DOLLEY'S LIFE

The Early Years: 1768-1801 The Washington Years: 1801-1817 The Montpelier Years: 1817-1837 The Widowhood: 1837-1849

The Early Years: 1768-1801

The Early Years

Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768, the daughter of two Virginians. Her mother, Mary Coles, was a Quaker, but when they married in 1761 her father, John Payne, was not. Three years later he applied and was admitted to the Quaker Monthly Meeting in Hanover County, Virginia, and Dolley Payne was raised in the Quaker faith. In 1765 the Paynes moved to North Carolina near where Guilford College stands today. Dolley was one of eight children, four boys (Walter, William Temple, Isaac, and John) and four girls (Dolley, Lucy, Anna, and Mary). The family returned to Virginia three years later. As a young girl she grew up in comfort in rural eastern Virginia, deeply attached to her mother's family. In 1783 John Payne emancipated his slaves and moved his family to Philadelphia, where he went into business as a starch merchant. By 1789, however, his business had failed. He died a broken man in 1792. Dolley's mother initially survived by opening a boarding house until, in 1793, she moved to western Virginia to live with her daughter Lucy, who had married George Steptoe Washington, nephew of George Washington. Mary Coles Payne took her two youngest children, Mary and John, with her. By then Dolley Payne had married a young Quaker lawyer, John Todd. Wed in January, 1790, the couple produced two boys in rapid succession, John Payne Todd in 1790 and William Temple Todd in 1792. Her sister Anna lived with the Todds as well. In the fall of 1793 yellow fever struck Philadelphia. Dolley Payne Todd took her two children to the outskirts of the city, but her husband remained behind. He died in October, 1793, along with their younger son, William Temple. A widow at the age of twenty-five, Dolley Todd returned to Philadelphia. In May, 1794, James Madison asked his friend Aaron Burr to introduce him to Dolley Todd. Madison was seventeen years her senior and, at the age of forty-three, a long-standing bachelor. A member of a Virginia planter family, he had created the Virginia Plan, a draft of a framework for the Constitution. His plans and his intellectual energy had defined the agenda for the Constitutional Convention, and his influence as a delegate had been great, albeit not unlimited. From there he became a leader of the emerging Republican Party. It was a good match. He was charming and witty among friends, but often shy and remote in public; she was outgoing, warm, and a wonderful hostess. He was brilliant and successful but a man without his own children who would care for hers. As her cousin Catherine Coles wrote 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 & 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." They were married on September 15, 1794 and lived in Philadelphia for the next three years. In 1797, after eight years in the House of Representatives, James Madison retired from politics. He took his family to Montpelier, the Madison family estate of 5,000 acres in Orange County, Virginia. There they expanded the house and settled in. They expected to remain as planters living quietly in the country. When Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States, however, he asked James Madison to serve as his secretary of state. Mr. Madison accepted, and the Madison family -- consisting now of James, Dolley, her son Payne, and her sister Anna -- shifted to Washington, D.C.

The Washington Years: 1801-1817

The Washington Years

When the Madisons moved to Washington, D.C. in May, 1801, with Dolley Madison's nine year old son, Payne Todd, and her youngest sister, Anna Payne Cutts, they could not have known that they would still be there sixteen years later, with Anna married and Payne in Europe. The Madisons shifted from Montpelier to the nation's capital after Thomas Jefferson asked Mr. Madison to be his Secretary of State, and they remained there, except for their yearly summer vacations spent at Montpelier, through James Madison's presidency (1809-1817). During those sixteen years Dolley Madison carved out a role of her own beside that of wife and mother. Washington, D.C. was a raw town, a city of half finished buildings set amid forests and swamps. Only about three or four thousand people lived there, and the number of elite, or those with enough money to mingle with the high officials of the Jefferson or Madison administrations, was very small. It was also a Southern town and one in which most Congressmen came strictly to attend to business when Congress was in session, which was only about four months a year. For the first eight years the Madisons lived in Washington Mr. Madison engaged in a series of complex negotiations with France, Britain, and Spain. He negotiated with Britain and France over the problems of neutral rights and impressment of sailors, and with Spain over the status of West Florida. He dealt with the revolution in Haiti, the depredations of the Barbary Pirates, and the dangers of a possible French empire west of the Mississippi River. As the wife of the Secretary of State, Mrs. Madison had no formal, official duties, but she assumed, nevertheless, a special position. This was due in part to the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a widower whose own daughters lived with their families in central Virginia, and in part to Jefferson's determination to create a new republican society established on the principle of equality. This meant discarding traditional rules of protocol and creating innovative standards of dress and etiquette. Mrs. Madison became the most important woman in Washington society during these years and often acted as Mr. Jefferson's hostess. There were thus occasions when, because of her unusual but important social role, combined with Jefferson's conscious disregard of diplomatic protocol, Dolley Madison became involved in some of the political and diplomatic issues of the day. One such example came soon after the British sent Anthony Merry, their first minister to Washington, D.C., in 1803. After first receiving Mr. Merry in the White House, the president had the British minister and his wife for dinner. When it was time to go in for dinner Jefferson -- who should have escorted Mrs. Merry -- turned to Mrs. Madison and offered her his arm. This was a flagrant breach of etiquette and a statement of democratic principals. Shortly thereafter Jefferson issued his "Canons of Etiquette" in which he declared the rule of "pele-mele", a standard for a nation, as Jefferson wrote James Monroe on January 8, 1804, which would ensure "that no man here would come to dinner where he was to be marked with inferiority to any other." That dinner, and the one hosted by the Madisons a few days later when they, in turn, had the Merrys to supper, created a political and diplomatic furor. Mrs. Madison's role carried specific significance as part of a series of actions announcing a new independent status in U.S. foreign policy. She became more important as first lady after 1809. Her historical reputation rests on three of her accomplishments during those years: decorating the White House, her role as hostess, and her courage during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson had furnished the otherwise empty Executive Mansion with possessions he brought from Monticello; the Madisons did not follow this precedent. Mrs. Madison worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to make the White House as beautiful as possible within a budget set by Congress. But they also made sure that the style of the mansion was republican: not too fancy and not too foreign. In so doing Mrs. Madison constructed a public social space that expressed a middle ground between Republican simplicity and Federalist high fashion. She did this through her selection of tables and chairs, plates and spoons. She created the role of first lady as republican hostess. In order to accomplish this goal she established certain ceremonies, just as she had created public spaces. She managed to be elegant, even stunning, in a simple and unaffected way. Her supporters called her "queenly" but her Federalist enemies accused her of being an innkeeper's daughter, which she was not. She reached out to people and was charming and conciliating during a period in our history when rancor and partisanship dominated public and political life. Finally, she faced the British invasion of Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1814 with bravery and dignity. By the third week of August invasion was imminent. The city was full of fear and in a state of chaos as the British approached. On August 22 President Madison left town to review the troops. But Mrs. Madison remained in the city. As the British approached on August 23 Mr. Madison was still out of town. Mrs. Madison began pressing cabinet papers into trunks. The next day, with Mr. Madison still off with the army, Dolley Madison found herself guarding the gates of the executive mansion. By that afternoon the British were approaching too fast to be ignored. She filled a wagon with silver and other valuables and sent them off to the Bank of Maryland for safekeeping. That done she determined there was one more task to accomplish: to save the portrait of George Washington. This she did, and then fled in the nick of time. Her husband was politically abused for cowardice in the face of British troops; Mrs. Madison compensated for her husband's moderation and became the heroine of the War of 1812. Finally, with the war over and the spirit of the nation revived in harmony, James Madison's second term of office ended and James Monroe was inaugurated on March 4, 1817. Her son was now grown; her sister Anna had long been married. The Madisons retired to their Virginia plantation, Montpelier. There they would remain for the following twenty years.

The Montpelier Years: 1817-1837

The Montpelier Years

James Madison left the office of president of the United States on March 4, 1817; James Monroe was inaugurated as the fifth president and Elizabeth Kortright Monroe became the nation's fourth first lady. The Madisons remained in the capital for another month, packing, going to parties, saying goodbye to their many friends, but on April 6 they returned to their estate in Orange County, Virginia, to their beloved Montpelier. Montpelier was a beautiful and gracious home, originally built by Mr. Madison's father, James Madison, Sr., and steadily improved by James Madison, Jr. over the years. It was fronted by a four-columned portico, and the brick was covered in a limestone plaster to create a more elegant impression. Inside it was light and allowed the summer breezes to cool it. The walls were covered with paintings and busts in the fashion of the day, while the whole was decorated with silk draperies and French furniture. The grounds were planted with specimen trees including silver poplar, weeping willows, boxwood, walnut, and cedar of lebanons, reaching out to farm buildings and the slave quarters, past pear orchards and grape arbors to fields of grain and tobacco. For Mr. Madison it was a permanent retirement. He lived nearly twenty years more, but he never again visited Washington. Only once did he make any sort of extended trip and that was to Richmond in 1829 for the Virginia Constitutional Convention. After Thomas Jefferson died in 1826 Mr. Madison became Rector of the University of Virginia, which necessitated numerous trips to Charlottesville. But if the Madisons stayed in place, the world came to them. They had streams of visitors, including his family and hers, leaders of American politics and European dignitaries. The Madisons were never short of company or out of touch with national politics and Washington gossip. The couple remained financially stable until the 1830s, when a combination of circumstances began seriously to take their toll. They continued to entertain and to live graciously. Meanwhile increasing soil erosion and shifting conditions in the post-war international agricultural market created a farm depression throughout Virginia. But most of all there was the problem of John Payne Todd, Dolley Madison's son by her first marriage. Payne Todd never settled into a planter's life; he never made Montpelier his home; and he never found a career. Instead he was restless and he drifted: to New York, to Philadelphia, and to Washington; and then back again. He drank and he gambled. And he piled up debt after debt after debt. The Madisons sent him money, but they could neither stop him nor keep up with his mounting obligations. In 1830 he went to debtors prison in Philadelphia. Mr. Madison found himself forced to sell off his land in Kentucky and to mortgage half of the Montpelier estate just to keep up with his step-son's debts. In 1834 he was forced to sell a parcel of slaves. Yet Dolley Madison loved her son, missed him, and wrote letters asking him to come home and visit them. Partly to create an inheritance fund for his much younger wife, and partly to preserve the historical record, James Madison began arranging his papers. It was time-consuming work, and Dolley Madison spent hours every day devoted to the project. Before he died, Mr. Madison had edited his papers through 1787. By the mid-1830s, however, James Madison had become seriously ill, and Mrs. Madison was compelled to devote increasing hours to his physical care, to "comforting my sick patient" as she wrote her niece Dolly Cutts on May 11, 1836. Among the problems that concerned the Madisons in their later years was what to do with his slaves, who numbered about one hundred. He considered whether or not he should free them in his will. A leader of the American Colonization Society, he offered to send them to Liberia, but his slaves declined in horror. He finally died at Montpelier on June 28, 1836. In his will he simply said: "I give and bequeath my ownership in the negroes and people of colour held by me to my dear wife," although he then added "but it is my desire that none of them should be sold without his or her consent, or in case of their misbehaviour; except that infant children may be sold with their parent who consents for them to be sold with him or her, and who consents to be sold." After James Madison died Mrs. Madison remained at Montpelier for a year. One of her nieces, Anna Payne, came to live with her. Payne Todd also came for a stay, and Mrs. Madison mobilized her household to finish copying her husband's papers. In 1837 Congress authorized $30,000 as payment for the first installment of the Madison papers. In the fall of 1837, however, Dolley Payne Madison decided to leave Montpelier for Washington, D.C., charging Payne Todd with the care of the plantation. It proved a disastrous decision. Nevertheless, she moved with Anna Payne into a house her sister Anna and her husband Richard Cutts had bought, located on Lafayette Square, the "Cutts" house. Thus Mrs. Madison ended her years of retirement and entered her next, and final, stage of life: her years as a widow living once again in the nation's capital. James Madison left the office of president of the United States on March 4, 1817; James Monroe was inaugurated as the fifth president and Elizabeth Kortright Monroe became the nation's fourth first lady. The Madisons remained in the capital for another month, packing, going to parties, saying goodbye to their many friends, but on April 6 they returned to their estate in Orange County, Virginia, to their beloved Montpelier. Montpelier was a beautiful and gracious home, originally built by Mr. Madison's father, James Madison, Sr., and steadily improved by James Madison, Jr. over the years. It was fronted by a four-columned portico, and the brick was covered in a limestone plaster to create a more elegant impression. Inside it was light and allowed the summer breezes to cool it. The walls were covered with paintings and busts in the fashion of the day, while the whole was decorated with silk draperies and French furniture. The grounds were planted with specimen trees including silver poplar, weeping willows, boxwood, walnut, and cedar of lebanons, reaching out to farm buildings and the slave quarters, past pear orchards and grape arbors to fields of grain and tobacco. For Mr. Madison it was a permanent retirement. He lived nearly twenty years more, but he never again visited Washington. Only once did he make any sort of extended trip and that was to Richmond in 1829 for the Virginia Constitutional Convention. After Thomas Jefferson died in 1826 Mr. Madison became Rector of the University of Virginia, which necessitated numerous trips to Charlottesville. But if the Madisons stayed in place, the world came to them. They had streams of visitors, including his family and hers, leaders of American politics and European dignitaries. The Madisons were never short of company or out of touch with national politics and Washington gossip. The couple remained financially stable until the 1830s, when a combination of circumstances began seriously to take their toll. They continued to entertain and to live graciously. Meanwhile increasing soil erosion and shifting conditions in the post-war international agricultural market created a farm depression throughout Virginia. But most of all there was the problem of John Payne Todd, Dolley Madison's son by her first marriage. Payne Todd never settled into a planter's life; he never made Montpelier his home; and he never found a career. Instead he was restless and he drifted: to New York, to Philadelphia, and to Washington; and then back again. He drank and he gambled. And he piled up debt after debt after debt. The Madisons sent him money, but they could neither stop him nor keep up with his mounting obligations. In 1830 he went to debtors prison in Philadelphia. Mr. Madison found himself forced to sell off his land in Kentucky and to mortgage half of the Montpelier estate just to keep up with his step-son's debts. In 1834 he was forced to sell a parcel of slaves. Yet Dolley Madison loved her son, missed him, and wrote letters asking him to come home and visit them. Partly to create an inheritance fund for his much younger wife, and partly to preserve the historical record, James Madison began arranging his papers. It was time-consuming work, and Dolley Madison spent hours every day devoted to the project. Before he died, Mr. Madison had edited his papers through 1787. By the mid-1830s, however, James Madison had become seriously ill, and Mrs. Madison was compelled to devote increasing hours to his physical care, to "comforting my sick patient" as she wrote her niece Dolly Cutts on May 11, 1836. Among the problems that concerned the Madisons in their later years was what to do with his slaves, who numbered about one hundred. He considered whether or not he should free them in his will. A leader of the American Colonization Society, he offered to send them to Liberia, but his slaves declined in horror. He finally died at Montpelier on June 28, 1836. In his will he simply said: "I give and bequeath my ownership in the negroes and people of colour held by me to my dear wife," although he then added "but it is my desire that none of them should be sold without his or her consent, or in case of their misbehaviour; except that infant children may be sold with their parent who consents for them to be sold with him or her, and who consents to be sold." After James Madison died Mrs. Madison remained at Montpelier for a year. One of her nieces, Anna Payne, came to live with her. Payne Todd also came for a stay, and Mrs. Madison mobilized her household to finish copying her husband's papers. In 1837 Congress authorized $30,000 as payment for the first installment of the Madison papers. In the fall of 1837, however, Dolley Payne Madison decided to leave Montpelier for Washington, D.C., charging Payne Todd with the care of the plantation. It proved a disastrous decision. Nevertheless, she moved with Anna Payne into a house her sister Anna and her husband Richard Cutts had bought, located on Lafayette Square, the "Cutts" house. Thus Mrs. Madison ended her years of retirement and entered her next, and final, stage of life: her years as a widow living once again in the nation's capital.

The Widowhood: 1837-1849

The Widowhood

During her final years, Dolley Madison moved back to Washington where she took up her role as an important leader in the city's social life. If no longer the doyenne of the capital, she held a uniquely important place as the widow of the last of the Founding Fathers. Distinguished visitors would first call on the President of the United States - Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, or Zachary Taylor -- and then go across Lafayette Square to pay their respects to Mrs. Madison. The driving force of her last years was to keep her husband's works and memory alive; she was his relic. Moving to Washington, D.C. helped to alleviate her loneliness, but it did nothing to solve her growing insolvency. She had left her son, Payne Todd, to manage the plantation. He could not do this. His health was rapidly deteriorating from alcoholism. He suffered from pains in his legs, his teeth, his back and numerous inflammations. He could not keep a schedule, but would sleep at all hours, rise at all hours, and eat at all hours. Under his guidance Montpelier steadily declined, leaving mother and son without an income from the farm. Mrs. Madison tried to raise money by selling the rest of her husband's papers. At first she hoped to make a deal with a publishing house, rather than Congress, but she left the negotiations to Payne Todd, and in this he failed as in all else. By the winter of 1843-1844 she offered the papers to Congress, but although that body had purchased the first batch in 1837, it now refused her offer. Congress feared that any money they paid her for the papers would simply end up in the pocket of her son. Over the summer of 1843 she sold off part of Montpelier and rented out the house. But a year later one of her slaves wrote to her that the county sheriff was trying to sell the slaves to a "negro buyer" to pay off a debt her husband had never resolved with his brother, William Madison. She decided it was better simply to sell the whole estate, rather than allow the dismemberment of the slave families. But it was not done without pain. "No one," she wrote to the buyer, Henry Moncure, on August 12, 1844, "I think can appreciate my feelings of grief and dismay at the necessity of transferring to another a beloved home." Despite her economic woes and her heartache over her son, Dolley Madison remained a hostess to the end. She became good friends with such dignitaries as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and William Seward. She kept a scrap book of her friends' calling cards, as if to make palpable her gift of friendship and her collection of luminaries. Finally, in 1848, Congress agreed to buy the rest of James Madison's papers for the sum of $25,000. This time, however, they put the money into a trust so that her son could not spend it. But by the time she received the money, she had only a few months to live. Dolley Payne Todd Madison fell fatally ill in July 1849. She lingered for five days in bed, and then died on Thursday evening, July 12. She had known every president from George Washington to Zachary Taylor. Her funeral took place on July 17. It was a state occasion, attended by the president, the cabinet officers, the diplomatic corps, members of the House and Senate, the justices of the Supreme Court, officers of the army and navy, the mayor and city leaders, and "citizens and strangers."