Women’s History Month: Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison, trailblazer and passionate patriot, created the role of First Lady. In this way she strove to serve not only her husband but also the good of the country.


FORT WORTH, Texas March 4, 2016 — Dolley Madison’s likeness should be on Mount Rushmore. Why?

First of all, she forged and defined the role for the wife of the President of the United States. She was the first “First Lady” in name. How can that be?

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.”

First Lady Dolley Madison - Considered one of the very best First Ladies in American History
First Lady Dolley Madison – Considered one of the very best First Ladies in American History

It was she who forged the role that is the standard to this day.

1768 saw the birth of Dolley Payne. Her childhood took place first in North Carolina and then Virginia. As an adult she moved to Philadelphia where she met and 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.

Once ready to move on with her life the beautiful and charming young widow always had her dance card full. When Senator Aaron Burr made their introductions, James and Dolley hit it off right away. Madison wondered if their age difference would be a problem, it wasn’t. The couple wed in September of 1794.

James and Dolley made their home in Orange County, Virginia when Congress wasn’t in session. At Montpelier Dolley honed her skills as hostess while helping James’ career. And she helped, a lot. It didn’t take long until Thomas Jefferson made Madison the Secretary of State. The couple then moved to Washington City.

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.

The new capital was the first city in history built before people lived there. And because of that there was no entrenched social structure like in older established areas. Most cities grow over time. Washington City did not. Peter Charles L’Enfant, Andrew Ellicott, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson conceived and created it on paper first.

The couple initially 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 from the ground up. Her beauty, charm and diplomacy, with his brilliant mind and official duties, made them Washington’s first power couple. President Jefferson, a widower, liked Dolley to serve as his hostess at the White House too.

The two-party system was brand new in those days. The Federalist Party wanted a strong, centralized government. The Republicans wanted minimal federal influence on states believing that they should take care of 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.

Several groups 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.

Dolley made it her mission to create the ideal capital society. She had to find ways to gain the trust of the different groups, and also figure out how best to blend and connect them.

The White House site says:

“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. She did this by balancing her natural charm and beauty with unmatched political finesse.

James Madison, President of the United States 1809 - 1817, author of the Constitution, 1789
James Madison, President of the United States 1809 – 1817, author of the Constitution, 1789

Dolley and James 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 whether James was impotent and not man enough to lead the country.

Medical thought at the time believed that women didn’t have much of a sex drive and if they did there was something wrong with them. Dolley had a beauty and charisma that set some tongues wagging.

One publication posted an article,  “Love and Smoke Cannot Be Hidden.” It 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 James’ tenure in office, they retired to Montpelier. Dolley continued to entertain and helped her husband to put in order 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 moved 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 President Zachary Taylor called Dolley, “….the first lady of the land for a century.”

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,” a cousin in Baltimore.

* Dolley 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.

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.”

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 D.C., but in doing so, she left a wonderful legacy that continues to serve the People to this day.


Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers. Join her on Twitter; Facebook; Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul FB Page; Greater Fort Worth Writers Group FB Page



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