#GivingTuesday brought to mind Dolley Madison’s own philanthropic activity back in 1815. Soon after the War of 1812, Dolley was asked to support the proposed Washington City Orphan Asylum. Marcia Van Ness, wife of a former congressman from New York and local real estate developer, and Elizabeth Riley Brown, wife of the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Washington, conceived of the idea of creating a female orphan asylum in the wake of the war. In addition to the scores of soldiers who lost their lives, Washington City had been burned by the British in 1814, leaving many homeless. While widows and orphans of those killed in battle could petition Congress for pensions, there were no provisions to help the truly defenseless.
Dolley joined in the effort to create the city’s orphanage. She was the most generous contributor, through her subscription fee as well as with an additional donation. Dolley also became the first directress of the institution. The local newspaper, The Daily National Intelligencer, stated on October 10, 1815: “a nobler object cannot engage the sympathy of our females.” Though the institution has changed enormously since 1815, it is still operating today as the The Hillcrest Children and Family Center.
The Washington City Orphan Asylum, located on H Street, NW, circa 1865: