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Dolly Madison



Dorothy "Dolly" Payne Todd Madison

The Wife of James Madison

* Born: 20 May 1768
* Birthplace: Piedmont, North Carolina
* Died: 12 July 1849
* Best Known As: Socialite First Lady of the United States, 1809-1817

Dolly Madison, c. 1848
Produced by Mathew  Brady's studio
Picture courtesy of Library of Congress

Dorothy Payne, who was the wife of President Madison, was the daughter of a Virginia planter, though she was not herself born in Virginia. It was while her parents were on a visit to some friends in North Carolina, in 1769, that her mother gave birth to the infant who was destined to have so remarkable and distinguished a career.

Soon after this event, Mr. and Mrs. Payne, having conscientious scruples with regard to the holding of slaves, set theirs free, joined the Quakers, gave up their plantation, and removed to Philadelphia.

Their daughter, Dorothy, was brought up in the strict tenets and sober habits of the Friends, and, when she was twenty years of age, married a young lawyer, of that persuasion, named Todd. Three years after, her husband died, leaving her the mother of a son, with little provision for their future maintenance.

At this time her mother was also a widow, and was living in Philadelphia in such narrow circumstances that she was compelled to add to her little income by taking boarders. Mrs. Todd went to reside with her mother, and assisted her in the care of her house.

She was one of the most beautiful young women in Philadelphia. I have before me a portrait, taken of her in early life, which fully justifies her reputation for beauty. Her figure was nobly proportioned, and her face had the robust charms of a fresh and vigorous country girl. After her husband's death she laid aside the prim garments and the serious demeanor of the Quakers, and gave free play to the natural gayety of her disposition. Indeed, she formally ceased to be a Quakeress, and attended the more fashionable Episcopal Church. Dolly Todd, as she was then called, had considerable celebrity in Philadelphia, both for the charms of her person and the liveliness of her conversation.

Among her mother's boarders at this time were several members of Congress, to whom, of course, the young widow made herself as agreeable as she could. Aaron Burr, then a senator of the United States, was one of these boarders, and James Madison, a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia, was another.
Mr. Madison was considered by the ladies as a confirmed old bachelor, since he had attained the age of forty-three without having yielded to the allurements of the sex. He was the last man in the world, as his friends thought, to be captivated by a dashing young widow. Of all the public men who have figured in public life in the United States he was the most studious and thoughtful. The eldest son of a rich Virginia planter, he was yet so devoted to the acquisition of knowledge that, for months together at Princeton College, he allowed himself but three hours' sleep out of the twenty-four, an excess which injured his health for all the rest of his life. He appeared to live wholly in the world of ideas. Daniel Webster reckoned him the ablest expounder of the constitution, and Thomas Jefferson pronounced him the best head in Virginia. Without being a brilliant orator, he was an excellent argumentative speaker, and always conciliated the feelings of his opponents by the gentleness of his demeanor and the courtesy of his language. His bearing and address were remarkably simple and modest. He was always dressed in a suit of black, and looked more like a quiet student, busy only with his thoughts and his books, than a statesman of a young republic. One trait of character alone seemed to fit him for the companionship of Dolly Todd. He was a merry man, with a keen relish for every kind of innocent fun, and told a story extremely well.
Aaron Burr in his old age (so one of his friends told me) used to boast that he "made the match" between James Madison and Mrs. Todd. However that may be, they were married in 1794, when Mr. Madison was forty-three, and Mrs. Todd twenty-five. Her little son, aged five years, never had a rival in his mother's affections, since no children blessed their union. A few years after the marriage, when Thomas Jefferson came to the presidency, Mr. Madison was appointed secretary of state, an office which he continued to hold for eight years, during which Mrs. Madison was the centre of a brilliant circle of society in Washington. The gossips of the day were of opinion that her influence over her husband was greater than it should have been, and that it was sometimes her voice which decided appointments and influenced measures.
In 1809 Mr. Madison became the President of the United States, and his vivacious and beautiful wife enjoyed, for the next eight years, a splendid theatre for the exhibition of her charms.
It was during her husband's second term that the interesting event of her life occurred. In August, 1814, the news came to Washington that a British army had landed on the coast, within a hundred miles of the capital. A few days later the president and his cabinet were flying toward Virginia, while Mrs. Madison sat at a window of the presidential mansion, listening to the distant thunder of cannon on the disastrous field of Bladensburg. She held a telescope in her hands, with which she looked anxiously down the road by which her husband was expected to return; but she could see nothing but squads of militia wandering about without purpose or command. At the door of the house a carriage stood, filled with plate and papers, ready to leave at an instant's warning. The Mayor of Washington visited her in the course of that terrible afternoon, and advised her to leave the city; but she calmly refused, and said she would not leave her abode without the president's orders. A messenger from him at length arrived, bearing a note, written hurriedly with a lead-pencil, telling her to fly.
Among the precious articles in the White House was the fine portrait of Washington taken by Stewart from life. She seized a carving-knife from the table, cut the picture out of its frame, rolled it up, hurried with it into the carriage, and drove away. At Georgetown, two miles from the city, she met the president and cabinet, who were assembled on the banks of the Potomac about to cross. There was but one little boat on the shore, in which only three persons at a time could trust themselves. The president assigned to Mrs. Madison nine cavalrymen, and directed her to meet him on the following day at a certain tavern sixteen miles from Georgetown. In the dusk of the evening she began her march, accompanied by two or three ladies, while the president and his companions were rowed across the river.
When the British officers entered the president's house that evening, they found the dinner-table spread for forty guests, the president having invited a large dinner-party for that day. The wine was cooling on the sideboard; the plates were warming by the fire; the knives, forks, and spoons were arranged upon the snowy table-cloth. In the kitchen, joints of meat were roasting on spits before the fire; saucepans full of vegetables were steaming upon the range, and everything was in a state of forwardness for a substantial banquet. The officers sat down to the table, devoured the dinner, and concluded the entertainment by setting fire to the house. It was a terrible night. The capitol was burned, the treasury building, the president's house, all the principal public buildings, and the navy yard.
It was not until the evening of the following day that Mrs. Madison, in the midst of a violent storm of thunder, wind, and rain, approached the tavern to which the president had directed her. He had not yet arrived, and the landlady, terrified by the events around her, had barred the doors, and refused to admit the drenched and exhausted ladies. The troopers were obliged to force an entrance. Two hours later, the President of the United States reached the house, wet, hungry, and fatigued. The landlady could provide them with nothing but some bread and cold meat; after partaking of which they retired to a miserable bed, not without fears that the next morning would find them prisoners of the British general. It happened, however, that the English troops retired even more rapidly than they had advanced, and in a few days the president and his wife returned to Washington, which was still smoking from the recent conflagration. They found the best lodgings they could, and the government was soon performing its accustomed duties.
We have a pleasing glimpse of Mrs. Madison, in an old number of the "National Intelligencer," in which the editor describes the scene at the president's house on the evening when the news of peace arrived, in February, 1815:
"Late in the afternoon came thundering down Pennsylvania Avenue a coach and four foaming steeds, in which was the bearer of the good news. Cheers followed the carriage as it sped its way to the residence of the president. Soon after nightfall, members of Congress and others deeply interested in the event presented themselves at the president's house, the doors of which stood open. When the writer of this entered the drawing-room at about eight o'clock, it was crowded to its full capacity, Mrs. Madison (the president being with the cabinet) doing the honors of the occasion. And what a happy scene it was! Among the members present were gentlemen of opposite politics, but lately arrayed against one another in continual conflict and fierce debate, now with elated spirits thanking God, and with softened hearts cordially felicitating one another upon the joyful intelligence which (should the terms of the treaty prove acceptable) should re-establish peace. But the most conspicuous object in the room, the observed of all observers, was Mrs. Madison herself, then in the meridian of life and queenly beauty. She was in her person, for the moment, the representative of the feelings of him who was in grave consultation with his official advisers. No one could doubt, who beheld the radiance of joy which lighted up her countenance and diffused its beams around, that all uncertainty was at an end, and that the government of the country had, in very truth (to use an expression of Mr. Adams on a very different occasion), 'passed from gloom to glory.' With a grace all her own, to her visitors she reciprocated heartfelt congratulations upon the glorious and happy change in the aspect of public affairs; dispensing with liberal hand to every individual in the large assembly the proverbial hospitalities of that house."
From 1817 to 1836, when her husband died, she lived in retirement at Mr. Madison's seat in Virginia, dispensing a liberal hospitality, and cheering her husband's life by her gayety and humor. Her last years were spent in the city of Washington. She retained much of her beauty and vivacious grace to her eightieth year, and was much courted by the frequenters of the capital. She died in the year 1849, aged eighty-two.
According to the philosophers, this was a very ill-assorted marriage, since she was a peculiarly physical woman and he a singularly intellectual man; and this difference was aggravated by the disparity in their ages, the husband being eighteen years older than the wife. Nature accorded with the philosophers, and they had no children. Nevertheless, the excellent temper of Mr. Madison and the good sense of his wife appear to have prevailed over their discordant constitutions; they are thought to have lived very happily together, and both died past fourscore. Mr. Madison was jocular to the last. Some friends having come to see him, a short time before his death, he apologized for falling back upon the pillow of his bed by saying, with his old smile:  "I always talk more easily when I lie."

Old men, who have lived for forty years unhappily at home, are not likely to joke upon their dying bed. They get entirely out of the habit of joking by that time.

Source: "People's Book of Biography", by James Parton, 1868
Submitted by Cathy Danielson



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