Dolley Madison


Dolley in her prime

American Experience: Dolley Madison

Born into a  respectable Quaker family, Dolley Madison metamorphosed from a plain Jane girl into a stylish First Lady. A Jane Fondaesque transformation, if you will. Her parents were strict Quakers but they often were at odds with the Friendship society. As a young girl her father was cast out of the society for dishonesty about his debts. His starch making business collapsed and he sank into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Her mother opened a boardinghouse in Philadelphia which attracted many politicians as the City of Brotherly Love was the U.S. capital during this time.

Dolley was first married to John Todd, a young Quaker lawyer, at her father’s insistence probably to get her out of the house and not have to support her. Sadly, it was not a long marriage. John and a newborn baby were struck down during a yellow fever epidemic. A short time later she married James Madison after a brief courtship; four months after they’d first met. It was a marriage of opposites: she was vivacious and outgoing he considerably less so. Madison was a thinker, Dolley a feeler.

The newly christened Mrs. Madison shed her dull Quaker frocks and started clothing herself quite stylishly: showing off her ample bosom in empire waist gowns and wearing turbans. She was liberated. Cast out of Quaker society because of her marriage to an “outsider,” Dolley blossomed aesthetically but Quaker beliefs and morals stayed imbedded within her being.

In 1809, James Madison was elected as President of the United States; the fourth to serve. The Madison’s were a power couple. The opponent Charles Pinckney declared, “I was beaten by Mr. and Missus Madison.” Dolley delighted in her new role. She’d played hostess of the Executive Mansion for Jefferson because he was a widower, but this time the first Inaugural Ball was held there and she established that anyone who could pay the $4 fee was welcome to celebrate her brilliant husband’s victory.

Dolley set about establishing the Executive Mansion or President’s House, it wasn’t yet called the “White House,” as a gathering place for Washingtonians and visitors. She redecorated and became a much admired hostess. Mrs. Madison knew how to work a room.

In 1812 the U.S. declared war on Great Britain, a sort of continuation of the Revolutionary War. Britain had been harassing American ships. This was risky because our country had limited resources compared with the mighty Britain, especially their Navy.

In August of 1814, British troops, 4,000 of them, descended outside the capital. Dolley would be forever immortalized for her bravery during the sacking of Washington, D.C. Many Washingtonians fled the capital  but Dolley stayed put with a few servants, including an African-American butler who later wrote a memoir about his time with the Madison’s.

The servants set about preparing dinner for the evening; Madison was at the front. Dolley surveyed the city with her eyeglass to spot troops and wrote letters to her sisters. At dusk a messenger came on horseback telling Dolley to clear out, the British were descending onto the capital city. Dolley rushed the servants into saving important papers, silver, and nice curtains and refused to leave until she was able to remove a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame.

She hurriedly fled as the British were entering the city.

The British torched government buildings including the Executive Mansion, but not before sitting down and eating the dinner prepared for President Madison and his guests. The Brits weren’t able to destroy the capital entirely; a thunder-storm hit and wiped out their plans. The Madison’s would never occupy the Executive Mansion again.

After the war ended in 1815, Mrs. Madison fought against relocating the capital back to Philadelphia because of the damage. It was an important symbol. A capital named after the first President. She believed if the captital was relocated they were giving the Brits a victory since the redcoats’ aim was to destroy the capital.

Dolley took up a cause as First Lady, a first. It wasn’t controversial: an orphanage for girls.

In 1817, Madison’s second term ended and the couple returned to his estate in Virginia: Montpelier. The ensuing years were spent caring for James and worrying about her profligate son, Payne. He was the firstborn of Dolley’s children with John Todd. Unfortunately, he caused Dolley and James much heartache. He even spent time in jail for nonpayment of debts; debtors prison.

Twilight years

After James Madison passed away she lived in poverty. Her son continued to squander money and rack up debts. Dolley couldn’t say no to his demands, after all she had very little understanding of money matters. Eventually, the Montpelier plantation was sold and Dolley moved  to Philadelphia and in her last years Washington, D.C.

In D.C. Dolley might have been poor but she was American royalty. A last living member of Revolutionary America. She had known Mr. and Mrs. George Washington. She was a former First Lady. A trendsetter. Celebrity.

In 1844, Dolley was given a lifetime seat on the House floor. She was in her seventies at the time so “lifetime” seems an odd honor at her age, nonetheless, it was a symbol of her stature.

As writer Tom Fleming states: “Here was a woman who had drunk tea with George and Martha Washington, and she could reminisce and remember things that everybody said all the way back to those early days. She mesmerized every party she went to.”

She was in her early eighties when she died in 1849 and what was sad is that she wasn’t able to be buried alongside James for nine years because the burial ground was on private property.

Her legacy survives. After her – until Mary Todd Lincoln – one usually can’t name any First Ladies. I sure as Hell can’t. Mrs. Madison was one of  the earliest so maybe it’s understandable we in the present remember her.


  • Former First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited Dolley Madison as an inspiration in her bestselling memoir Living History.
  • Dolley was invited to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. She was one of the few people alive at the time who had actually met the Founding Father.
  • When the first telegraph line in the world was erected between Washington and Baltimore, she was asked to be the first private citizen to send a message.

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