Childhood & Early Life
Dolley Madison was born as Dolley Payne to John Payne Jr and Mary Coles Payne in New Garden, North Carolina. While her mother was a Quaker, her father was a non-Quaker. However, young Payne was raised in the Quaker faith.
One of the eight children born to the couple, she spent most of her childhood in Virginia, near her mother’s family where the couple along with their children shifted when she was merely a year old. She spent her growing years at the comfort of her parents’ plantation in rural eastern Virginia.
Her father owned slaves, which was against the Quaker faith which he had eventually adopted. As such, following the American Revolutionary War in 1783, he unfettered all his slaves.
The family relocated to Philadelphia where her father started off a business, which eventually failed. Despite being raised in a strict disciplinarian society, she had a bustling and happy personality with a warm heart.
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She faced tragedy early in life, with the death of her first husband and second child in 1793. However, she did not let the emotional turmoil disrupt her usual happy personality and as such became famous in Philadelphia as a young, attractive and charming widow.
No sooner she caught the attention of Congressman, James Madison, who was bowled over her charming self and proposed marriage to her. The two eventually tied the knot in 1794. The marriage led her to give up on her Quaker faith as he was a non-Quaker and belonged to the Episcopalian background.
Post marriage, Madison retired from politics in 1797 after eight years of being in the House of Representatives. However, the hiatus taken from politics did not last long as in 1800, after the appointment of Thomas Jefferson as the third President of the United States, he was called upon to chair the position of Secretary of State under latter’s presidency.
The family relocated to Washington, where her husband served as the Secretary of State and she served as the de facto hostess at state dinners. Since Jefferson was a widower, she served as his First Lady in official functions during his Presidency.
Additionally, she contributed in the beautification and development of the white House, the official residence of the United States’ President. She worked closely with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in the process.
In the 1808 Presidential elections, Madison was chosen as the democratic candidate. He was eventually elected and held the position for two terms from 1809 to 1812 and 1812 to 1817. During this time, she officially became the First Lady.
In 1809, she hosted the first party which was to be called the inaugural ball and henceforth took charge of her husband’s social calendar. In the social circle, she was much popular for her grace and hospitality which contributed to Madison’s popularity in general.
It was due to her gracious and polite mannerism that helped smoothen the most difficult of situations. She was known to welcome everyone with a warm heart, whether they were hostile statesmen, difficult envoys or warrior chiefs.
The year 1814 was a significant one in her life. With the staff of white House preparing to flee due to the invading British, she ordered the White House staff to save the portrait of George Washington from flames. For the act of preserving the painting, she became a national hero.
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She fled to Georgetown and later crossed the Potomac to move to Virginia. It was only after the danger receded with the British leaving Washington that she returned to the capital to reunite with Madison.
Post Madison’s retirement as the President of the United States, the couple returned to the Montpelier plantation in Orange County, Virginia in April 1817. They remained therein until Madison’s death in 1836.
Payne Todd, her son from first marriage, went to debtors’ jail in 1830. He had weakened their financial status as he not only mishandled his own affairs but also the Madison estate. The Madisons sold land in Kentucky and mortgaged half of the Montpelier plantation to pay his debts.
Following her husband’s death, she spent much of her time organizing and copying his papers. Congress authorized $55,000 as payment for editing and publishing seven volumes of the Madison papers, including his unique notes on the 1787 convention
She moved to Washington leaving the property of Montpelier and the plantation under Todd’s supervision. However, the latter’s addiction to alcohol and illness left him unfit for the task.
To overcome the financial distress, she tried again to sell the President’s papers but did not get any buyers. Thereafter, she sold Montpelier, its remaining slaves, and the furnishings to pay off outstanding debts.
Personal Life & Legacy
She first went into the wedlock with John Todd, a lawyer by profession belonging to the Quaker faith, in January 1790 in Philadelphia. The couple was blessed with two sons, John Payne and William Temple.
Tragedy struck her life when yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia in 1793 - that took more than 5000 lives - killed her husband and younger son.
Distraught by the incident which had left her a helpless widow at the age of twenty-five with a son to support, she took to residing at a rooming house where Aaron Burr, a friend and fellow student of James Madison resided.
Aaron Burr introduced the two. They got off well since the first meeting despite the huge age difference, with Madison being 17 years senior to Payne. The friendship eventually led to a period of courtship which was followed by marriage in September 1794. The couple did not have any children.
She breathed her last in 1849 at her home in Washington at the age of 81. She was buried in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., but later was re-interred at Montpelier next to her husband