Tab menu  
Library > James Madison > Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison
Section header
Dolley Madison, An Historical and Cultural Icon
Click on image to view a larger version.
Dolley Madison, an Historical and Cultural Icon
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 son.

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 see me this evening." (See a letter from Dolley’s cousin, telling her of Madison’s 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 Madison’s 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." [more]. A popular movement encouraged the wearing of black armbands to commemorate Dolley Madison’s life and contributions.

Sources: The Dolley Madison Project, Virginia Center for Digital History, and the First Ladies Gallery, The White House.

[Back to top]

Contact us

Library sidebar
James Madison
Founding Fathers
Bill of Rights