Dolley Madison

Painting of Dolley Madison in frilled dress and lace bonnet
Portrait of Dolley Madison by James Sharples Senior, 1796-1797
NPS

Quick Facts

Significance:
First Lady
Place of Birth:
Greensboro, North Carolina
Date of Birth:
May 20, 1768
Place of Death:
Washington, D.C.
Date of Death:
July 12, 1849

Dolley Madison is fondly remembered as a gracious hostess and the brave savior of priceless White House artifacts before its burning in 1814. But more importantly, she helped define the political and social role of a first lady.

Dolley Payne was born in a Quaker community in North Carolina, but soon moved to a family plantation in Virginia, and eventually to Philadelphia. She married Quaker lawyer John Todd and had two sons, but lost the younger and her husband to a yellow fever outbreak in 1793. 

As the nation’s temporary Capital, Philadelphia was the center of society in this period. As a pretty, young widow, Dolley attracted much attention. She met Congressman James Madison through their mutual acquaintance, senator Aaron Burr, and married after only a brief courtship. Dolley converted to James’ Episcopal religion, and quickly abandoned the Quaker fashions of her youth in favor of the latest city styles.

After a brief reprisal to Montpelier, James’ family plantation in Virginia, Dolley and James Madison moved to Washington, D.C. for James’ new position as Secretary of State in President Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet. Dolley’s long career as a hostess and icon of Washington society was about to begin.

Many letters record Dolley as intelligent, charming, and a gracious hostess. As a widower, President Jefferson relied on Dolley and her high reputation to serve as an unofficial first lady: selecting furnishings for the newly constructed White House, organizing parties, and entertaining ladies who came to visit. When Madison succeeded the presidency and Dolley formally became first lady, she was already well practiced, well-known, and very popular. Serving in the position essentially for 16 years, Dolley helped to define the role of first lady as a domestic diplomat.

Although James Madison was well-respected as a brilliant man and the father of the Constitution, his terse and bookish qualities did not endear him to Americans. However, Dolley’s effusive and warm demeanor contrasted against, effectively increasing Madison’s popularity. The nation’s high esteem for Dolly became enshrined in legend in 1814 as she shrewdly and bravely prepared for the invasion of Washington. She collected silver and other valuable White House artifacts including important government documents, original drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and a large Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. This cool action saved these priceless artifacts from destruction, trademark thoughtfulness that has become Dolley Madison’s legacy.

Following James Madison’s retirement from politics, the couple returned to Montpelier, where they remained until James’ death in 1836. Yet again a widow, Dolley returned to Washington to live out the rest of her life a living legend and the nation’s most beloved matriarch.

Tags: war of 1812, first lady, americans, james madison