Presidential Series - The Madisons - Part II
By DS Gands
Nov 22, 2003
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Dorothy Payne was the daughter of John and Mary Coles Payne.  Born in New Garden (Piedmont), Guilford County, North Carolina, her parents recorded her birth on May 20, 1768, at the New Garden Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends, a Quaker organization.  She was just an infant when her father moved the family to Hanover County, Virginia, where the young girl nicknamed “Dolley” would spend the next fifteen years.

Quakers did not formally educate girls in that time, but Dolley was a quick study in homemaking needs and soon became an excellent cook and seamstress.  Much of her duties included sewing clothing for her six brothers and sisters that came along in those years.  But, the young Dolley was a bit of a tomboy, challenging even the visitors to her fathers farm to a foot race for time to time, and drawing the distain of her mother when she would learn that Dolley had been a frequent participant in fishing trips with the boys in the area.   Dolley was known to ride, quite well, but was noted for riding full astride the horse as opposed to the customary side-saddle of the ladies, and she had a keen interest in pistolery.   She was not at all deterred from her zeal for life’s experiences, but as she grew and blossomed into a young woman, her interests changed.

At the age of 15, he father had become quite dedicated to thoughts of inalienable rights of men that were being heaped upon the masses.  In the early and mid-1770’s, the colonists were under constant deluge of political speeches and writings focused on liberty and freedom.  This long and arduous campaign was designed to encourage support against British rule, but it made unexpected impacts on the nation’s settlers.

John Payne, Jr. was a wealthy plantation owner in Hanover County, Virginia.  He and his wife were searching for more meaningful personal truth and had joined the Society of Friends, before the start of the Revolutionary War.  Two years after the war ended in 1783, Mr. Payne abruptly freed his plantation slaves, paid the large punitive fees to ensure their freedom, sold all his land and livestock, and moved the family to Philadelphia, which was the Quaker-dominated capital of the only state that had outlawed slavery.  Dolley began attending Quaker school.

Her father was determined, with the support of his wife, to enter into land investments and manufacturing.  He moved his family into a house on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. His corn starch manufacturing company failed, though, mainly because he would overpay the employees, and his land investment deals went belly up.  The family was financially strapped and Dolley had to forego her education to help at home, taking over the immense task of cooking for the family and sewing for the siblings still living at home.

Dolley missed the plantation.  The open air and gayety of the free lifestyle was a part of her, and she began venturing to Haddonfield, New Jersey, to visit with family in the country and escaping the prim and proper world of in big city, visiting with the Hugh Creighton family believed to be her uncle, and the owner of the Indian King Tavern.  A biographer wrote of her:  "(Dolley Payne) was exceptionally pretty by the standards of her time with a natural vivacity. Even at 15 she had a magnetic quality that drew people to her, an attraction that a later age would call charisma. People were always aware of her proximity. Men stared at her when she walked down the streets and at social gatherings she quickly became the center of attention.”

After the war, the second floor of the tavern became a frequent location of music and dance events.  It was the largest non-religious public room in the area, and step dancing (later known as clogging) often shook the entire structure as the men and women who frequented the events stomped along the groaning floorboards with the lively fiddle music of the day.  Dolley was a Quaker, and though the faith prohibited dancing, she took particular interest in joining the festivities and playing rousing hostess to the excited, thirsty participants along with her relatives.  It was said that her particular affinity for creative food preparation was subject of family discussions, and the tavern was known for the best food of all the public houses in that area.  She raised an eyebrow or two walking along the sun-drenched lanes in the village after riding the sides of the mail wagons out into the country side with her male cousins.  Dolley was free-spirited and loved the fun of life.  The Haddonfield women quickly took a fancy to Dolley, noting her rapid maturity, and included her in the summertime outdoor parties and the quilting marathons during the winter months.  She became a party of the community and all of its major social events and activities.

But, Dolley was growing up, and in 1790, she married Quaker lawyer John Todd, just as her uncle retired and sold the Haddonfield tavern.  She was 22 years old, and soon had a family in two young sons.  They lived in the house on  the corner of 4th and Walnut Streets, built in 1775 and occupied from 1791 to 1793 by the Todd’s.

Her mother was resourceful and quickly turned the 18-room house on Chestnut Street into a boarding house to help support her family and kept the place full of visiting federal officials as the city became the temporary capital of the new republic.   Then in 1793, just after the birth of her second son, yellow fever swept Philadelphia, and John Todd, their infant son, and Todd’s parents were taken by the illness.   Dolley and her oldest son, John Payne Todd, survived, and through the pain of loss, Dolley’s positive attitude took over, keeping her in the quest for challenge and social interaction.

The Payne’s met several dignitaries of the new republic and among the boarding house guests were Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.  In the late spring of 1794, a friend visited with them, James Madison, and took a particular liking to the widow Todd, and her dazzling blue eyes.  Burr introduced them, and soon beautiful and lively Dolley was remarking to her friend "the great little Madison has see me this evening."  Her cousin, Catherine Coles, wrote to her on June 1, 1794:   “[Mr. Madison] thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue, at night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep a calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will shortly be consumed."  ‘Jemmey’, as she called him, was 17 years her senior, and on September 15, 1794, James Madison, Jr. wed Dorothy Payne Todd.  

  Immediately she was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying outside her faith, as Madison was Episcopalian.  Dolley shed the plain clothing and mantles of the Quaker faith, vowing to elevate herself into a position of status within society and fashion.  There are tales that she began taking snuff, and wearing bright clothing and turbans adorned with jewelry or feathers. 

James Madison took her and her young son home to Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia.  There, they lived with his parents while adding a private extension onto the mansion that was destined for a full makeover following the death of Madison, Sr..  Madison was a Congressman, and his wife a skilled seamstress, among other talents.  She was soon recognized as a fashion leader for her dress designs, and regaled internationally.   Dolley was hostess to many exceptional dinners and gatherings at Montpelier, which brought grand attention and acclaim to her husband’s political career.  Madison was open and a great conversationalist in a private setting with friends and guests, however dry and stoic in the public eye.  Dolley was the perfect balance to lift a spirited gaze.

When Madison joined the administration of Thomas Jefferson as his Secretary of State, Jefferson was a widower, never to remarry, and Dolley served as hostess in the White House, at Jefferson’s request, during social events and state dinners that preceded those duties during the presidency of her husband for the two terms after Jefferson.  Her culinary skills were the talk of the country and Europe. 

Her role at the White House was an unusual and important social role.  When her social grace was combined with Jefferson's intentional disregard for diplomatic protocol, Dolley Madison became involved in political and diplomatic issues of the day. One occasion was when Anthony Merry, their first minister to Washington, D.C., was sent to America in 1803.   Following the reception of Mr. Merry in the White House for a meeting, Jefferson invited the British minister and his wife for dinner.  When it came to the moment to adjourn to the dining room Jefferson was to have escorted Mrs. Merry, but turned to Mrs. Madison and offered her his arm.  It was a flagrant breach of etiquette, but a statement of democratic principals.   Soon after the event, Jefferson issued his "Canons of Etiquette" in which he declared the rule of "pele-mele", a standard for a nation. Jefferson wrote to James Monroe on January 8, 1804, that this would ensure "that no man here would come to dinner where he was to be marked with inferiority to any other."   That particular dinner, and the one hosted by the Madisons a few days later when they invited the Merrys to dine with them, created a political and diplomatic furor.   It was at that moment that Mrs. Madison's role carried a specific significance as part of a series of actions announcing the new independent status of U.S. foreign policy.  Margaret Bayard Smith, chronicler of early Washington social life, wrote: "She looked a Queen...It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did." 

Her gracious and warm reception of all was heralded worldwide, and her knack for remembering names was uncanny.  Dolley always asked about the families and mutual friends of visitors, always with a kind word for this one or that.  Camden County historian G. R. Prowell wrote after her death (1886): "in her exalted position [she] never forgot her friends in Haddonfield, nor the many pleasant days she spent among the people there. Some of her old admirers sought honorable promotions at the hands of her husband during his administration (and when greeting them at the White House) she would always relate the reminiscences of her early life, making inquiry concerning the old (Haddonfield) families." She had a remarkable way with people, and moreover, had come to attain a true instinct in politics, which was of great assistance to her husband.  The writings and documents of both Madisons have revealed that Dolley had tremendous influence over her husband in that regard.

When James Madison was elected President in 1809, Dolley was the central figure of Washington society, and hostess of the first Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C.  As the President’s wife, she commissioned the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and worked closely with him to make the White House as beautiful as possible within the budget set by Congress.  The style of the mansion was to be republican and not too fancy or foreign. The public social space that was created with her direct influence embraced a middle ground between Republican simplicity and Federalist high fashion.

She was a vivacious hostess and made all who attended any occasion at home in the White House.  The lavish parties of Mrs. Madison were well known for the exceptional delicacies served to her guests.  Hostile statesmen, tensions of the day, difficult envoys, foreign heads of state, warrior chiefs, and bewildered newcomers were all welcomed and put at ease in the presence of Dolley and her presentation.  Her gracious and diplomatic tact would soothe the tensions in any situation.

She initiated the Wednesday evening "drawing rooms" or receptions that became overwhelmingly popular with politicians, diplomats, and the citizens.   She was renowned for her charm, hospitality, and knowledge of politics and current events.  Dolley was a critical element in the re-election of her husband to office in 1812.

The War of 1812, dubbed Mr. Madison’s War, was soon a reality and another conflict between America and the British.  It was not well received by the families of those who went to fight the battles.  There was turmoil in the republic, and Madison found himself in a stir of negativity toward his presidency.  The conflict reached a peak in 1814, when the British landed four thousand troops to march on Washington and destroy it.   Madison who had gone to join troops on the front lines, had told Dolley to leave the White House and seek safe refuge, but Dolley was defiant, and wanted to defend the capital by putting cannons through the windows to fire upon the encroaching enemy.  The chaos of the moment overtook their desire to defend, and rescue was the priority.  Dolley Madison gathered federal documents, the original of the Declaration of Independence, and ordered the secured frame of the George Washington portrait broken to remove the painting.  She secured all of these national treasures in a wagon, and sent it on it’s way to a bank in Boston for safekeeping, then fled into the Virginia country side.

On August 23, 1814, she wrote a letter to her sister, Anna, which reads:  Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall.  This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out.  It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping.  And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take.  When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!”

 She was met with hostility in some cases and thrown into the street, because some of the people were angry about the war, but, she found refuge until the British were defeated, and returned to Washington three days later to find her husband safe in her relative’s home, Mr. Cutt.  Madison reported to her that they had been on a hillside across the Potomac River and watched as the British set fire to the White House.  Though heartbroken that the White House was destroyed, Dolley was not diminished. 

During the reconstruction of the Capital city and for the remainder of his presidency, James and Dolley resided at the Octagon House, and she embraced the situation to return the gaiety of Washington society through entertaining and social events.  She was the first to serve ice cream in the White House, and had begun the tradition of the Easter Egg hunt on the White House lawn.  Even as she grew on in years, James Polk noted that the social champion that was Mrs. Madison would challenge the children of relatives and visitors to a foot race on her lawn.

  With the conclusion of his second term in 1817, James and Dolley retired from public life and returned to Montpelier.  Life on the plantation, at first, was full of life with the vibrant Dolley continuing to entertain guests as she had in Washington for 16 years, but during that twenty years, they experienced falling prices and crop killing drought on the plantation.  They continued to receive guests, but were becoming unable to afford the expense. Soil exhaustion and opening of the West diminished property values, and Dolley watched as her son deteriorated into a life of drink and gambling that landed him in debtor’s prison on two occasions.  Nothing compared to the pain suffered with the eventual loss of her husband, in 1836.  Though the 42 year marriage was childless, it had been a remarkable romance from the start.  She said of their relationship: "our hearts understand each other."

Her son’s spending habits and gambling debts soon reduced her to near poverty.  She was forced to sell  President Madison’s Continental Papers to Congress, and eventually Montpelier to pay creditors.   Consumed in grief, Dolley remained in seclusion at Montpelier for over a year, and then, returned to the capital in the autumn of 1837 with her niece, Annie Payne, whom had returned to live with the Madisons before James’ demise.  She secured the two-and-a-half story town house on Lafayette Square that her Cutts relatives had built.  Madison had acquired the property on a debt owed and had bequeathed it to her along with Montpelier.

Mrs. James Madison resumed her former status in the social life there and frequented many social and political events.  Both former President John Quincy Adams and President Martin Van Buren immediately called on her when she returned. Again, she was dining at the White House, attending dinners, theater parties, balls and weddings, and often made as many as thirty calls in a day.   Close friends found tactful ways to supplement her diminished income, including her husband’s servant to the end, Paul Jennings, whom she sold to Daniel Webster who freed him.

Beginning with the New Year’s open house at the White House in 1838, a custom was born where the crowd to attend the reception and then rush in a wave across the square to pay its respects to Mrs. Madison.  It was rumored that when John Tyler became President following the death William Henry Harrison, his young daughter-in-law Priscilla, substituting for the invalid First Lady, made room for Dolley in her carriage and asked her questions about protocol.

There were times of near destitution when she pawned and sold valuables privately, including Sèvres plates that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette. Though friends were as helpful as they could be, in April 1842, Dolley took a train, a new invention in travel, to see the richest man in the country, John Jacob Astor, to ask him to take a mortgage on her Washington home.  Dolley was 74 at the time, but the 79-year-old Astor was ill and could not see her.   Mr. Astor’s son granted her a $3,000 mortgage loan.

That same year, while negotiating a treaty with Great Britain, Secretary of State and friend, Daniel Webster, asked Mrs. Madison to act as a mellowing influence on the British representative, Alexander Baring, now Lord Ashburton, who Dolley had known as a friend years before in Philadelphia.  The treaty was signed in August of 1842, and though she traveled from Washington to Virginia during the summer, she remained until the conclusion.


It was January 1844, when the House voted her a seat on its floor, a signal honor, and it was said to be the greatest honor ever accorded an American woman.   That spring, she attended the first public testing of Samuel Morse’s electromagnetic telegraph.  His opening message was, ‘What hath God wrought!’  She sent the first reply: ‘love to a cousin in Baltimore.’


Dolley laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument on May 20, 1848. She, at age 80, and Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, age 91, sat beside President James K. Polk at the ceremony.


The second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson entered the White House and ordered gardeners to dig up the familiar Rose Garden, but they never turned a spade of earth. Dolley Madison's ghost is said to have appeared to protect the gardens. The men fled and not a flower of Dolley's garden was disturbed, and it blooms today, as it has for nearly 2 centuries.

  On January 11, 1999, in a White House ceremony before the Gilbert Stuart painting Dolley Madison herself saved from flames in 1814, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the U.S. Mint to unveil a commemorative silver dollar featuring Dolley Madison. This was the first ever-silver dollar to be designed by a U.S. company (Tiffany & Co.), and the first coin to feature a First Lady.  The obverse portrays Dolley Madison bordered by a bouquet of Cape Jasmines, her favorite flower, in front of Montpelier's classic ice house. The reverse shows the Madisons’ beloved Montpelier.

Dolley Madison spent the last three decades of her life as the leading hostess and a beloved national institution in her own right in Washington. She was, also, one of Washington's most ardent anti-slavery advocates.  On July 12, 1849, Dolley Madison died in Washington at age 81. She was buried in the Congressional Cemetery with all the Washington dignitaries attending. Later her remains were moved to Montpelier next to her husband's.   It was documented that her funeral in July of 1849, was the largest funeral the nation’s capital had yet to see, and it was a fitting tribute to Dolley Madison.   The cortege rode from St. John’s Church in Washington, headed by President Zachary Taylor and followed by members of the Cabinet, Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, and the diplomatic corps.  Dolley Madison had been an integral part of history from Colonial America to the industrial age of the maturing United States.   She knew well, 11 presidents, and for 50 years had set the social tone in Washington and to some extent, around the world.

A guest at Montpelier had once said that, "Mrs. Madison is kindness personified." President Andrew Jackson called her "a national institution."  The title "First Lady" was introduced to American society by President Zachary Taylor at her funeral when he said, "She will never be forgotten, because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century."

Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Princeton University Library, 2000
Library of Congress Manuscript Division – Papers of James Madison

The United States Mint.