Good Golly, Miss Dolley!
The United States Presidency has had its share of interesting women when it comes to the honorary office of Presidential First Lady. Many of these women have remained quietly behind the scenes, but many others have been right out front and in your face. The first of these less-than-humble White House hellions has to be Mrs. James Madison, better known as “Dolley”.
Around the Block (at least once)
Benjamin Franklin infamously wrote an essay, albeit a bit tongue in cheek but sincere in its logic, about the virtues of marrying a woman who had been . . . um . . . “around the block”. His point is well made – who needs the grief of messing around with somebody who doesn’t know what she’s doing? Let somebody lay the groundwork; then, later, somebody else can reap the rewards.
Many men in the late 18th and early 19th centuries often sought out widowed women as wives for a couple of reasons. Women died young in childbirth all too often – when replacing a dead wife with a newer model, if one married a widow, she at least could understand your feelings about losing a spouse. In addition, widows often inherited whatever wealth their dead hubbies left behind so the new man could also benefit financially as well. Not to mention that whole other thing Ben Franklin wrote about . . . .
Dollie Payne was born in New Garden, a small settlement in North Carolina, on May 20, 1768. The place of her birth is now called Guilford College in Guilford County, and is a northeastern bedroom
Dolley lived well as a child, and she was educated formally in a school setting. She learned the craft of seamstress during her formative years. In 1783, the family moved to Philadelphia, at that time the nation’s capital. Dolley was a vivacious teen of 15, and she quickly ingratiated herself with the politicos and social climbers of her day. She was extremely popular, and rose quickly on the social scene.
This tender treat caught the eye of a young local Quaker lawyer named John Todd, Jr. In January 1790, they married – Dolley was quite the catch. She was reportedly gorgeous, flirtateous, and, from her socializing, well-connected and liked. A new lawyer could not have chosen a better partner; Dolley’s popularity of course vicariously reflected well on him. They bought a house in Philadelphia and Dolley dutifully produced two male offspring like clockwork: John Payne Todd in 1792 and William Temple Todd in 1793.
As was typical during the age of uncertainty and poor medical care both Dolley’s husband John and her younger son William caught yellow fever during an epidemic that fired through Philadelphia. They died on October 24, 1793, leaving Dolley a widow at age 25.
Keeping in mind Dolley was a hottie by all contemporary accounts, this morsel could not go untended for long. Even though she was saddled with a kid, she had suitors by the score who came round after
Madison, seventeen years her senior, had already made his mark in the world of politics. Born in 1751, he went to the New Jersey College at Princeton and graduated two years later when he was 20 years old. He helped write his home state of Virginia’s state constitution in 1776. He then forged ahead, and by 1789 when he entered the United States Congress as a Representative, he had already been a state legislator and a delegate of multiple conventions that had formed and framed the US Constitution. One of the first things Madison did as a Congressman was prepare the Constitutional amendments that became known as the Bill of Rights.
Madison got his wing man, fellow Congressman Aaron Burr, to put in a word for him with Dolley. In May 1794, Burr made a formal introduction of Madison to Dolley. Despite Madison’s comparative geezer status versus the nubile Dolley’s, and that he wasn’t a Quaker, her friends and family thought Jimmy Madison was a good catch.
Madison, for his part, recognized the value of Dolley’s social connections and her pleasant affability. Oh, and he noticed she was hot, too. They wed in September 1794, only four months
When his term expired in 1797, the 48-year-old Madison retired from politics, and took his darling Dolley and her son John Todd with him to his family’s plantation in Montpelier, Virginia (James Madison came from money, one more reason a widowed Dolley Todd might have thought marrying this older man was a good idea).
They lived on the plantation, being ol’ Massa and Missus to the plantation’s slaves and generally living the good life. Then in 1790, Thomas Jefferson came a-callin’. James Madison had actively campaigned for Jefferson, and now that Jefferson was President he came to repay the favor. He offered James Madison the lucrative cabinet position of Secretary of State. He readily accepted.
By this time, some states had given up some areas of malarial swamp, and this mire was turned into the nation’s new capital, Washington, DC. A house was built there called The Executive Mansion, and the first president to occupy it was John Adams on November 1, 1800 [even though it was at the end of his term and it was still under construction, he moved in anyway]. He only lived there for a few days before he was defeated for his second term, but because of the fracas involved in the Jefferson/Burr contest it took several months for Congress to sort out who won. Meanwhile, John Adams weebled around in the place pretty much by himself until he was told when to leave.
Madison and Dolley and the boy moved to Washington. Thomas Jefferson’s wife had died in 1782. Since he couldn’t reasonably allow his paramour and slave Sally Heming’s to be Executive Mansion Hostess for social functions, he called upon the voluble and popular Dolley Madison to be his official presidential hostess at any function or party he gave. She accepted this position with energy, and all told, Dolley Madison would spend more years in the Executive Mansion and in Washington, DC, working behind the scenes than her husband did.
Dolley Does DC
There was something about this woman’s personality that drew people to her like a magnet. She was invited to every social event, every diplomatic function, every affair of state in which a good showing and a pretty face would go a long way. She made great arm candy for Jefferson. Unlike Mary Todd Lincoln (Abe Lincoln had to force invitations from his cabinet members to accept her in their wives' social set) Dolley was in the position of being the trendsetter for Washington society.
She was fashionable. What Dolley wore the other women of the capital wore, and so on throughout the country, particularly when she became First Lady. Her hairstyles were their hairstyles. Dolley was a clothes-horse with panache – she often wore ostentatious peacock feathers as part of her ensemble. And best of all, Dolley was charming.
Although “retired” from politics, once James Madison got back into the fray as Secretary of State, suddenly things “way down upon de Swanee Ribber” didn’t seem so appealing. During his tenure with Jefferson, Madison worked on maintaining America’s neutrality during several European conflicts, and he also helped negotiate Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase with France. When Jefferson’s second term was up, he hand-picked Madison as his successor. The public went that way as well, and Madison handily won the Presidential election of 1808.
Dolley Madison is the one who developed the honorary role of First Lady into what it is today almost from the minute she walked in the door of The Executive Mansion. That house was her house, she entertained lavishly, and she was the talk and toast of Washington. Madison basked in her glow as well – he denied her nothing and enabled some of her more extravagant affairs, all the while realizing that she brought good things his way through her subtle and not-so-subtle manipulations. Dolley Madison has been described as perhaps the first true “lobbyist”, and other presidential wives would follow suit, quietly maneuvering in the back drop, “helping” things along as needed.
And she was loved by Washington, perhaps more than her husband. He treated her as his political and intellectual equal as well which was very much out of his time. Dolley Madison was the first woman to command an unofficial sphere of power. What is interesting about Dolley’s shenanigans is that she spearheaded Washington’s drive to build a lobbying network of Washington women who influenced legislation, created bipartisan coalitions, and gave out government jobs. Oddly, these activities would be subverted by men who created institutions of lobbyist groups, political party machines, and civil service. Women would ironically be excluded from the groups they had helped create up until the 20th century.
A few anecdotes exist about Dolley that tend to trivialize her contributions to the political climate of her day. She is recalled as starting the tradition of serving ice cream at The Executive Mansion at James Madison’s second inaugural ball, an amusing bit of trivia but hardly significant. Another story about Dolley Madison concerns the British Invasion during the War of 1812.
The United States lived precariously on the seas. Trade with both Britain and France was suspended when the two countries were in conflict during Madison’s time. Complicated by agitation for the United States to annex Canada, the British were able to enlist the aid of many Native American tribes to randomly assault settlements and other key places along the Canadian/US border.
It was actually the United States who started this war with Britain. Madison, reluctantly, declared war on June 1, 1812, caving in to Congressional pressure to do so. His plans included an invasion of Canada to finally annex that territory and get Great Britain and, ultimately, Spain (Britain’s ally which still held Florida) off of the North American continent. The planned attack on Canada was a disaster, and in the process the United States temporarily lost Detroit (without a single shot being fired) when the outpost was surrounded by British. Two thousand US troops surrendered willingly.
The British, of course, didn’t want to give up whatever else they had and they tore into us. Most of the war was fought at sea, and when Britain finally defeated France in 1814 this freed up thousands of soldiers to come over here and fight.
On August 22, 1814, Madison went out to review some troops outside Washington. Dolley stayed put waiting to hear from Madison. He had advised her before he left to clear out if he didn’t return on time, but she didn’t listen. While he was away, the city’s mayor urged Dolley to leave. On August 24, 1814, the British cut through a sea blockade into Chesapeake Bay, fought through a US battalion between it and Washington, DC, and entered the capital.
Meanwhile, Madison, his cabinet, and members of Congress had all fled to the safety of Virginia. Dolley and The Executive Mansion’s slaves were all left behind – Dolley because she wanted to ransack the place for stuff, the slaves because nobody cared enough about them to get them to safety. Dolley directed the slaves to carry certain items away (silver plate, and other valuables). She also had them pack up important state papers, including original drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. One of the other articles she had them load in her getaway wagon was the famous portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart (who, in 1804, had painted Dolley’s portrait as well). Then she and the slaves high-tailed it to Georgetown, Maryland.
The removed portrait of Washington seems to be the sticking point in this story. Popular history likes to record Dolley heroically salvaged it herself. Her recollection is that she had ordered it removed the day before the burning when she learned the British had defeated the standing troops guarding the city; the picture was taken out of its frame as the frame was too big and ornate to remove. She said it was sent off to New York for safe keeping.
One of the Executive Mansion’s slaves, a man named Paul Jennings, in his story A Colored Man’s Reminiscence of James Madison (1865), recalls the flight before the British a bit differently:
“She (Mrs. Madison) had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Suse (meaning Jean Sioussat), a Frenchman, then doorkeeper, and still living, and McGraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon with some larger silver urns and other such valuables as could be hastily got together. When the British did arrive they ate up the very dinner that I had prepared for the President's party.”
The British decided to lay siege to Washington, DC. They began sacking the town. When they got to The Executive Mansion Dolley’s nick-of-time departure was clear – the meal under preparation was still warm. Most of the valuables had been removed by the slaves under Dolley’s supervision, so the British ate the food, torched the place, and left. [This sort of pillaging behavior was not customary for the British. The burning of Washington, DC, was in retaliation for our torching one of their key Canadian cities early in the conflict]. They also set fire to the Capitol Building and other structures. They would have done more damage but a rising storm threatened their ships anchored in Chesapeake Bay, so they withdrew. This was the last time an invading foreign power has set foot on American soil.
James and Dolley Madison would never live in The Executive Mansion again [it was his successor James Monroe who would resume occupancy in 1817]. When they returned to Washington, they lived in a rented house while the old homestead was repaired after being gutted. The new repairs were begun; one of the things done to cover the scorched and fire-scarred sandstone was to paint it white. Afterward The Executive Mansion became known as “The White House”. The Madisons left Washington when James’ second term ended in March 1817.
Dolley Down on the Farm
Back in Montpelier, Virginia, together they collated and edited Madison’s political and executive papers for publication. Dolley was still the party gal about town, and she continued to
Dolley’s surviving son from her first marriage was apparently an incompetent. He never found a career, and in 1830 he went to debtor’s prison in Philadelphia. Dolly and James sold land they had in Kentucky and mortgaged half of the Montpelier estate to pay off the kid’s debts (although at 38 years old this was no teenage goof off, but an adult lay-about).
James Madison lived a long time, though his last several years were spent in failing health. Dolley tended to him during this period, and when he died on June 28, 1836, he was 86 years old. About a year later, after selling the first three volumes of Madison’s papers to Congress (for $30,000), Dolley headed off to the big town of Washington, DC, once again. She left her grown son, John Payne Todd, in charge of the Madison estate in
Dolley, at almost 70 and despite winding down and not looking as fresh as she once did, quickly regained her place in the capital’s social circles. She took up residence in town as if she had never left the place. She entertained distinguished visitors as she had when she was First Lady.
The fruit of her loins, however, was terrible at business. John Payne Todd completely mismanaged the Montpelier plantation in Dolley’s absence, and they were left with no income. Dolley was forced to sell the plantation in 1844 thanks to Junior’s ineptitude. Later she had to mortgage her house in Washington. She finally resorted to borrowing money from friends, and although they were willing to loan it to her, it had to pain the proud Dolley Madison to have to stoop to begging. Her financial troubles ended in 1848 when Congress finally bought the rest of her husband’s papers for the Library of Congress.
Dolley’s last public appearance was at James K. Polk’s presidential reception in February 1849 (he, too, was a North Carolina native, which is why Dolley attended). On July 12 later that same year Dolley Madison died after a short illness. She was 81 years old. Her funeral was a state occasion. It was attended by President Polk, his cabinet, the diplomatic corps, members of the House and Senate, Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries.
Dolly Madison's image became a pop culture icon even during her lifetime and on into this century. Her name (with the incorrect spelling “Dolly”) coupled with her image was used to hawk any number of foodstuffs and even
If not for Dolley Madison, many future First Ladies would have had no cachet. There would have been no Hillary Clinton, able to wield great authority and exercise tremendous influence. Going further back there would have been no glamour pussEleanor Roosevelt, the nearly militant activist, and before her Edith Wilson (Woodrow Wilson’s wife) who ran the country after Woodrow had a stroke in his second term.
All of these women owe a debt to Dolley Madison. She was the woman, the gal about town, who made the “job” of First Lady into something more than just window dressing. She was the first to truly be a partner in the presidency.
Dolley say . . .
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