Dolley Payne was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, on May 20, 1768, and moved to Hanover County while still a young child. She was the fourth of eight children born to the Quakers John Payne and Mary Coles Payne. Little is known about her father’s background except that he came from an Anglican family of middling success. Her mother came from a more distinguished Virginia planter lineage, being a member of both the Coles family and the Winston family, connecting Dolley to many prominent Virginians, includingand .
When the American Revolution (1775–1783) ended and Virginians were legally allowed to manumit their slaves, John Payne did so and moved his family to Philadelphia, where he became a laundry-starch merchant. In the post-revolutionary environment of spiraling costs and contracting trade, Payne’s business failed. He died a broken man on October 24, 1792. Mary Payne opened a boarding house, one of the few respectable businesses available for women at the time, but soon retired in 1793 after her daughter Lucy Payne married George Steptoe Washington, a nephew of George Washington, and she moved in with them.
Dolley Payne married twice in the 1790s. First she wed a young Quaker lawyer named John Todd, who provided her with Quaker respectability and financial security. With him she had two sons, John Payne and William Temple. In the autumn of 1793, however, Philadelphia was engulfed by a yellow fever epidemic, from which Dolley and her two sons fled to the nearby suburbs. Her baby died, her husband died, her in-laws died, and the life she had so recently carved out for herself perished as well.
Widowed but still young and attractive, in 1794 Dolley Payne Todd was wed again, this time to James Madison, of Virginia. He was a forty-three-year-old bachelor, a leader of the new Democratic-Republican Party, a close friend of, and a member of the . The two were married on September 15 at Harewood, the home of her sister Lucy Payne Washington. The Quakers disowned her for marrying an Episcopalian, and she embarked on a new life as the wife of one of the most important men in Philadelphia. The Madisons remained there until 1797, when James retired and they left for Montpelier.
By the turn of the century death had reshaped Dolley Madison’s family, and marriage had altered her daily life. She lost not only her father and her first husband, but three of her four brothers: Walter Payne, who died at sea; William Temple Payne, who was court-martialed and discharged from the Army and died young; and Isaac Payne, who was shot to death with a pistol. Her mother, her brother John Coles Payne, and her sister Lucy lived with George Steptoe Washington. Her sister Mary wed John George Jackson, a member of Congress. And her sister Anna and her son John Payne Todd lived with her, now the wife of a wealthy planter in central Virginia.
The First Washington Years
On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States. The next day he asked his friend James Madison to fill the post of secretary of state. Madison accepted and in May he and Dolley traveled to Washington, living first with Jefferson and his secretary, Dolley Madison’s cousin Isaac Coles, in the White House, until moving to a home of their own two blocks east of the White House.
During the secretary of state years (1801–1809) Dolley Madison had no official responsibilities. It is sometimes said that she served as Jefferson’s hostessIn 1804 her sister Anna married Richard Cutts, a congressman from the Maine district of Massachusetts. It was a seismic event for Madison, who grieved the loss to her daily life. In 1805 Madison, suffering from an ulcerated knee, spent months in Philadelphia, where she received medical attention. In 1806 James Madison sent Dolley’s remaining brother, John Coles Payne, to Tripoli as a secretary to the American consul, an attempt to set him up in a profession and drag him away from drinking and gambling. But it was a wasted effort; John Coles returned home worse for his period abroad. In 1807 Madison’s mother passed away and in 1808 her sister Mary Payne Jackson succumbed to tuberculosis. Madison’s natal family thus shrank to two surviving sisters, her wastrel brother, and her son—who himself appeared increasingly problematic: a poor student, a gambler, and ultimately an alcoholic. , but this was rarely true; Jefferson usually held dinners at round tables attended by men only and had daughters to help fill a wife’s duties. Madison did, however, develop a reputation as the most important hostess in the city. She made people feel comfortable without effacing herself and she commanded attention without dominating it. During the eight years her husband was a key member in Jefferson’s cabinet, Madison learned to navigate between worlds. She mixed with congressmen and townspeople, cabinet officials and diplomats, those who were her friends and those who were the administration’s political enemies.
In 1809 James Madison became the fourthand Dolley Madison his “queen,” as she was often called. She was already well known around Washington, the popular wife of a powerful politician. Once in the White House she made her mark, especially through the way she entertained and dressed. Through her decoration, she also enhanced the presidential mansion in a new, ugly, and raw capital city.
As head of state, James Madison could neither continue Jefferson’s radical habits nor revert to Federalist conventions. George and Martha Washington had formally received guests by sitting on a platform and signifying the august nature of the presidency, while Thomas Jefferson had eschewed formal parties in favor of roundtable dinners (with no head) intended to indicate the egalitarian nature of his republican administration. As international and domestic animosities mushroomed and war broke out with Great Britain, the Madison administration needed its own social lubricant to make events at the White House flow smoothly. The Madisons chose to hold parties without a platform but with oblong dinner tables, seating James Madison in the middle rather than at the head.
And by May 1809, Dolley Madison had introduced weekly socials held on Wednesday nights and known as “squeezes.” These drawing-room events were necessary because the president of a republic, unlike a monarch, had to be accessible to citizens who wanted to see him. But accessibility had to be scheduled so that visitors did not overwhelm the chief executive’s time. Furthermore, the White House could not let those diplomatic missions established by the British and French in Washington become centers of entertainment and outshine the Americans. So Madison held her parties, and people flocked to them. As one observer noted in 1816: “Such a crowd I was never in. It took us ten minutes to push and shove ourselves through the dining room; at the upper part of it stood the President and his lady, all standing, and a continual moving in and out.”
As in her entertaining, there was a method and a political strategy behind the way Madison outfitted herself. She dressed elegantly but simply, without the pretense of a European aristocrat. She often wore pearls, for example, rather than the diamonds worn by a British lady of court. Through her garb she signaled that the presidential mansion was not a court but the residence of an American executive.
Dolley Madison took charge of decorating the White House. Whereas Jefferson had brought his own furniture from home as part of his radical simplicity, Madison hired the architect and decorator Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst Latrobe, to design and oversee the purchase of new interior furnishings. She brought in newly designed Greek- and Roman-styled furniture. Her drawing room was upholstered in yellow with matching damask curtains. These made the statement that the president’s mansion is fine, but not too fine, and that even the president’s furniture is grounded in the Greek principles of a free republic. When a British visitor, Alexander Dick, found the rooms too simple, he admitted in a June 1809 journal entry that there were few similar public places in Washington, and none to match Dolley Madison’s. A Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Jonathan Roberts, worried that the party would be too fancy, but reported that he could still wear the leather boots of a countryman, and so he went to the White House parties.
Madison remains an icon for the perfect hostess, but she is best remembered for her conduct and actions during the War of 1812. Foreign affairs dominated the administration from the day James Madison took office. The fundamental problem was how to preserve American neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars. On June 1, 1812, President Madison sent a message to Congress listing American grievances; Congress declared war on June 18. Conflicts between the political parties had stirred Washington society since Madison took office. After the declaration of war it became worse, and Dolley Madison doubled her efforts to be gracious and charming enough to disarm even her enemies. Her drawing-room parties became increasingly charged with partisan debate, and eventually the rancor of war could not be kept out. But she remained publicly calm, no matter how inwardly enraged she felt.
On August 17, 1814, British troops landed thirty-five miles from Washington and began their trek toward the nation’s capital. By August 23 Dolley Madison was preparing to evacuate the White House. It was at that time that she began ain which she wrote of her preparations. According to this letter Dolley Madison was still waiting at the mansion the next day, but by the afternoon the British had come too close to be ignored. She ordered a wagon to be packed with official papers, silver, and valuables and sent it to the Bank of Maryland. And then, as she wrote to her sister, “I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall.” Finally she the frame broken and the portrait taken, and then she fled to Virginia. (The Madison slave has also this famous event.) A day later Madison met up with her husband and they returned together to the city. The British had torched the White House and the Madisons were without a home. But ensconced in temporary housing Dolley Madison continued to entertain with energy and style. She furnished her new home on Nineteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue with secondhand furniture and persevered, the mistress of the nation who had braved the enemy.
Return to Montpelier
In March 1817 James Madison retired from office, and a month later the Madisons returned to Montpelier, in Orange County. It was a beautiful and gracious house that had steadily been improved upon over the past sixteen years and was filled with paintings, portraits, busts, and a library of more than 4,000 volumes. The estate was a cluster of four farms, with a village ofon each farm. Tobacco and wheat were the cash crops; corn and pork were the stapes of diet. Their slaves numbered more than 100.
James Madison never returned to Washington, and only once did he leave his estate: to participate in the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829. But if the Madisons stayed in place, visitors flocked to them. Dolley Madison’s brother John Coles Payne, now sober and married, lived close by with his wife and eight children. Anna Payne Cutts and her children clustered there. Lucy Payne Washington Todd (by 1826 twice married and widowed) frequently stayed. And visitors of all sorts filled the home.
At the time of the Madisons’ retirement, in 1817, they had held sizeable assets and substantial savings. But they suffered, like most Virginia farmers, when tobacco prices and exports declined in the 1820s and 1830s. The cost of their gracious lifestyle and constant generosity began to take its toll.
selling slaves but ultimately could not, and in 1834, he shipped sixteen slaves to a relative in Louisiana. In all, James Madison spent about $40,000 to pay off Todd’s debts, at least half of which he concealed from Dolley Madison, although he admitted to Edward Coles that “his mother has known eno’ to make her wretched the whole time of his strange absence & misterious silence.”
Increasingly Dolley Madison’s time was taken up in tending to her husband, whose health was failing. She wrote her niece Dolley Cutts in 1834 that her days were “devoted to nursing and comforting my patient, who walks only from the bed in which he breakfasts, to one in the little chamber.” On June 28, 1836, James Madison died. Dolley had been married to him for forty-two years. With him, she had found economic security and a public role to play. She had discovered great talents within herself, and she had been a faithful, supportive, and loving companion. Henceforth she was a widow.
Widowhood at Montpelier
Madison’s death left his widow exhausted and emotionally depleted. She described her mind as confused and depressed. She took in her brother’s daughter, Anna Payne Causten, as her companion, living with and depending on her for the rest of her life. But her brother, John Coles Payne, left as soon as he could, traveling first to Illinois and subsequently to Kentucky, taking with him the rest of his family and any support he might have provided. And Madison struggled with the twin tasks of selling her husband’s papers and fulfilling the conditions of his will. James Madison knew that the value of his estate had greatly dwindled and that the land itself would not convey enough to fulfill his obligations and comfort his widow. He therefore wished his wife to sell his papers, the value of which he wildly overestimated at $100,000. With that money she was to pay out bequests to his family, thereby discharging any financial obligations they might expect from relatives looking to share in the sale of Montpelier, and make his charitable contributions. To locate three generations’ worth of far-flung Madison relatives was difficult, finding a distributor for his papers even more so. As a result, Madison began selling off pieces of Montpelier. Her health seriously deteriorated and she lost weight, suffered from chills and painful eye inflammations, and could barely handle a pen well enough to sign a letter.Madison finally turned to her friends in government and sold a portion of the papers to Congress for $30,000 in March 1837. She began spending the winter months in Washington, where she remained an important public figure and had many friends. But the money from Congress largely went to pay her obligations, and she slid further into debt. She continued to shuttle back and forth between Washington and Virginia until 1844. In 1841 she was at Montpelier, caring for her ailing sister Lucy, frantic about her brother’s problems—including a relapse into drinking and the breakup of his family—and suffering from her son’s drinking, gambling, and debts. In 1843 her brother-in-law William Madison, whom she described as hostile, took Madison to court for a debt he declared James Madison had owed him and therefore for which Dolley Madison was now responsible. That December she left Virginia forever.
She was forced to sell what remained of Montpelier: house, property, and slaves. As 1844 came to a close her property was gone. “No one,” she wrote, “I think can appreciate my feeling of grief and dismay at the necessity of transferring to another a beloved home.” Her job had become to remain the dignified and beloved relict of the fourth president of the United States, for which she continued to be honored.
Final Years in Washington
Zachary Taylor was kin to her husband. Despite being an impoverished widow, she resided on the top rung of society.
When she moved permanently to Washington she divided her enslaved population. She brought some to Washington, sold some to the man who had purchased Montpelier, and gave the rest to her son. She did what she could to avoid breaking up families in the process, but the lives of her enslaved population were not her primary concern.
In 1848, Madison became the object of scorn in abolitionist publications such as the Liberator newspaper. She had been a lightning rod for anger at her husband while he had been president, especially during the war. But the abolitionist press later targeted her directly. It began in 1848 with an incident involving a ship called the Pearl, which tried to smuggle Washingtonin the North. One of Madison’s slaves was on board, Ellen Stewart, who had been encouraged to board the ship by Madison’s former slave, Paul Jennings. The escape attempt failed, and when Madison sold Stewart to a slave dealer in Baltimore the former first lady was vilified by abolitionists. On April 14, 1848, the editors of the antislavery newspaper the North Star, published in Rochester, New York, condemned her, writing, “Mrs. Madison is herself a mother … and no degree of want that she could possibly suffer could tempt her, if she has a heart, to sell another’s child away into Southern bondage.”
Madison’s financial woes were eased slightly in 1848 when Congress agreed to purchase the rest of her husband’s papers for $25,000, which this time was put in a trust to keep it from Madison’s son. Todd was furious. He went around the city vaguely threatening vengeance against the trustees. Madison finally wrote to him on June 29: “Your mother would have no wish to live after her son issued such threats which would deprive her of her friends.”Madison fell ill a year later, lingering for five days in bed while national newspapers printed telegraphed stories from around the country of her declining health. She died on July 12, 1849. Madison’s strongest legacy was in transforming the role of first lady. She had created new ceremonial forms and invented appropriate settings for the new republic, and she had done so with flair, charm, and tact.
Her funeral was held at Saint John’s Church on July 16, and it was a state occasion in keeping with her legacy. It was attended by the president, the cabinet, the diplomatic corps, members of the House and Senate, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, officers of the Army and Navy, the mayor, and other leading citizens. At half-past five that afternoon this large and imposing funeral procession wound its way to what later came to be called the Congressional Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., where she was buried. Her remains were transferred in 1858, according to the dictates of her, to rest next to her husband at Montpelier.