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Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison, c. 1804, by Gilbert Stuart

“A few hours only have passed since you left me, my beloved, and I find nothing can relieve the oppression of my mind but speaking to you in this only way.”

Dolley Madison’s second husband was James Madison, the fourth president of the United States.  “The ‘great little Madison’ has asked to see me this evening,” she wrote in 1794 of the congressman, who was seventeen years her senior and five foot six inches to her five foot seven and one-third.  Indeed, later that day Aaron Burr brought Madison to her.  Dolley was one of the first socialites in Washington City, was well known for exemplary hostessing and ability to understand people’s needs and crafted the political protocols and functions of the unofficial position that becomes known as The First Lady.

She was born into the Quaker colony of New Garden, North Carolina.  Her father, John Payne, moved his family to Virginia and then, finally, to Philadelphia after freeing their slaves.  In 1790, Dolley married her first husband, John Todd, a Quaker lawyer.  However, he died along with their youngest son, William Temple, when yellow fever swept through the city in 1793.  Dolley was widowed at the age of 25 with her young son, Todd Payne.  When she married Madison one year later, she was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying a non-Quaker.

Portrait of Dolley Madison, ca. 1817, by Bass Otis

She is known as the woman who turned the new nation’s capital from a dull swamp into a high-society social scene.  During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, Dolley served as the official presidential hostess, while her husband served as Secretary of State.  Through her natural graciousness and flair she crafts a style of politics in the feminine realm of the parlor and social setting, thus aided her husband’s campaign for the Office of President of the United States. On March 4, 1809, James Madison was inaugurated President of the United States and Dolley Madison began the creation of the role now termed “First Lady.”  Through her activities as a social hostess and trendsetter (wearing turbans, playing cards, holding weekly salons at the presidential mansion for public and private citizens) Dolley set protocols for political life in Washington; many of which are still observed to date.  Her very nature ensured that everyone was treated with graciousness, even to the point that political rivals could never tell with whom she agreed.  The “Presidentress” was the one to know and court should you need favors or assistance in Washington City.  There were social and political pitfalls to be avoided and Dolley was known to have compared entertaining at Montpelier to Washington having said “I am less worried here with a hundred visitors than with twenty-five in Washington.” 

When Madison retired from politics, they returned to his plantation, Montpelier, in Virginia.  They never had children of their own.  However, guests frequented Montpelier so much that there were always some in their house.

When Dolley died July 12, 1849, Zachary Taylor, James Madison’s second cousin and twelfth president, spoke at her funeral; a full state funeral and among the largest on record in Washington.  He declared that Dolley was the “Queen of American Hearts, as she ruled them so absolutely.”

“It is one of my sources of happiness never to desire a knowledge of other people’s business.”

The term “First Lady” is first in print after Rutherford Hayes’ inauguration, but not officially used until it becomes popularized by a 1911 play in New York entitled “Dolley Madison, First Lady of the Land.” (Oxford Guide to the U.S. Government – First Lady)