Dolley Todd Madison

Everyone should have their lists of favorite historical people. Dolley Madison has always been on mine since childhood. Dolley was married to James Madison and so was First Lady when he was President. However, the title of First Lady was not in use at this time. First Lady eventually spread over time and was in wide use by the 1930s.

Dolley grew up as a Quaker. She was born in North Carolina in 1768 but grew up in Virginia. Her father, John, moved the family to Philadelphia when Dolley was 15 years old and he attempted to become a merchant. The business had failed by 1791 and he died in 1792. This left her mother, Mary, to find a way to support herself and her younger children by opening a boarding house.

By this time, Dolley had already married a lawyer named John Todd in 1790 and they had two sons. However, in 1793 there was a yellow fever epidemic and John and their infant son both died. After some trouble with her brother-in-law over the inheritance from her husband (he was the executor of the will), Dolley was left alone to care for her small son with little financial support. However, her luck was about to change.

In the summer of 1794, one of her mother’s former boarders, Aaron Burr, wanted to introduce her to someone. Dolley met James Madison and by September they were married. One of her sisters, Lucy, had married the nephew of George Washington and he was on the president’s staff. After Dolley married James Madison, she soon became the ultimate social and political hostess. She acted as the hostess for Thomas Jefferson when he was president and then when her husband was president.

One of my favorite moments from her story comes from the War of 1812. In August 1814, a British force set fire to several buildings in Washington City (Washington D.C.). After receiving a note from James, Dolley prepared to flee the city like everyone else. However, she was going to take what she could from the White House with her. One of the things that Dolley refused to leave behind was a portrait of George Washington. As the frame was screwed to the wall, it had to be taken apart and the painting was taken out by itself. The painting hangs in the White House now.

Dolley Madison was an important figure for many years, living until 1849. Dolley was in debt in her later years. She sold their plantation, Montpelier, and she was able sell her husbands papers to Congress in 1848. She died at her home in Washington D.C. and was originally buried there but was later moved to be buried with James at Montpelier.


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