|Dolley Madison became a legendary heroine in her own
time. For half a century she was the most important woman
in the social circles of America and to this day she remains
one of the best known and best loved ladies of the White
House. By the end of the 19th century she had become so
famous as the nation's hostess and the heroine who had
faced off the British in wartime, that her name (often
misspelled as Dolly) began to be used as an
icon for a wide range of commercial commodities such as
the Dolly Madison Bakery, the Dolly Madison Dairy and
Dolly Madison Ice Cream.
By the early 20th century, Dolly Madison had become
a name that sold clothing and style: Dolly Madison stockings,
shoes, and makeup. Known for her turbans, there were
Dolly Madison hats. The Bulova watch company, which
began manufacturing ladies' wristwatches in 1924, sold
a Dolly Madison watch as part of the company's merchandising
effort to appeal to the middle class American woman.
Several companies named dinnerware, stemware and silverware
patterns after Dolly Madison. Unfortunately,
Mrs. Madison never received any endorsement revenue
from use of her name and popularity, and lived in relative
poverty in her last years.
She always called herself Dolley, and by that name
the New Garden Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends,
in Piedmont, North Carolina, recorded her birth to John
and Mary Coles Payne, settlers from Virginia. In 1769
John Payne took his family back to his home colony,
and in 1783 he moved them to Philadelphia, city of the
Quakers. Dolley grew up in the strict discipline of
the Society, but nothing muted her happy personality
and her warm heart.
John Todd, Jr., a lawyer, exchanged marriage vows with
Dolley in 1790. Just three years later he died in a
yellow-fever epidemic, leaving his wife with a small
By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city.
With her charm and her laughing blue eyes, fair skin,
and black curls, the young widow attracted distinguished
attention. Before long Dolley was reporting to her best
friend that "the great little Madison has asked...to
see me this evening." (See a letter
from Dolleys cousin, telling her of Madisons
feelings for her)
Although Representative James Madison of Virginia was
17 years her senior, and Episcopalian in background,
they were married in September 1794. The marriage, though
childless, was notably happy; "our hearts understand
each other," she assured him. He could even be
patient with Dolley's son, Payne, who mishandled his
own affairs--and, eventually, mismanaged Madison's estate.
Discarding the somber Quaker dress after her second
marriage, Dolley chose the finest of fashions. Margaret
Bayard Smith, chronicler of early Washington social
life, wrote: "She looked a Queen...It would be
absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more
perfect propriety than she did."
Blessed with a desire to please and a willingness to
be pleased, Dolley made her home the center of society
when Madison began, in 1801, his eight years as Jefferson's
Secretary of State. As the wife of the Secretary of
State, Mrs. Madison had no formal, official duties,
but she assumed, nevertheless, a special position. This
was due in part to the fact that Thomas Jefferson was
a widower whose own daughters lived with their families
in central Virginia, and in part to Jefferson's determination
to create a new republican society established on the
principle of equality. This meant discarding traditional
rules of protocol and creating innovative standards
of dress and etiquette. Mrs. Madison became the most
important woman in Washington society during these years
and often acted as Mr. Jefferson's hostess.
There were thus occasions when, because of her unusual
but important social role, combined with Jefferson's
conscious disregard of diplomatic protocol, Dolley Madison
became involved in some of the political and diplomatic
issues of the day. One such example came soon after
the British sent Anthony Merry, their first minister
to Washington, D.C., in 1803. After first receiving
Mr. Merry in the White House, the president had the
British minister and his wife for dinner. When it was
time to go in for dinner Jefferson -- who should have
escorted Mrs. Merry -- turned to Mrs. Madison and offered
her his arm. This was a flagrant breach of etiquette
and a statement of democratic principals. Shortly thereafter
Jefferson issued his "Canons of Etiquette"
in which he declared the rule of "pele-mele",
a standard for a nation, as Jefferson wrote James Monroe
on January 8, 1804, which would ensure "that no
man here would come to dinner where he was to be marked
with inferiority to any other." That dinner, and
the one hosted by the Madisons a few days later when
they, in turn, had the Merrys to supper, created a political
and diplomatic furor. Mrs. Madison's role carried specific
significance as part of a series of actions announcing
a new independent status in U.S. foreign policy.
She became more important as first lady after 1809.
Her historical reputation rests on three of her accomplishments
during those years: decorating the White House, her
role as hostess, and her courage during the War of 1812.
Thomas Jefferson had furnished the otherwise empty
Executive Mansion with possessions he brought from Monticello;
the Madisons did not follow this precedent. Mrs. Madison
worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to
make the White House as beautiful as possible within
a budget set by Congress. But they also made sure that
the style of the mansion was republican: not too fancy
and not too foreign. In so doing Mrs. Madison constructed
a public social space that expressed a middle ground
between Republican simplicity and Federalist high fashion.
She did this through her selection of tables and chairs,
plates and spoons.
She created the role of first lady as republican hostess.
In order to accomplish this goal she established certain
ceremonies, just as she had created public spaces. She
managed to be elegant, even stunning, in a simple and
unaffected way. Her supporters called her "queenly"
but her Federalist enemies accused her of being an innkeeper's
daughter, which she was not. She reached out to people
and was charming and conciliating during a period in
our history when rancor and partisanship dominated public
and political life.
Finally, she faced the British invasion of Washington,
D.C. in the summer of 1814 with bravery and dignity.
By the third week of August invasion was imminent. The
city was full of fear and in a state of chaos as the
British approached. On August 22 President Madison left
town to review the troops. But Mrs. Madison remained
in the city. As the British approached on August 23
Mr. Madison was still out of town. Mrs. Madison began
pressing cabinet papers into trunks. The next day, with
Mr. Madison still off with the army, Dolley Madison
found herself guarding the gates of the executive mansion.
By that afternoon the British were approaching too fast
to be ignored. She filled a wagon with silver and other
valuables and sent them off to the Bank of Maryland
for safekeeping. That done she determined there was
one more task to accomplish: to save the portrait of
George Washington. This she did, and then fled in the
nick of time. Her husband was politically abused for
cowardice in the face of British troops; Mrs. Madison
compensated for her husband's moderation and became
the heroine of the War of 1812.(Read Dolley
Madisons recounting of the British invasion)
Dolley's social graces made her famous. Her political
acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned, though
her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel. Hostile statesmen,
difficult envoys from Spain or Tunisia, warrior chiefs
from the west, flustered youngsters--she always welcomed
everyone. Forced to flee from the White House, she returned
to find the mansion in ruins. Undaunted by temporary
quarters, she entertained as skillfully as ever.
At their plantation Montpelier in Virginia, the Madisons
lived in pleasant retirement 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. When she appeared in the gallery of the U.S.
House of Representatives on January 8, 1844, Congress
passed a resolution
to provide her a seat on the House floor whenever she
visited and gave her franking (free mail service) privileges.
She remained in Washington until her death in 1849,
honored and loved by all (Read her obituary
from the Daily National Intelligencer on July 14, 1849).
The delightful personality of this unusual woman is
a cherished part of her country's history.
She had known every president from George Washington
to Zachary Taylor. Her funeral
took place on July 17. It was a state occasion, attended
by the president, the cabinet officers, the diplomatic
corps, members of the House and Senate, the justices
of the Supreme Court, officers of the army and navy,
the mayor and city leaders, and "citizens and strangers."
A popular movement encouraged the wearing
of black armbands to commemorate Dolley Madisons
life and contributions.
Sources: The Dolley Madison Project, Virginia Center
for Digital History, and the First Ladies Gallery, The