Main Content

Dolley Madison

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 ladies of the White House.

She always called herself Dolley, and by that name her birth was recorded on May 20, 1768 by the Society of Friends, in Guilford County, North Carolina. In 1783 her father took the family to Philadelphia, city of the Quakers.

Dolley married John Todd, Jr., a lawyer, in 1790. Three years later he died in a yellow-fever epidemic, leaving her with a small son. By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city. The young widow attracted distinguished attention. Dolley reported to her best friend that "the great little Madison has asked.... to see me this evening."

Although James Madison was 17 years her senior, and Episcopalian, they were married in September 1794. The marriage, though childless, was notably happy. Madison was even patient with Dolley's son, Payne, who mishandled his own affairs - and, eventually, mismanaged their estate.

Discarding the somber Quaker dress after her second marriage, Dolley chose the finest of fashions. A chronicler wrote: "She looked a Queen.... It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did."

Dolley made her home the center of society. She assisted at the White House when the President Jefferson asked her help in receiving ladies, and presided at the first inaugural ball in Washington when James Madison became chief executive in 1809. Although Dolley's social graces made her famous, her husband prized her political acumen. Her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel.

During the War of 1812, Dolley was forced to flee from the White House by the British army. Her quick thinking saved a portrait of George Washington from being destroyed by fire. Upon returning to the capital, she found the Executive Mansion in ruins. Undaunted by temporary quarters, she entertained as skillfully as ever.

The Madisons lived in pleasant retirement at their plantation Montpelier in Virginia 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. She remained in Washington until her death in 1849, honored and loved by all. The delightful personality of this unusual woman is a cherished part of her country's history.

You Might Also Like