Dolley Madison
American Icon


While Dolley Madison may be best known to us today as either the name of a pastry company or because she used snuff, to her contemporaries she was a widely honored, respected and beloved figure. As she served as occasional White House hostess, later First Lady in her own right, Presidential widow and then Washington society icon, she spanned some eight decades in some very important early years of American history, Indeed, it was this multiplicity of roles while bearing that love and respect that made Dolley Madison unique to her era.

Dolley’s father John Payne was a Virginia farmer and her mother Mary was a sister of Patrick Henry’s mother. After two sons were born to the couple in Virginia they moved to another farm in North Carolina and there on May 20, 1768 was born their first daughter. Since the family held membership of the Society of Friends (Quakers) it was with that organization that they registered the baby as Dolley (with an “e”). However, when the North Carolina farm proved unprofitable the family returned to Virginia in 1775 where they acquired a plantation once owned by Patrick Henry. Still, their Quaker affiliation presented a problem to John Payne when he faced a quandary about operating the farm with slaves. Quakers opposed slavery but Payne needed the slaves to work the farm, so what was he to do? Finally in 1783 he decided to free his servants, sell the farm, and move to Philadelphia where he purchased a starch business. Yet there was a problem when the seller who had claimed to be leaving the trade, reneged and then set up a competing business of his own.

There in Philadelphia when still her mid teens, Dolley grew into a lovely young lady who attracted admiring male glances, even wearing the somber Quaker garb, Tall with black hair, white skin and rosy cheeks she combined a pleasant appearance with a loving and lively demeanor. Still, she was in no hurry to commit herself until one persistent suitor, local Quaker lawyer John Todd, won her hand and they were married in 1790.

A loving and generous husband to Dolley, Todd was greatly assisted the Payne family in their financial difficulties as Mr. Payne failed in business then later died. Todd helped them sell the business with a small profit and even used his own funds to help provide them food and shelter. With his help, Mrs. Payne acquired a larger home where she could take in boarders. Some of these were various federal office holders since Philadelphia was the capital of the new republic at that time. Two of her lodgers were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and New York Senator Aaron Burr.

A promising young lawyer of 27 at the time of his marriage, Todd moved his wife and growing family into their own home. First child John Payne Todd was born in February, 1792 and William Temple arrived about a year later. Yet the new baby was just a few months old when Philadelphia was stricken by an epidemic of yellow fever.To escape the disease, Payne transported his wife and two small sons to a nearby community to join her mother and several sisters and brothers. He returned to Philadelphia to continue his practice and then rejoined her several months later as the epidemic seemed to have subsided. However, he became ill and died shortly after rejoining Dolley, who also caught the disease, as did baby William Temple. She recovered but the infant did not.

When she came out of mourning, Dolley went on with a new life that included new suitors. One of these was Aaron Burr. Burr was intelligent, ambitious and politically egocentric, and Dolley admired him enough to ask him to be a guardian to her surviving son. Though she might have expected a more serious relationship to develop after the death of his wife, instead he introduced her in 1794 to Congressman James Madison from Virginia . Madison was 42 but had already become enamored of the 26 year old Dolley, though the potential bride was not ready for a commitment. In an effort to help persuade her to accept him, Madison elicited the help of General and Mrs. George Washington who had a family tie since Dolley’s sister Lucy was married to the General’s nephew Steptoe Washington. Even a gentle encouraging visit with Martha Washington caused Dolley only more concern as to whether to accept Madison or not. However, she finally accepted and they were married in September, 1794 then quickly returned to Philadelphia because Congress was in session. There she entered a lively social routine of dinners, balls, and receptions where she participated with poise and charm. The Madisons enjoyed three more congressional terms in Philadelphia before he retired from Congress and then in 1797 they retired to Montpelier , Madison ’s Virginia farm. There they remained for four years until the new President Thomas Jefferson appointed Madison Secretary of State. The Madisons returned to public life in 1801 but this time in the new Federal City of Washington.

What is now an international city with wide plazas and elegant public buildings and monuments was in 1801 a frontier community with clumps of homes and public buildings amidst a swampy forest. Travel even within the city was chancy because of primitive muddy quagmires that passed as roads. After staying in the White House briefly, the Madisons finally moved into a house they would occupy for 8 years.

From her home at Montpelier or in her Washington home during the winter, Dolley was in her element as hostess and society leader. An early observer described Dolley as possessing “Unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace. It seems to me that such manners would disarm envy itself and conciliate even enemies.” She also assisted at the White House when widower Thomas Jefferson welcomed her as hostess at an occasional state affair; an appropriate duty since her husband was the third highest official and President Jefferson and the Vice President Burr were widowers. Aside from her entertaining duties, Dolley also encouraging and advising young women relatives and friends as they entered society and sought a good marriage. She was particularly successful when two of her sisters married well – one to a congressman and the other a Supreme Court Justice.

When Madison was elected president in 1809 Dolley entered the next phase of her life where she would preside over official events as First Lady in her own right. Her White House receptions attracted many visitors, particularly since the president’s house was a public building and open to any caller. One of these visitors was author Washington Irving who wrote a friend describing Dolley as “a fine, portly dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody” and Madison as: “poor Jemmy, a withered little apple-john.”

She did use snuff but often even used the snuffbox as a fashion object when she entertained. As one observer wrote: “She snuffs, but in her hands the snuffbox seems only a gracious implement with which to charm.”

She also decorated the White House as she developed a social schedule of dinners and receptions that was fitting for the President’s Home. She returned as many calls as she could and managed a large staff. At the same time she and Madison dealt with the disappointments brought by Dolley’s son Payne Todd. He had gone to private school, but never attended college nor had he settled on a career or job. Dolley was an indulgent mother who sympathetically tolerated his lack of ambition, and even Madison came to see that encouraging him to acquire a profession was a lost cause. The Madisons occasionally paid his debts, and even one time bailed him out of debtor’s prison.

Madison was re-elected in 1812, and as the couple remained in the White House the stage was set for one of Dolley’s most well known feats. The War of 1812 had been raging for some months when finally Washington itself was threatened by a British invading force. As they came nearer, Madison and several cabinet members hurried out to inspect the city’s defenses, leaving a small force to defend Dolley and the White House. As the invaders neared, Madison hastened a note to Dolley to evacuate, and she described her efforts to secure as much government property as possible to a letter to her sister: “I have pressed as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as is it impossible to procure wagons for its transportation…” Then later she described a friend who had come to help her finally leave and what happened with a special artifact: “Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out; it is done – and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York for safekeeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me prisoner in it by filling the road I am directed to take…”

Her courage and poise in securing the important portrait won widespread admiration from soldiers as well as history. Fortunately, after a few more adventures she reached safety and rejoined her husband. However, the British had burned many public buildings, including the White House, so the Madisons had to find lodgings elsewhere in the city.

When Madison left the White House in 1817, the Madisons retired to Montpelier and there Dolley remained for nearly 20 years. They continued to receive a steady stream of visitors, to find Dolley as a charming but very practically minded homeowner. She retained a youthful outlook partly because she attracted many young people to her home, including nieces and nephews and their children. Madison continued to enjoy the youthful visitors, as he worked to prepare his papers for eventual publication.

When Madison died in June 1836, Dolley soon discovered that his farm management had been essential for their comfortable lifestyle. At first she relied on Payne Todd but when he just added to the farm’s debt, she was forced to sell off the land. In 1837 she finally moved to Washington where her husband had owned a small house where she would live with a niece who would be her companion.

Madison had intended Dolley would complete his work on compiling his papers for publication. After Payne Todd ineptly and unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with a publisher for publication of his report on the Constitutional Convention, Congress finally purchased the papers for $30,000. However, Todd soon wasted the money, along with all his other mother’s assets, and when Dolly could not deny him her trust, Congress purchased the remaining papers in 1848 and placed the $20,000 in a trust fund Todd could not access.

During the next ten years that she lived in Washington as society icon, it was not widely known that Dolley actually struggled with debt and lived in genteel poverty. Statesman Daniel Webster received word of her condition by means of a servant who had once been with Madison , and he made it a point to provide her household with necessary foodstuffs, small sums or whatever was needed to help her live. Yet though Dolley was ostensibly comfortable and continued to be admired and respected, she wore old out-of-fashion gowns and her home became run down. Visitors who called on the president at the annual New Year ’s Day reception would also visit Dolley, and she was included in inaugural celebrations as well as Congressional sessions. Dolley retained a sense of amused tolerance at the attention she had caused during these final years. There was some speculation among Washington ladies as to whether she “rouged” or not (applied cheek makeup – considered scandalous in an era when “decent” women did not wear makeup). As biographer Margaret Bassett wrote: “The passing scene and its people were still her delight and there she was to be found, knowing and urbane, a tall figure in an old black velvet gown with a white tulle turban rising above clusters of jet black ringlets on each side of her smooth white forehead.”

As she grew older, Dolley was baptized and confirmed at the Episcopal church she attended, and also drew up a will giving half of her $20,000 trust fund to Payne Todd and the other half to the loyal niece she had adopted. Her last appearance was in February 1849 at a final reception of the Polk presidency, receiving guests along with the president and Mrs. Polk. She died on July 12 of that year, and her funeral brought such honors and attendance than had not been seen in Washington for many years. After her death Todd attempted to break the will, claiming the niece’s half, but was dead himself within three years.

From her birth in an obscure Carolina farm through the tragic deaths of husband and son, the grief of a dissolute son, to the loving respect and honor derived from a happy marriage to a remarkable member of the nation’s Founding Fathers, Dolley Madison had remained and still remains a notable American woman.


A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).

A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”