Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768, the third of Mary Coles and John Payne Jr.’s nine children.1 Dolley was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, where her parents briefly moved to establish a Quaker community before returning to Virginia. Although John Payne owned enslaved people during Dolley’s early childhood, he freed them in 1783. It is unknown where Dolley was educated, but her surviving correspondence demonstrates that she learned to read and write.2
Dolley married her first husband, John Todd, also a Quaker, on January 7, 1790. She gave birth to two sons: John Payne Todd in 1792 and William Temple Todd in 1793. However, shortly after the birth of her second son, a yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia, killing both her husband and youngest son in October 1793.3
In May 1794, New York Senator Aaron Burr introduced Dolley to Representative James Madison of Virginia. Although Madison was seventeen years older than Dolley, they were a good match and the couple married on September 15, 1794.4
They lived in Philadelphia until 1797 when James left the House of Representatives. The Madisons then moved to Montpelier plantation in Virginia, where Dolley managed the estate and enslaved workers. Following Vice President Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800, he asked James to serve as secretary of state, and the Madisons moved to Washington, D.C.5
In the fledgling capital city, Dolley became well known for her hospitality, establishing herself at the center of the Washington social season. She also occasionally hosted events for President Jefferson when his daughters were unavailable.6
When James became president in March 1809, Dolley moved into the White House. She worked closely with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe on the home’s interiors. They sourced Greek style and American made furnishings and artwork, creating a sitting room in the location of today’s Red Room and a drawing room in the place of today’s Blue Room. These rooms appealed to American tastes and added sophistication to the White House, impressing visitors. Renowned for her social skills, Dolley excelled as White House hostess, presiding over dinners, social events, and her famous Wednesday evening “drawing rooms.” Dolley’s social events helped build early Washington society, while allowing her to wield considerable political influence.7
When British forces invaded Washington and burned the White House on August 24, 1814, Dolley was forced to flee. Before leaving the White House, she famously directed enslaved and free workers to remove the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and ensured that it was carried away to safety.8 Following the burning, the Madisons moved first to nearby Octagon House and later the Seven Buildings at the intersection of 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where Dolley continued to host social events.9
When the Madisons left the White House in 1817, they retired to Montpelier. Following James’ death in 1836, Dolley faced significant financial difficulties due to the Panic of 1837, her son’s spending habits, and her lifestyle choices. As a result, she ultimately sold her husband’s political papers to Congress, the Montpelier plantation, and enslaved people. Dolley returned to Washington in 1837, living in her sister Anna Payne Cutts’ former home on Lafayette Square. She died on July 12, 1849, at the age of eighty-one and her funeral was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church.10
You Might Also Like
Podcast U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies
Since the founding of America, spouses and relatives have served as White House hostess, public servant, and unofficial presidential adviser....
Collection Presidential and First Lady Portraits
Since 1965, the White House Historical Association has been proud to fund the official portraits of our presidents and first ladies,...
Collection Weddings and the White House
From First Lady Dolley Madison's sister Lucy Payne Washington's wedding in 1812 to the nuptials of President Joseph Biden and First...
Podcast Conversations from History Happy Hour
In this first episode of 2021, White House Historical Association President Stewart D. McLaurin introduces the Association’s popular virtual program Hi...
Podcast St. John’s, the Church of the Presidents
Since the James Madison presidency, St. John’s Church has been an important part of the life of Lafayette Square an...
Collection America Under Fire
The young national capital at Washington, D.C. became the center of the War of 1812 with Great Britain during the...
Collection The White House Behind the Scenes
While the presidency is often in the eye of the public, those who ensure operations at the White House run...
Podcast Entertaining at the White House
From diplomatic dinners to holiday gatherings, the White House has always played a central role in the nation’s official en...
Collection Women and the White House
While there has yet to be a female president, women have played an integral role in shaping the White House...
Collection Cherry Blossoms
Since the first cherry blossom planting in 1912 by First Lady Helen Herron Taft, Washingtonians have celebrated the scenic beauty and...
Podcast Fearless Leadership: A Conversation with Jean Case
Fearless leaders have walked the halls of White House for centuries. In this episode, White House Historical Association President Stewart...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits