Women’s History Month: Dolley Madison

Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison

FORT WORTH, Texas March 5, 2014 — 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, Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson Randolph all 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.

A Merry Widow Who Captivated Madison

James Madison
James Madison

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.

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 212 years ago than it is now.

The Power Couple Arrives in Washington

Dolly Madison rescuing George Washington's portrait
Dolly Madison rescuing George Washington’s portrait

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 and Andrew Ellicott, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson was complete, on paper, from the start.

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.” 

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.

A Diplomatic Hostess

Dolly Madison with her niece Anna Payne
Dolly Madison with her niece Anna Payne

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.

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.


Come back to read more about this inspiring and amazing lady next week.


Also this week at Ruby on Tuesday



Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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