DOLLEY MADISON 1768-1849
Hostess and social leader. Wife of President James Madison. Saved artifacts from White House fire, 1814. Born 1 1/2 miles N.E.
In a nation where male soldiers and politicians usually dominate, Dolley Madison, First Lady and Washington socialite, exemplified the dutiful wife and tactful hostess who achieved with charm what her husband accomplished with command. Born on May 20, 1768, to Quakers John and Mary Coles Payne, she and her family moved from Guilford County, North Carolina to Hanover County, Virginia less than a year after her birth. There she received a sound Quaker education, until the family once again moved in 1788 to Philadelphia, then the political center of America.
US 421 (West Market Street) in Greensboro
Original Date Cast:
© 2009 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources
It was among the political mixers and ballroom socials where Dolley Madison first learned the charm and etiquette that would serve her so well later in life. Her fair skin, blue eyes, and raven hair ensured that she would not be single long; in early 1790, she and John Todd Jr., also a Quaker, wed in Philadelphia. The young family soon had two sons, but tragically she lost both her husband and youngest son to yellow fever before 1793 came to a close. After a short period living with her mother, Dolley met senator and future president James Madison through a mutual friend, Aaron Burr. The couple married in 1794, and once her husband became Secretary of State in the administration of Thomas Jefferson in 1801, Dolley Madison often could be found entertaining guests for Jefferson or Madison in the White House.
As Jefferson was a widower, Dolley Madison became the unofficial “first lady,” hosting socials and dinners for politicians and international guests. The 1809 inauguration of her husband, therefore, made for an easy transition to the role of the president’s wife. She emerged from the War of 1812 a heroine of American history, deftly rescuing several official documents along with a portrait of George Washington from a White House the British had set alight. After James Madison finished his second term in 1817, the couple returned to their home at Montpelier in Virginia where they lived until his death in 1836. She then moved back to Washington, where she was once again at the forefront of the Capital’s social scene. As a socialite and hostess, Dolley Madison knew the first eleven presidents on a first-name basis; as a patron of the arts and sciences, she promoted social progress into the middle of the nineteenth century. Dolley Madison died in 1849, and is buried with her family at Montpelier, Virginia.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 199-201—sketch by Ethel Stephens Arnett
Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, XI, 181-182 (1946)—sketch by Dumas Malone
Diana Dixon Healy, America’s First Ladies: Private Lives of Presidential Wives (1988)
The White House, “Dolley Payne Todd Madison”: