Happy Birthday, Dolley

Dolley Payne Todd Madison was born on 20 May 1768. A renowned hostess, Dolley was gracious and outgoing, warm and friendly, and never forgot a face. But there is no evidence that she ever threw a birthday party during the years she was living in Washington, D.C. as wife of the Secretary of State (1801-1808) or First Lady (1809-1817).

In the Early Republic, birthday celebrations were rare, and the festivities that did take place bore little resemblance to contemporary parties. In Washington City, George Washington’s birthday was celebrated with a yearly Birth-Night Ball to honor the first president and celebrate the founding of the nation.

One of the few occasions that Dolley’s birthday was mentioned in her extant papers was on May 20, 1844. Her niece-in-law Ellen Cutts, wife of Dolley’s nephew Madison Cutts, gave her a lamp shade and a frame, to which Dolley wrote a thank you note, “I thank you from my heart dearest Ellen for the kind wishes breathed so sweetly for me…The shade for my Candle is lovely and I accept it as a thing that will throw a soft light on all my night annoyances.” Dolley’s friends, John and Elizabeth Spencer, sent her “some choice old Sherry,” and she had a note delivered to them the same day, “I have always been moved by your united goodness towards me, my very dear friends Mr. & Mrs. Spencer—and have as often enquired of myself by what merit I could have elicited such a distinction—my conclusion has been that it proceeded only from the pure, the upright, the tender hearts, with which I have been favored to commune.”

Dolley may even have given herself a small party. She invited the Spencers, the Cutts, and the Greenhows to come the following evening. And in the note she sent Ellen Cutts she added, “Anna is going out to invite our guests.”