The First Lady of James Madison

Dolley Payne was born in the Quaker community of New Garden, North Carolina, in 1768. She was the first child of Virginians Mary Coles Payne and John Payne Jr., who had moved to North Carolina. Her mother had been a Quaker all her life. On the other hand, her father converted to the faith after marrying Mary in 1761. The Paynes moved back to Virginia in 1769, where they raised their children on the family plantation.

Dolley grew up in a close relationship with her mother’s family. The Paynes had four sons and four daughters. The family was anti-slavery as Quakers, and they emancipated all of their slaves in 1783. When Dolley was fifteen years old, the family relocated once more, this time to Philadelphia, where John Payne established a starch merchant business.

First Marriage

Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer she met in Philadelphia when she was 22 years old. John Payne Todd and William Temple Todd were born soon after. Anna Payne, her sister, also moved in to help with the kids.

In 1793, tragedy struck as a yellow fever outbreak ravaged Philadelphia, killing nearly 5,000 people over the course of four months. The plague claimed Dolley’s husband, son William, and in-laws. She was left to deal with her grief and parenting her surviving son and the legal restrictions on women inheriting. Since her brother-in-law was the executor of her husband’s will, he was able to keep her inheritance from her until a lawsuit compelled him to relinquish it.

Laws governing women’s financial rights at the time put many women in situations similar to Dolley’s. Because women’s capacity to earn money and own property was severely limited, they were nearly wholly financially reliant on male relatives, according to a system known as coverture, which virtually merged all of a wife’s rights into her husband’s upon marriage.

Marrying James Madison

Dolley was seventeen years younger than Madison, and she had a young boy from her previous marriage. She was a bright, vibrant woman who was well-known in Philadelphia society. She garnered the attention of numerous unmarried males after her husband died in early 1793. Madison was eager to see her and was introduced to her by his old schoolmate Aaron Burr in early 1794. Madison was charmed right away and began a courtship that culminated in their marriage on September 15, 1794. The wedding took place at Todd’s sister’s home in Charles Town, now part of West Virginia.

Todd was born into a Quaker family, but her marriage to James Madison cut her off from the religious society. She was unconcerned with the Quakers’ attitude; she was content with socializing outside any religious organization. Indeed, she was known as a wonderful hostess and was regarded as a great lady among the ruling elite’s social circles. Her charm and social abilities aided Madison’s political success; he was a solemn, shy man who wore black most of the time and did not cut a striking appearance. He was better able to form social ties that are always beneficial in politics with Mrs. Madison by his side.

James Madison was significant a member of the House of Representatives for eight years before withdrawing from politics in 1797. Their family relocated to Virginia, where Dolley assisted her husband in expanding their home on his Montpelier estate. The retirement, however, was short-lived. They were ecstatic to be together and wholly devoted to one another. They never had children, and they were rarely apart.

In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was elected as the president, he invited Madison to serve as Secretary of State. Madison accepted the offer and relocated to Washington with his family.

Dolley stepped in to assume some of the conventional tasks of the first lady, as laid down by Martha Washington because Jefferson was a widower. She helped furnish the White House, hosted countless state functions, and befriended many overseas officials’ wives. Dolley earned a reputation for her grace and charm during this period.

Dolley infused the executive mansion’s grand spaces and drawing rooms with a spirit of entertaining and elegant living. She also started the beautiful White House traditions of Inaugural Balls and Easter Egg Rolls for neighborhood kids.

Dolley spent the next year organizing and transcribing James Madison’s papers for their records and publication after his death on June 28, 1836. In 1837, she and her sister Anna returned to Washington, D.C. Her son, Payne Todd, was left in charge of the Montpelier plantation, but he was afflicted with alcoholism and other diseases and could not perform his duties efficiently. Instead, Dolley sold Montpelier and the other slaves on the farm to pay off her family’s debts.

Later Years

Considered one of the last living members of the significant Revolutionary War families, Dolley Madison became a fixture in Washington in her final years. Her finances had become fragile over the years, so she sold the rest of her husband’s papers to help support herself. Dolley Madison died at the age of eighty-one in 1849 at her residence in Washington and was buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington before being reinterred at Montpelier alongside James. Like other early presidential wives such as Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison established the role of the first lady and utilized social gatherings to promote bipartisan cooperation during a difficult period.


Dolley Madison was well-liked in Washington, and the city’s women dubbed her “Lady Madison.” During the War of 1812, Dolley earned the respect of many Washingtonians and Americans across the country. When the British invaded the capital, they set fire to the city, and the White House was one of the destroyed buildings. During this terrifying era, Dolley Madison was said to have left many of her things to save a large, life-size painting of George Washington from the flames. Dolley was portrayed as the one who saved the picture in popular culture; however, the image was saved by the house’s servants, or, more precisely, slaves.

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