Dolley Payne Todd Madison
Biography: For half a century she was the most important woman in
the social circles of America. To this day she remains one of the best known and best loved
ladies of the White House--though often referred to, mistakenly, as
Dorothy or Dorothea.
She always called herself Dolley, and by that name the New Garden Monthly
Meeting of the Society of Friends, in Piedmont, North Carolina, recorded
her birth to John and Mary Coles Payne, settlers from Virginia. In 1769
John Payne took his family back to his home colony, and in 1783 he moved
them to Philadelphia, city of the Quakers. Dolley grew up in the strict
discipline of the Society, but nothing muted her happy personality and
her warm heart.
John Todd, Jr., a lawyer, exchanged marriage vows with Dolley in 1790.
Just three years later he died in a yellow-fever epidemic, leaving his
wife with a small son.
By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city. With her charm
and her laughing blue eyes, fair skin, and black curls, the young widow
attracted distinguished attention. Before long Dolley was reporting to
her best friend that "the great little Madison has asked...to see me this
Although Representative James Madison of Virginia was 17 years her
senior, and Episcopalian in background, they were married in September
1794. The marriage, though childless, was notably happy; "our hearts
understand each other," she assured him. He could even be patient with
Dolley's son, Payne, who mishandled his own affairs--and, eventually,
mismanaged Madison's estate.
Discarding the somber Quaker dress after her second marriage, Dolley
chose the finest of fashions. Margaret Bayard Smith, chronicler of early
Washington social life, wrote: "She looked a Queen...It would be
absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect
propriety than she did."
Blessed with a desire to please and a willingness to be pleased, Dolley
made her home the center of society when Madison began, in 1801, his eight
years as Jefferson's Secretary of State. She assisted at the White House
when the President asked her help in receiving ladies, and presided at
the first inaugural ball in Washington when her husband became Chief
Executive in 1809.
Dolley's social graces made her famous. Her political acumen, prized by
her husband, is less renowned, though her gracious tact smoothed many a
quarrel. Hostile statesmen, difficult envoys from Spain or Tunisia,
warrior chiefs from the west, flustered youngsters--she always welcomed
everyone. Forced to flee from the White House by a British army during
the War of 1812, she returned to find the mansion in ruins. Undaunted by
temporary quarters, she entertained as skillfully as ever.
At their plantation Montpelier in Virginia, the Madisons lived in
pleasant retirement until he died in 1836. She returned to the capital
in the autumn of 1837, and friends found tactful ways to supplement her
diminished income. She remained in Washington until her death in 1849,
honored and loved by all. The delightful personality of this unusual
woman is a cherished part of her country's history.