. The fourth president passed away in 1836, but Dolley continued her social and political involvement. After she moved back to the Capitol, Dolley met other presidents and she was heralded as being on a first name basis with the first eleven presidents of the United States. In addition to her relationships with the early presidents, Dolley advised First Ladies Julia Tyler and Sarah Polk on their duties as the principal hostess of the White House. One of the main goals of Dolley’s stay at Washington was to promote the arts and sciences, and social progress during the mid-nineteenth century. President James K. Polk’s last White House reception was the last event that Dolley Madison attended. On July 12, 1849, Dolley passed away at eighty-one, and she was buried at Montpelier, Virginia, at her family’s cemetery.
An early Washington, D.C., legend exists which relates Dolley Madison to the first time “First Lady” was used to characterize the president’s wife. Apparently, during Dolley’s funeral, President Zachary Taylor delivered a eulogy which described Dolley as the First Lady of the White House and the United States. Despite the tale’s credence in Dolley’s meaningful tasks as the first White House hostess, no historic record exists to prove Taylor’s eulogy.
“Dolley Madison.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Results.aspx?k=Search&ct=btn, (accessed October 24, 2011).
“Dolley Madison Saves the Day.” Thomas Fleming. Smithsonian (March 2010): Vol. 40, Issue 12.
“First Lady Biography: Dolley Madison.” National First Ladies Library Website. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=4, (accessed October 24, 2011).