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For half a century she was the most important woman in the social circles of America. To this day she remains one of the best known and best loved women of the White House. Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768 to John and Mary Coles Payne at a Quaker settlement in Piedmont, North Carolina. In 1769 John Payne took his family back to his home colony of Virginia, and in 1783 he moved them to Philadelphia, city of the Quakers. Dolley grew up in the strict discipline, but nothing muted her happy personality and her warm heart.

Dolley married a lawyer named John Todd Jr. in 1790 and gave birth to two sons. Just three years later John and his young son died in a yellow fever epidemic, leaving his wife with a small son. By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city. With her charm and her laughing blue eyes, fair skin, and black curls, the young widow attracted distinguished attention. Before long Dolley was reporting to her best friend that “the great little Madison has asked . . . to see me this evening.”

Although Representative James Madison of Virginia was 17 years her senior and Episcopalian, they were married on September 15, 1794. The marriage, though childless, was notably happy. He could even be patient with Dolley’s son, Payne, who mishandled his own affairs—and, eventually, mismanaged Madison’s estate.

Discarding the somber Quaker dress after her second marriage, Dolley chose the finest of fashions. 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.”

Blessed with a desire to please and a willingness to be pleased, Dolley made her home the center of society when Madison began, in 1801, his eight years as Jefferson’s secretary of state. She assisted at the White House when the president asked her help in receiving guests, and presided at the first inaugural ball in Washington when her husband became president in 1809.

Dolley’s social graces made her famous. Her political acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned, though her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel. Hostile statesmen, difficult envoys, warrior chiefs from the west, flustered youngsters—she always welcomed everyone. Forced to flee from the White House by a British army during the War of 1812, she returned to find it in ruins. Undaunted by temporary quarters, she entertained as skillfully as ever.

At their plantation Montpelier in Virginia, the Madisons lived in pleasant retirement until he died in 1836. She returned to the capital in the autumn of 1837, and friends found tactful ways to supplement her diminished income after her son mismanaged the Madison estate. She remained in financial straits for the rest of her life, forced to sell off her estate, furnishings, and enslaved people to stay afloat. She remained in Washington until her death on July 12, 1849.

Click here to learn more about the enslaved household of the Madison family.

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