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

Written By | Jul 5, 2018

FORT WORTH: James and Dolley Madison were the golden couple of their era, but they were not without detractors. They had no children of their own, although Dolley had given birth during her first marriage. Enemies used this information to question James’ virility, indicating that he was impotent and was too feeble to lead the country.

Medical thought at the time also believed that excessive sexual desire belonged to the realm of men and Dolley exuded a sexuality that set some tongues wagging. The very thought of a woman having desires like that was almost beyond belief.

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

“Too much female lust and sex would lose its procreative capacity.”

President Zachary Taylor declared about Dolley, “….the first lady of the land for a century.”

One rumor even had Thomas Jefferson pimping Dolley and her sister Anna to foreign visitors. There was also an “advertisement” in the Georgetown Federal Republican for a publication about moral and political law. One chapter called “Love and Smoke Cannot Be Hidden” dealt with the sex lives of a thinly disguised Washington couple — the oversexed and unfaithful wife of an impotent man.

The Madisons dismissed the ugliness of the gossip and for the most part ignored it. They believed, as did Thomas Jefferson, that to address the accusations would only encourage more of the same and make it worse.

After the Madison presidency, James and Dolley retired to Montpelier in 1817. Dolley continued to entertain and helped her husband to organize and prepare the papers he used in drafting the Constitution.

President Madison died in 1836 at age 85. In a letter to her best friend Eliza Collins Lee Dolley confessed,

“Indeed I have been as one in a troubled dream since my irreparable loss of him, for whom my affection was perfect, as was his character and conduct thro’ life.”

Dolley stayed on at Montpelier until she had to sell it and other holdings to pay off debts incurred by her son, Payne, leaving her near poverty.

The sale to Congress of some of her husband’s papers and the sale of Montpelier in 1844 helped, but she still relied on the charity of friends.

Dolley made the permanent move to Washington City that year to a townhouse across the street from the presidential mansion. It was there she died on July 12, 1849 at age 81.

She was given a state funeral where incumbent president Zachary Taylor declared about Dolley, “….the first lady of the land for a century.”

Henry Clay stated, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison.” To this, Dolley replied, “Mr. Clay, I love everybody.”

Other interesting facts about Dolley Madison:

  • National First Ladies Library reports that Dolley helped to found a home for orphaned girls in Washington D.C. There she raised funds, gave support and served as board member. The First Lady also became close to the nuns from a local Catholic school and began a lifelong association with the organization
  • Incumbent First Ladies often sought her advice on how to best serve their role including Julia Tyler and Sarah Polk.
  • Awarded an honorary seat in Congress where she could watch congressional debates on the floor.
  • Samuel F. B. Morse selected her to be the first private citizen to send a telegraph. It read, “Message from Mrs. Madison. She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered.” She was a cousin in Baltimore.
  • Dolley Madison worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to furnish the White House after Jefferson left it partially unfinished on the inside. The beautiful result came in under budget as well.
  • Raised as a Quaker, the Society expelled Dolley when she married non-Quaker Madison. She later joined the Episcopal Church.
  • Known for her expensive and stylish clothes including her trademark turban.

Future First Ladies since that time have had awfully big shoes to fill. Dolley Madison not only created the role of President’s wife and laid the foundation for society in Washington City, but in doing so, she also left a wonderful legacy that continues to serve the People to this day.

In 1838 Dolley hosted a New Year’s party. It was at this soiree that Kentucky Senator Henry Clay made his famous statement, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison.” To this, Dolley replied, “Mr. Clay, I love everybody.”


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Claire Hickey

Claire Hickey was born the last year of the Baby Boom and spent the first half of childhood in Chicago. She has always loved to write but wanted to create pieces worth reading. Her curiosity and love of research lead her to create her column based on the “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought-provoking pieces that enrich her readers. She also believes life is a banquet and loves to learn new things. Her professional pedigree includes Cosmetology, Surgical Technology, and the Culinary Arts. When not working she loves to spend time with family and friends. She lives in Fort Worth.