Dolley and James Madison and the road to the White House

Dolley Madison forged a role for the wife of the President of the United States that earned her the title of the first  First Lady. Photo: Washington at the time of Dolley Madison

FORT WORTH, November 10, 2012 — Dolley Madison is well known for saving the portrait of George Washington, a copy of the Declaration of Independence and other valuables when the British burned Washington City in 1814. She was also the first to forge and define the role for the wife of the President of the United States.

The National First Ladies’ Library says this:

“With more conscious effort than either of her two predecessors, and with an enthusiasm for public life that neither of them had, Dolley Madison forged the highly public role as a President’s wife, believing that the citizenry was her constituency as well as that of her husband’s.”

The role she created is the standard we know and expect to this day.

A Merry Widow Who Captivated Madison

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart

Dolley Payne was born in North Carolina to Quakers John and Mary Payne 1768. A year later they moved to Virginia and subsequently Dolley lived in Philadelphia where she married Quaker lawyer John Todd, Jr. 

They had two children, John Payne Todd, (1792-1852), William Isaac Todd, (1793.) The younger child died on the same day as her husband during an epidemic of yellow fever.

The White House  website relates that after a period of mourning:

By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city. With her charm and her laughing blue eyes, fair skin, and black curls, the young widow attracted distinguished attention.”

Dolley was soon introduced to James Madison by then US Senator Aaron Burr. Even though she was seventeen years younger than Madison, the couple hit it off and married several months later in September of 1794.They settled in the Madison familial home, Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia when the statesman left Washington City in 1796. While there Dolley honed her skills as hostess entertaining neighbors and political proponents who helped James acquire loyal supporters. The website for Montpelier describes her as “one half of America’s first political power couple.” 

When Thomas Jefferson named Madison as his Secretary of State after the election of 1800, they finally moved to Washington City. However, the nation’s Capitol was quite different 212 years ago than it is now.

The Power Couple Arrives in Washington

Upon their arrival in 1801, James Madison noted the changes in the “wilderness capital” since he had last seen it. The President’s house and the Capitol building were now built.  Author Catherine Allgor states in her book, “A Perfect Union”:

“…the city’s main road, ‘Pennsylvania Avenue’ was a grand appellation for the slash of mud that proved almost impossible for any vehicle to navigate….To paraphrase a famous jibe, Washington was a town of houses with no streets and streets with no houses.”

In addition, there was no entrenched social structure like in older established areas. Most cities grow over time. Washington City did not. It was laid out all at once by city planners Peter Charles L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Allgor adds,

“The long established cities of Philadelphia or New York possessed entrenched social structures and hierarchies, to which the federal government had to adapt during each city’s tenure as capital. Washington City lacked such existing configurations or customs and so invited innovation…..However, the very novelty and nature of the capital city presented its residents with several formidable obstacles to realizing their dream of a ‘new Rome’ on the Potomac.” 

The couple first lived with President Jefferson at the “President’s House.” Later, the Madisons moved to their own home on F Street. It was here Dolley began building Washington society. Since President Jefferson was a widower, she often served the role of presidential hostess for many official functions as well.

Early photo of the F Street House

A Diplomatic Hostess

The two-party system was brand new in those days. The Federalists, including George Washington, John Adams and other democratic “aristocrats” wanted a strong, centralized federal government. The Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, saw the federal government necessary for the military and foreign diplomacy, believing that states should take care of the rest themselves. This is quite a departure from today’s political parties.

In response to this, Dolley invited the families of the local gentry families not affiliated with the government, “official” families who were, some foreign dignitaries, and visitors to the house on F Street. According to Allgon, each group had a stake in Washington City. The local gentry and official families were permanent residents and worked toward building up the capital. Foreign visitors and observers had the ears of their prospective governments that watched the young country. They could become powerful friends or dangerous enemies.

Allgon says of Dolley’s mission,

In her quest to create an ideal capital society, Dolley had to find ways not only to teach each group individually, but to blend and connect all three.”

The White House site continues:

Dolley’s social graces made her famous. Her political acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned, though her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel. Hostile statesmen, difficult envoys from Spain or Tunisia, warrior chiefs from the West, flustered youngsters — she always welcomed everyone”

In this she strove to serve not only the President but also the good of the country. She was a trailblazer and a passionate patriot who knew that the warring political factions of the time had to get along in order for the United States to flourish. Yet she made her way through Washington society and the politics of the young Republic. She did this by balancing her natural charm and beauty with unmatched political finesse.

Come back next week to read the rest of the story about this exceptional and notable woman.

Read more of Claire’s work at Feed The Mind, Nourish The Soul in the Communities at The Washington Times, her blog Sustenance For The Mind, and the writing group she belongs to at Greater Fort Worth Writers Group.

Join her on  Twitter and Facebook.

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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  


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