Dolly Payne Madison (1768-1849) was highly respected by some of history's greatest politicians during an age when it was considered appropriate for women to be seen and not heard, and was accepted equally by both men and women.
Dorothea Payne Todd Madison, wife of former United States President James Madison, protegee of George and Martha Washington, and the friend of the reserved John and Abigail Adams, was once described by President Andrew Jackson as a "national institution." She withstood personal tragedies to become a popular First Lady who was devoted to her family and country.
Dolly Payne Madison was born May 20, 1768 on a farm in New Garden, North Carolina to John Payne, Jr. and Mary Coles Payne, who were aristocratic, Quaker Virginians. She grew up in Virginia on the Payne Plantation called Scotchtown. Madison claimed both states as her home and later in life would refer to herself as being a native of North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
In 1783, when Dolly Payne was 15 years old, her parents made the decision to sell their plantation, free their slaves, and move the family north. Dolly's father did not believe in slavery and decided to use the money made from selling the plantation to set up business in Philadelphia. With this in mind, he and Mrs. Payne moved Dolly and her seven siblings, Walter, William Temple, Isaac, Lucy, Anna, Mary and John to a large and thriving city. This move coincides with a significant event in United States history, as 1783 marked the end of the Revolutionary War.
For several years, Madison adjusted well to city life. Her father had set up an office and shop in the front room of their home and was working in the starch business. Madison eventually became a very beautiful woman, and was considered to be the greatest beauty of her era. However, she remained a modest person who did not take her attributes for granted.
When Madison was 19 years old, the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in May of 1787. There she watched with others as the prestigious delegates arrived, among them George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. She also saw for the first time a man from Virginia who was known to be a brilliant political thinker, James Madison, and who would later be called the "Father of the Constitution."
The year 1789 marked a drastic change in the Payne household, as Madison's father was forced into bankruptcy. Although John Payne had been a successful farmer in Virginia, he did not know how to be a successful businessman. After his failure in business, Madison's father sank into despair and her mother was forced to take in boarders.
During this time, Madison had many suitors and was very popular. At the age of 21, many of her friends were already married, but she was in no hurry to settle down. The most persistent of her suitors was a man by the name of John Todd, a religious Quaker and lawyer. Eventually, Madison said yes to his proposal and the two were married in January of 1790. Two years later they had their first son, and a year after that, their second.
August of 1793 brought about a horrific change in many Philadelphians' lives. An epidemic of yellow fever swept over the city, and it was the worst epidemic to strike any American city at that time. A great number of people died, including Madison's husband and second born child. Although she also became ill, Madison eventually recovered after a long, slow fight. She then found herself a widow who had to care for her remaining son, Payne.
In the spring of 1794, Madison experienced what would later affect the rest of her life; she was notified that James Madison would like to meet her. He was a highly ambitious man, and well known in Philadelphia. He helped draft the Constitution and was responsible for proposing the Bill of Rights, the first ten constitutional amendments which safeguard an individual's civil liberties. Within a few weeks after the two met, it was widely rumored that they were engaged, and Martha Washington even questioned Madison about the matter. Although she emphatically denied this rumor, it proved to be true, as Dolly Payne Todd and James Madison were married in September of 1794.
Over the next several years, Dolly and James observed, and at times were directly involved in some of the most important events in the history of the United States. They saw John Adams inaugurated as President in 1797; Thomas Jefferson served two terms as a United States President beginning in 1801, and James Madison was made Secretary of State at that time; in 1800, the capital was moved to Washington, D.C.; and Napoleon gained Louisiana from Spain. Then in 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France. As a result of this Purchase, the United States had suddenly doubled in size.
When Jefferson decided not to run for a third term, his first choice for a successor was Madison. So in 1809, James Madison was inaugurated as President and Dolly Madison became the First Lady. Some say she took on the job as if she had been born to fill it. At times, she was affectionately referred to as "Lady Presidentess" or "Queen Dolly" she was widely known for her caring and loving nature, her fashion consciousness, her impeccable manners, and discreetness. Many commented on the good food Madison always served her guests. There were many kinds of cakes, jellies, macaroons and fruits, but the one thing Madison served, which was new to most, was a delicious cold treat referred to as "ice creams" by her guests.
The year 1812 brought about a Declaration of War and James Madison's re-election. America was soon at war with the British, and in the beginning, much of the battling was done at sea, with many American victories until about 1814. During this time, the British would take the offensive in the land war. Madison's actions on August 24, 1814 would cause her to be remembered forever in American history. On that date, as the British troops advanced upon the city and Madison had been advised to flee, she first took the time to decide what precious possessions would be stowed away in wagons and what would be sacrificed to the enemy forces. Madison made certain that her husband's important and secret papers were saved, along with the silver and a few small portable treasures and a portrait of George Washington, yet she left all of her own frivolities behind. Once Madison left the city, the British were there within two hours of her departure. The destruction that was caused included the burning of the Capitol Building and the torching of the President's House. All the contents remaining in the home had been destroyed forever. With Madison's foresight and quick actions, future generations would be able to view the Washington portrait which had hung over the fireplace.
In the following years, Madison witnessed the end of the war and James Monroe's inauguration as president. After leaving office, the Madisons returned to Montpelier, Virginia, to stay. Montpelier, in Orange County, had been James's home long before he and Dolly were married. The Madisons found peace in Virginia during those retirement years and all energies were spent on improving James's beloved home. Here Dolly Madison would remain for the next 20 years.
In their final years, the Madisons came to realize their increasing poverty. This was largely due to the fact that they were "land poor," and constant visitors to their home were very expensive. Also, Madison's son Payne proved to be extravagant, unproductive, and self-indulgent, while his expenses seemed endless. He spent more money than he had, and James Madison was forced to pay his gambling debts repeatedly. Despite Payne's troubles, Madison displayed constant love and devotion for her son.
James Madison died in 1836, and the Madison papers were his last preoccupation. He willed them to Dolly Madison so she might have them published and perhaps be comfortable financially. These papers were James's testimony and reflections on many years of significant historical events. After his death, Madison decided to move back to Washington, and at this time, she sold some of his papers to Congress and received $30,000 for them.
In the remaining years of Madison's life, she would see four different presidents enter office, the rest of the Madison papers sold to Congress, the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, and the introduction of the first telegraph. She had led a full, active, and productive life and witnessed and participated in a whole span of history. In 1849, Dolly Madison died and would be remembered with respect, admiration, and affection.
Mayer, Jane, Dolly Madison, 1954.
Gerson, Noel B., The Velvet Glove, A Life of Dolly Madison, 1975.