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Dolley Madison - One of America's Founding Mothers

Posted on Friday, January 17, 2020

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Birth: May 20, 1768
Death: July 12, 1849 (age 81)
Colony: North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania
Occupation: First Lady
Significance: Served as the fourth First Lady of the United States (1809-1817)

Dolley Madison Portrait

Dolley Madison was born as Dolley Payne in North Carolina in 1768. Dolley grew up in a Quaker family during the American Revolutionary War and moved first to Virginia and then at the age of 15 to the City of Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, Dolley met and married her first husband, John Todd, with whom she had two children in 1790. During this time Dolley lived in a house that still stands today at the corner of 4th and Walnut Streets which is known as the Todd House. Unfortunately, within a few years Philadelphia experienced the terrible Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793 which killed an estimated 5,000 people including her husband and 2nd son. 

Dolley, widowed at 26 and still with a young son to care for, was placed in a difficult financial situation. However, within in a year, Dolley had been introduced to and married James Madison who was then 43 and a Congressman living in the Capital city of Philadelphia. Dolley lived in Philadelphia with James as he continued to serve as a Congressman until 1797, when after four terms as a Congressman, James decided to retire, and he and Dolley moved to Montpelier, his estate in Virginia. 

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States and named James Madison as his Secretary of State which led to James and Dolley Madison moving to the new Capital city of Washington, D.C. As Thomas Jefferson's wife had passed away many years earlier, Jefferson had no one to fulfill the duties of First Lady that had been established by Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. These duties were most often performed by Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph, but as the Madisons were close friends with Jefferson, Dolley was also sometimes called upon to take on the duties of the First Lady. Dolley became an important figure in the social circles of Washington D.C., well known for the many functions she hosted and her kind hospitality.

When Madison was elected to succeed Jefferson as President in 1808, Dolley's social graces became an important aspect of Madison's presidency. After the United States quickly split into two political parties following the implementation of the United States Constitution, the country's two parties quickly became very polarized and it became very rare to socialize outside of your political circle. Dolley on the other hand frequently hosted dinners or events where she invited figures from both of Washington D.C.'s warring political parties. Encouraging this socialization outside of congress, Washington became less polarized and aided in Madison's ability to enact his agenda as President. 

While Martha Washington and Abigail Adams established many of the functions of the the First Lady, it was Dolley Madison who continued to define the role that we know as the First Lady today. Dolley redecorated the White House, gave tours of the Presidential mansion and served as the official host during state functions. Dolley's reputation as a kind and welcoming person helped to make her husband James more popular and even afforded Dolley privileges and responsibilities that went beyond that of other First Ladies. Years after her time as First Lady, Congress even honored her with her own seat in the House of Representatives to enable her to sit in on congress and visit the House Floor anytime she chose. 

When The White House was burned down in the War of 1812, it was Dolley who is credited with thinking of the irreplaceable history in the building and working to ensure it was preserved. Most famously Dolley was said to have played a role is saving the iconic Gilbert Stuart painted portrait of George Washington. After the War of 1812, the White House was reconstructed and Dolley then played a major role in its interior design.

At the conclusion of James Madison's second term, James and Dolley returned to Virginia, where they lived for the rest of his life on his Montpelier plantation. James died in 1836 at the age of 85, and Dolley struggled without him. Dolley's only surviving child from her first marriage, John Payne Todd, who had been adopted by James when he was a young child, struggled with alcoholism and got into numerous legal troubles and fell into debt. Bailing out her son caused Dolley to fall into debt in her senior years. However, in part because of how beloved she was, Congress agreed to purchase all of James Madison's writings from her for a very large sum of money. The sale of her husband's writings and sale of his Montpelier plantation enabled Dolley to settle her debts and move to Washington D.C., where she lived comfortably until her death at the age of 81 in 1849. 

Dolley Madison in Philadelphia

Dolley Madison lived in Philadelphia for fourteen years between 1783 and 1797, when she was 15-29 years old. During this time, Dolley married her first her husband and lived with him in the Todd House until he died in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. You can learn more about the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 on our Yellow Fever Tour which visits the Todd House.

Madison also lived in Philadelphia while her second husband, James Madison, served in the U.S. Congress. During this time, James worked at Congress Hall, which served as the Capital Building while Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. Congress Hall is one of the stops on The Constitutional Walking Tour!

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