Dolley Payne Madison was born in Guilford County, North Carolina on May 20, 1768. Dolley was born the first girl in a family of several children to Quaker parents, John Payne and Mary Coles. She spent her childhood in Scotchtown, Virginia. “The Paynes were well connected and sufficiently prosperous, small planters in Hanover County.”1 The Quaker house forbade festivity, shunned amusement and frowned upon the world’s vanities. After a preliminary visit to Philadelphia, John Payne returned to Hanover County to dispose of his property and free his slaves and in July 1783 he settled with his family in the pleasant city of Philadelphia. In Philadelphia Dolley brought loveliness and charm to the Quaker Evening Meetings. In her mind, however, there were other things in Philadelphia more engrossing than the routine of meetings. Under her Quaker gown Dolley’s heart yearned, frankly and without any shame, for these things.
Yet, when her family told her to marry John Todd, she stood up dutifully at first and second meeting and proclaimed her willingness to do so. His father was an eminent Quaker schoolteacher; John was a prominent young lawyer, twenty-seven years old. She did not contend against John Todd. “Dolley had the ability to accept whatever fate might have to offer and make the very best of it.”2 They were married on January 7, 1790, at the Friends’ Meeting House on Pine Street. In the summer of 1793 there came the yellow plague. Dolley was struggling with her children along the crowded road to Gray’s Ferry, one of the panic driven throngs escaping from the stricken city. John Todd stayed behind to give his able bodied and courageous help, and before the winter was over Dolley had lost her husband and her baby. Dolley herself was desperately ill for she had caught the fever from John when he came staggering out at last to Gray’s Ferry.
She recovered to find herself a widow at twenty-five, and executrix of her husband’s will. In the fall Dolley returned to her mother’s house, which was now a boarding house. At all events, the Senator from New York, Colonel Aaron Burr, lodged at the Madison Lodging House. He told everyone about the pretty widow Todd. He finally told his friend Congressman Madison of Virginia. The Congressman, however, disliked women after Catherine Floyd had ended their long engagement. One day James Madison saw the widow driving by and began pestering Colonel Burr for an introduction. In the spring of 1794 Dolley and James were introduced for the first time. It was not long before their engagement was rumored all over Philadelphia. John Todd had not been dead a year when, on September 15, 1794, James and Dolley were married at Harewood.
Now there was a New Philadelphia for Quaker Dolley, the Philadelphia she had always longed for. “The town had never been more gay, a continually changing pageant of foreign guests and ministers.”3 A brilliant scene graced by the presence of many of the emigrated nobility of France. In her new role, as Mrs. Madison of Montpellier, Dolley plunged into these festivities with all the stored-up zest of her restrained girlhood. For three years Dolley brought a fresh, bright personality to enliven Lady Washington’s somewhat stuffy levees in the old brick house on Market Street. Dolley Madison adored the Washington’s. Dolley made friends in all camps for James Madison, which probably helped him win presidency. He did not care for all the routs and levees so he retired to his beloved town of Montpellier, to his solitude and his books. On the morning of March 4, 1801 the Federalists were defeated, and Thomas Jefferson was to take his place as President of the United States.
Soon secretary of state Madison and his wife were dragged away from Montpellier again and came to reside in Washington. “Present me respectfully to Mrs. Madison,” Mr. Jefferson wrote, “and pray her to keep you where you are, for her own satisfaction and for the public good.”4 Since Mr. Jefferson was fond of them both, and because he was a widower, Mrs. Secretary of State Madison found herself presiding at the head of the Executive board. For eight years, “Queen Dolley,” as they called her, ruled over the social destinies of the Executive Mansion in spite of the demands upon her strength and the humidity of the malarial marshes, which crippled her with inflammatory rheumatism from which she suffered for the rest of her life. In March, 1809, Mr. Jefferson retired, smiling to Monticello; Mr. Madison inevitably became President, and Dolley moved into that Great House of which she had already been mistress so long. After Madison became president official functions became more elaborate.
The inaugural ceremonies were none the less brilliant and impressive. The President’s House became known as the “castle” in the Madison era. “Washington was coming into its own, blessed with more attractions than any other place in America.”5 Tuesday, August 23, 1814, Mrs. Secretary of the Navy Jones found it necessary to write to Dolley that, “I am packing with the possibility of having to leave, for the British are near.” There was suppose to be a big dinner for all the Cabinet at the Madison’s but the British fleet was in the Chesapeake. British troops were marching through the woods to Washington and the Cabinet officers were with the President at General Winder’s camp.
The British kept right on marching by the Bladensburg road which no one had thought to obstruct, and instead of dining at Dolley’s, the Cabinet went streaming across the country to Bladensburg with the army. On Wednesday, August 24, there was a battle. An unfortunate battle in which the base British fired rockets at the astonished militia, so that they departed in some confusion to their homes. At Washington that afternoon there was tumult and clamor in the streets. Dolley scanned the horizon with a spyglass and saw nothing to encourage her. There was a dust of departing family coaches. Dolley is best known for her flight from Washington in 1814, when the British invaded the city during the War of 1812. She saved many state papers and a portrait of George Washington. At three o’clock a messenger came galloping up and told Dolley that she must leave. For the second time in American history, the British were coming!
At Dolley’s suggestion, “French” John Siousa and Magrau, the gardener, broke the frame containing Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Mr. Washington and gave the picture to some gentlemen for safe keeping. Dolley herself passed through the dining room, crammed some things into her reticule, and was then driven to Georgetown in her carriage. The Castle was abandoned; to be raided, first, by American stragglers, and then to be burned by the British who conflagrated it after marching fifty sailors and marines silently through the avenue. Mrs. Smith wrote to Dolley, “How gloomy is the scene, I do not suppose Government will ever return to Washington.”6 The Castle was conflagrated, only it’s blackened walls remained, and Dolley established herself in the Tayloe mansion, the famous brick “Octagon.” On February 4, 1815, there was news in the streets of victory at New Orleans, and the name of President-to-be on every tongue. On February 13, Mr. Gallatin, Mr. Adams, Mr. Clay, Mr. Bayard, and Mr. Russell had made a treaty. The whole town went to Mrs. Madison’s; someone was ringing a dinner bell. It was a gay winter; the “Peace Winter of 1815.” On March, 1817 Mr. Monroe won Presidency and the play was done for Dolley.
Now there was noting but Montpellier and the calm monotonous beauty of the Blue Ridge. Dolley was now forty-nine. After the Castle and the Octagon, there was a quiet, slightly dilapidated, colonnaded mansion against a background of unchanging trees. Dolley was to spend the next twenty years, quite cheerfully and serenely in her native state. She still received a succession of visitors. Then the accumulating years brought separation and sorrow, Mr. Monroe died in 1831, Dolley’s sister, Anna Cutt, in 1832, and at last, in 1836, Madison himself. Dolley was very sick afterwards, however, a visit to the White Sulphur in 1837 did her good. She found something to occupy her in editing and publishing her husband’s Reports of the Constitutional Congress.
She was sixty-nine now and for Dolley nothing remained but the lonely contemplation of fading scenes. Dolley returned to Washington in 1837 with her niece. It was a new Washington in many ways, but turned to her with respectful attention. Montpellier had to be sold because her son, John Payne Todd, who neglected his mother, was in debt. Washington, however, never neglected Dolley, and often sent her baskets of fruit and provisions. Congress did not forget Dolley either, and gave her a seat on the floor of the House during her lifetime. Congress also paid for Mr. Madison’s Reports. “It was February 7; Dolley was at the close of her eightieth year, she was in white satin with the inevitable turban-and on July 12 she died.”7