Dolley Madison: History, Marriage, & Accomplishments

There’s more to Dolley Madison than being the wife of the fourth US President James Madison. The former First Lady, who served in the early years of the newly-formed United States, established the importance and role of First Ladies. She was regarded as a skillful politician, who used diplomacy and socializing as her strategy. More importantly, she’s known for saving much of America’s early history during the British invasion of Washington in 1812. This, as well as many other feats, made her our nation’s most beloved First Ladies of all time.

Childhood & Early Years

Born Dolley Payne on May 20, 1768, this future U.S. First Lady grew up in a prominent family in Guilford County, North Carolina. She was the third child and only daughter. Her parents, Mary Coles and John Payne Jr., were Quakers who had been married seven years before the birth of their daughter. The Quakers were a religious sect that had early Christian roots but held different beliefs, particularly in having relationships with God. They were also amongst the first groups of white people to reject slavery.

Dolley Madison

Growing up, Dolley exhibited a very warm and upbeat personality. As First Lady of the United States, she’s credited with soothing tensions between political party members in the nation’s capital, creating an atmosphere where people of divergent views could negotiate without resorting to violence.

Not much is known about Dolley’s childhood other than the fact that she moved with her family to Virginia when she was only a year old. They eventually moved back to North Carolina after some time. Dolley was raised in a strict household, and when she was 15, she and her family moved to Philadelphia.

Her father, John, had attempted to start a starch business in the new city. However, the business failed and he was excommunicated from the Quaker sect. He died in 1792. But before his death, John had ensured to arrange a marriage between Dolley and a young lawyer from Philadelphia called John Todd.


Madison initially rejected her father’s arrangement for her marriage, calling it “manipulation.” But she eventually married Todd in January 1790. Despite the rough start, Madison and Todd had a happy marriage and they welcomed two sons, John Payne and William Temple.

Sadly, the marriage was short-lived. In 1793, Philadelphia experienced a yellow fever outbreak, which claimed the lives of Todd, William, as well as some of her in-laws. She also lost her two older brothers during the outbreak. But that wasn’t the end of her troubles. With her husband now gone, she was left to raise their son, John, without any money. Although Todd had left some money for her, his brother refused to give Madison her share. As a result, she sued him through the help of a lawyer called Aaron Burr. Yes, Aaron Burr, America’s 3rd Vice President. Burr was able to help Dolley get back some of her deceased husband’s money.

On September 17, 1794, 26-year-old Dolley married James Madison, who was 17 years her senior. Image: James Madison – 4th U.S. President

In 1794, Dolley would meet her next husband, James Madison through Burr. Although he was 17 years her senior, James decided to court her and they got married later that year. However, their union was met with opposition from the Quakers since James wasn’t one, and she was consequently expelled from the group. Despite her Quaker upbringing, it’s not known if she supported her new husband’s life as a slave owner.

James was a politician and member of the House of Representatives until 1797 when he retired. They settled in their home in Virginia until 1800 when the newly-elected president, Thomas Jefferson appointed James as his Secretary of State. The family moved to Washington, D.C. It was in the nation’s capital that Mrs. Madison decided to become somewhat of a socialite.


It appeared that Dolley Madison was made for a life in Washington’s social circles. She co-hosted numerous events on behalf of President Jefferson, who had lost his wife Martha 19 years prior to becoming president. At that time, it was common for wives of friends to host events in cases where there were no female heads of the house. She also worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in renovating the interior of the White House.

Dolley Madison took this role seriously, organizing world-class programs for foreign dignitaries. By so doing, she was able to cultivate a new image of the United States to the world. She also played a key role in organizing the fundraising for the explorers, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark, who embarked on their famous expedition (1803-1806) to explore the western portion of the country after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

In the years before and during her husband’s presidency, Dolley Madison was renowned for her leadership role in the social affairs of the nation. Image: Dolley Madison, 1804, by American portraitist Gilbert Stuart.

In 1808, Dolley Madison became the third First Lady of the United States after James was elected president. She was tasked with organizing his inaugural ball. While serving as First Lady, she worked extensively in charity projects, including helping with the construction of a home for orphaned girls. She also strategically developed healthy relationships with the wives of other prominent politicians and often used these friendships to help sway political opinions in her husband’s favor.

In addition to being praised for her prowess in diplomacy and fostering positive relationships, it was her patriotic actions during the War of 1812 that immortalized her name in the history books. In 1812, the British invaded our nation’s capital. While James and other politicians were away, Madison chose to stay behind, gathering all of the country’s most important documents and treasures, including a life-size portrait of the first president George Washington. Her commitment to preserving America’s culture and history made her a hero in many people’s eyes.

Dolley Madison famously rescued a copy of the life-size portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. Image: American painter Gilbert Stuart’s classic portrait of George Washington

Upon the couple’s return to Washington, D.C., they moved to The Octagon House while the White House underwent repairs. Mrs. Madison, in a bid to show America’s strength and resolve, decided to continue entertaining politicians.

Later Years

After her husband brought his White House tenure to an end in 1817, the couple moved back to their home in Virginia. They found that her son, John Payne, had mismanaged their estate and had been imprisoned for his debts. As a result, the Madisons had to sell their land in Kentucky and take out another mortgage on their home to clear the accrued debts.

James died in 1836 and Madison remained at their estate for another year. Her niece, Anna, moved in to stay with her. During that year, Mrs. Madison copied James’ papers, which the congress paid $55,000 for. The following year, she moved back to Washington, D.C. with Anna and left her son in charge of the estate again.


Mrs. Madison was still semi-active in Washington’s social circles until her death on July 12, 1849. She was 81 years old.

Initially, she was buried in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., only for her to be re-interred at Montpelier next to her husband, James Madison.


Dolley Madison is regarded as one of the best First Ladies to serve the United States. In 2014, she was ranked the 4th best First Lady by the Siena College Research Institute.

The SS Dolly Madison was a World War II Liberty ship named in honor of Dolley Madisson. The ship remained in use until 1964, when it was sunk.

She has also been portrayed in popular culture. Madison was portrayed by actress Spring Byington in Cecil B. DeMille 1938 film “The Buccaneer.” Her character, played by American actress Ginger Rogers,  also appeared in the 1946 film “Magnificent Doll.”

A character of her also featured in the Rita Mae Brown novel “Dolley: A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War”. In  1999, the US Mint released the Dolley Madison commemorative silver dollar.

The Virginia State Route 123 was named Dolley Madison Boulevard in her honor.

In 2000, she was named into the inaugural class of Virginia Women in History.

Dolley Madison: Fast Facts

As First Lady of the U.S., Dolley Madison used her position to effect change in our nation, especially social change. This made her one of the most influential U.S. First Ladies of all time.

Born: Dolley Payne

Date of birth: May 20, 1768

Place of birth: Piedmont, North Carolina

Died: July 12, 1849

Parents: John and Mary Coles Payne

Spouses:  John Todd Jr. (1790-1793); James Madison (1794-1836)

Children: John, William

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