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Dolley Madison: for whom the title of First Lady was coined

Written By | Jul 4, 2018

Dolley Madison (Wikimedia Commons)

FORT WORTH: When people think of Dolley Madison, one of two thoughts come to mind. Either that of a determined woman bent on saving national treasures from a British onslaught or a pastry company that made snacks for children’s school lunches. These are both true. However, this enchanting lady is so much more to American history.

Dolley Madison forged and defined the role for the wife of the President of the United States. Martha Washington and Abigail Adams served well as the President’s Hostess. But Dolley Madison blazed the trail and set in stone the function of the First Lady. In fact, it was Dolley Madison for who the title, “First Lady” was coined.




The National First Ladies’ Library says this:

“With more conscious effort than either of her two predecessors, and with an enthusiasm for public life that neither of them had, Dolley Madison forged the highly public role as a President’s wife, believing that the citizenry was her constituency as well as that of her husband’s.” 

It was the role she created that is the standard and what we expect to this day.

Dolley Payne was born in North Carolina to Quakers John and Mary Payne in 1768 then grew up in Virginia. Eventually she moved to Philadelphia where she married Quaker lawyer John Todd, Jr.

Dolley Madison blazed the trail and set in stone the function of the First Lady.

They had two children, John Payne Todd and William Isaac Todd. The younger child died on the same day as his father during an epidemic of yellow fever.

The White House  website relates that after a period of mourning:

“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.” 

Introduced by US Senator Aaron Burr, Dolley Payne Todd and James Madison hit it off from the get-go. She was seventeen years younger than Madison but it didn’t matter. They married in September of 1794.

James and Dolley lived in Orange County, Virginia when Congress wasn’t in session. At Montpelier Dolley honed her skills as hostess while helping James’ career.

They became the nation’s first power couple.




When Thomas Jefferson named Madison as his Secretary of State they moved back to Washington City. However, the nation’s capitol was quite different 217 years ago than it is now. Upon their arrival in 1801, the “wilderness capital” had changed quite a bit since the Madisons had last seen it. The President’s house and the Capitol building now stood out.

Author Catherine Allgor states in her book, “A Perfect Union”:

“…the city’s main road, ‘Pennsylvania Avenue’ was a grand appellation for the slash of mud that proved almost impossible for any vehicle to navigate….To paraphrase a famous jibe, Washington was a town of houses with no streets and streets with no houses.”  

In addition, there was no entrenched social structure like in older established areas. Most cities grow over time. Washington City did not. The city, designed by Peter Charles L’Enfant, Andrew Ellicott, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson was complete, on paper, from the start.

“Her political acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned, though her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel.”

Allgor adds,

“The long established cities of Philadelphia or New York possessed entrenched social structures and hierarchies, to which the federal government had to adapt during each city’s tenure as capital. Washington City lacked such existing configurations or customs and so invited innovation…..However, the very novelty and nature of the capital city presented its residents with several formidable obstacles to realizing their dream of a ‘new Rome’ on the Potomac.” 

“Dolley Madison forged the highly public role as a President’s wife, believing that the citizenry was her constituency as well as that of her husband’s.” 

The couple first lived with President Jefferson at the “President’s House.” Later, the Madisons moved to their own home on F Street. It was here Dolley began building Washington society. Since President Jefferson was a widower, she often served the role of presidential hostess for many official functions as well.

The two-party system was brand new in those days. The Federalists, including George Washington, John Adams and other democratic “aristocrats” wanted a strong, centralized federal government. The Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, saw the federal government necessary for the military and foreign diplomacy, believing that states should take care of the rest themselves.

Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison in her later years. (Wikimedia Commons)

In response to this almost everyone in Washington City received invitations to the house on F Street. People from one side of the political spectrum to the other were there. Folks who did not have US government affiliations were welcomed as well. Foreign dignitaries were also a staple at Dolley’s functions.

According to Allgon, each group had a stake in Washington City. The local gentry and official families were permanent residents and worked toward building up the capital. Foreign visitors and observers had the ears of their prospective governments that watched the young country. They could become powerful friends or dangerous enemies. Mrs. Madison had her work cut out for her.

She strove to serve not only her husband but also the good of the country.

Allgon says of Dolley’s mission,

“In her quest to create an ideal capital society, Dolley had to find ways not only to teach each group individually, but to blend and connect all three.”

The White House site continues:

“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” 

In this she strove to serve not only her husband but also the good of the country. She was a trailblazer and a passionate patriot who knew that the warring political factions of the time had to get along in order for the United States to flourish. Yet she made her way through Washington society and the politics of the young Republic. She did this by balancing her natural charm and beauty with unmatched political finesse.

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Come back tomorrow for the rest of the story.

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Read more of Claire’s work at Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers Group.  Join her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities Digital News has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. She has a Culinary Certificate from Tarrant Area Food Bank Community Kitchen. In the near future she hopes to marry her love of writing and her love of the culinary arts.