Dolley Payne was born in the Quaker community of New Garden, North Carolina, on May 20, 1768. Her parents had moved to New Garden in 1765 from their native Virginia. They later returned to Virginia where Dolley grew up at her parents’ plantation.
In 1790, Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia. The couple had two sons, John Payne (called Payne) and William Temple.
In August 1793, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia. More than 4,000 people died over the spring and summer months. By mid-September, thousands had fled the city. Dolley’s husband John and son William died of yellow fever on the same day. She was a widow at the age of 25, with her young son Payne to support.
By this time Philadelphia had become the capital city. Dolley lived only a block from the seat of Congress and was familiar with its members and socialized with them.
It was not long before she met the man who would become her second husband. James Madison was a delegate to the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia. Madison was already well known throughout the country as the Father of the Constitution.
In the spring of 1794, she learned that Madison wanted to call on her. She wrote to her friend Eliza Collins: “Thou must come to me. Aaron Burr says that the great little Madison has asked to be brought to see me this evening.”
Madison was 43, a lifelong bachelor 17 years older than Dolley.
According to one Madison biographer, “the wooing that followed was swift and ardent.”
Several months later, Dolley accepted his proposal of marriage. They were married on September 15, 1794. In another letter to her friend Eliza, Dolley wrote: “I give my hand to the man of all others I most admire.” She signed the note “Dolley Payne Todd,” and then added, “Evening—Dolley Madison.”
The same Madison biographer wrote: “It proved one of those rare marriages that started out with adoration on his part, admiration or more on hers, and deepened in mutual love throughout their lives.”
The marriage, though childless, was notably happy. Madison was even patient with Dolley’s son, Payne, who mishandled his own affairs–and, eventually, mismanaged Madison’s estate.
By 1797, Madison decided to retire from politics after eight years in the House of Representatives. He and his family returned to Montpelier, the Madison family plantation in Virginia.
When his political ally Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third president of the United States in 1800, he asked Madison to serve as his secretary of state. The Madisons, including Dolley’s son Payne, moved to Washington.
Discarding the somber Quaker dress after her second marriage, Dolley chose the finest of fashions. One chronicler of early Washington social life, wrote: “She looked a Queen…It would be absolutely impossible for anyone to behave with more perfect propriety than she did.”
Dolley Madison made her presence felt in Washington. Since Thomas Jefferson was a widower, he frequently called on the vivacious Dolley to serve as his first lady at official functions. Dolley also contributed to the development and decoration of the White House.
In 1808, the Democratic-Republican caucus nominated James Madison to succeed Jefferson. He won two terms in office, serving from 1809 to 1817. Dolley’s weekly gatherings contributed to her husband’s popularity as president and provided a social setting for politicking.
As First Lady, Dolley Madison did much to make up for her husband’s social inadequacies. In large crowds, Madison could be withdrawn, but Dolley more than compensated for it with her vivacity.
Madison dressed entirely in black. Dolley wore brightly colored clothes and often sported feathers. She made frequent visits to people’s homes and left her card, a poem, or a flower as a souvenir.
A significant episode illustrating Dolley’s persona occurred during the War of 1812. As the British army neared Washington in 1814, Dolley Madison ordered that White House staff save a portrait of George Washington from the flames. Dolley Madison fled the city, crossing the Potomac into Virginia. A few days later, she returned to the city, where she continued to host parties, maintaining the social vitality of the badly damaged capital.
After Madison retired from public life, he and Dolley returned to Montpelier where they remained until Madison’s death in 1836.
Dolley’s financial situation was left in tatters by the continued alcoholism of her son. After he was sent to debtor’s prison, Dolley compiled and edited Madison’s papers and sold them for $55,000.
She returned to Washington and lived in a house on Lafayette Square. Eventually, she had to sell Montpelier to settle her son’s debts.
She died in 1849 and was buried at Montpelier next to her husband.