Click here to read Dolley Madison's letter concerning
the burning of Washington DC
Dolley Madison ,was born Dolley Payne in Guilford
County, N. C., on May 20, 1768. Her family moved to Virginia when she
was an infant, and she spent the first 15 years of her life there. In
1783 her Quaker parents moved to Philadelphia, where, in 1790, she
married Quaker lawyer John Todd, Jr. They had two children: one died in
1793 during the same yellow-fever epidemic that took her husband's life;
the other was John Payne Todd..She
married Congressman James Madison, 17 years her senior, on Sept. 15,
1794. The marriage, though childless, was apparently a very happy one.
Madison first served as "unofficial first lady" during the
presidency of Thomas Jefferson, a widower, while her husband served as
secretary of state. During her husband's presidency (1809-1817), she
became the unquestioned center of Washington society.Noted for her graciousness and charm as well as her ability to
entertain guests and preside at dinners, she was best known for her
Wednesday evening receptions where politicians, diplomats and the
general public gathered. At a time of intense party rivalries, these
gatherings helped to soothe some of the tensions between Federalists and
indicates that not only was she an effective counter balance to her husband's rather colorless public personality, but that her influence
on Madison's political decisions was not in the least insignificant.Notably, during the British invasion of Washington in 1814, she
escaped to Virginia carrying important state papers, a Gilbert Stuart
portrait of George Washington, and other personal valuables.
to Virginia in 1817, the Madisons continued to entertain lavishly.After her husband's death in 1836, Mrs. Madison returned to
Washington where her home once again became a center of social life.Her last public appearance was at a ball given for President Polk
in 1848.She died in
Washington on July 12, 1849.
Payne Madison was the wife of President James Madison and one of the
most famous First Ladies in U. S. History.
Dolley Payne Todd Madison (May 20, 1768 – July 12, 1849) was the spouse
of the 4th President of the United States, James Madison, and was First Lady of
the United States from 1809 to 1817. She also occasionally acted as what is now
described as First Lady of the United States during the administration of Thomas
DOLLY PAYNE was a Virginian, though she was born while her
parents were on a visit in North Carolina. She lived on a great plantation where
she had wide fields to play in, and a devoted black mammy to look after her.
Both her mother and grandmother were noted belles and Dolly, who was named for
her second cousin, Mrs. Patrick Henry, evidently inherited their beauty, for as
a very little girl, going to school, she wore a wide-brimmed sunbonnet and long
mitts, to shield her face and arms from the sun.
Dolly remembered how her father, in spite of the fact that they were Quakers,
had buckled on his sword and ridden away to be a captain in the Revolutionary
army, and how when the war was over, he came home again to join in the
neighborhood's thanksgiving for America.
Soon after the war, when Dolly was fourteen years old, he freed his slaves, sold
the plantation, and moved north to the city of brotherly love that he might be
among Quakers. It was then the largest town in the nation, with a reputation for
being very rich and gay. But the Paynes maintained a strict Quaker standard of
Dorothy was a pretty girl, demure in her gray dress, but with bright Irish-blue
eyes, long lashes, curling black hair and soft warm-hued skin. She had a
particularly gay and joyous disposition, but was forbidden such pleasures as
dancing and music. She went to the Friends' meeting-house where the men and boys
in their black coats and broad-brimmed hats sat on one side of the room, the
women and girls in their mouse-colored bonnets and drab gowns on the other.
Dolly's father had done very well on the southern plantation, but when he went
into business in Philadelphia he found many troubles. Living cost much more than
in Virginia, a good deal of his property had been lost through the war and he
failed, then ill health added its burden. A rich young Quaker lawyer named John
Todd helped and advised him. He had fallen in love with Dolly, and though she
meant never to marry, she consented, to please her father who had only a few
months more to live.
On two successive Sundays she went through the embarrassing Quaker ceremony of
rising in meeting and saying she proposed taking John Todd in marriage; and
standing up before the congregation, they were married in the somber bare-walled
meeting-house. Mistress Todd lived for three years the life of a Quaker lady,
and a devoted wife she was to her young husband. She always wore a cap of tulle,
a gray gown, with a lace kerchief over her shoulders and a large brooch
fastening it—no other ornaments. Except for her beauty she was like a hundred
other young Quaker women in the city of brotherly love.
In August of 1793 an epidemic of yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia. Todd
sent his wife and their two little children to a summer resort on the river,
where many of their friends took refuge He stayed in the city to care for his
father and mother but they died of the plague. Already ill himself he joined his
family, only to give them the dread disease, he and the baby dying shortly after
his arrival. Dolly too was stricken with the fever, but recovered.
At first she was bowed down by her great loss. But Philadelphia was gay and
gradually Mistress Todd began going about again, far more freely than in the
days of her sober girlhood. She found herself really enjoying society and all
the pleasures of the city. From a shy girl she developed into a most attractive
woman. With her youth and her riches, it is no wonder that she became the object
of much attention. Gentlemen would station themselves to see her pass, and her
friends would say, "Really, Dolly, thou must hide thy face. There are so many
staring at thee!"
Among her many admirers was Aaron Burr, then a United States senator. For
Philadelphia, you remember, was the capital of the newly organized government,
and the leading men of the time lived in the city. One day he asked her if he
might bring a friend to call, for the "great little Madison," as his colleagues
called him, had requested the honor of being presented. So the handsome Colonel
Burr introduced Mr. James Madison, a little man dressed all in black, except for
his ruffled shirt and silver buckles. Dolly wore a mulberry satin gown with silk
tulle about her neck and a dainty lace cap on her head, her curly hair showing
underneath. The scholarly Madison, who was twenty years older than she, was
captivated by the pretty widow, sparkling with fun and wit, and soon offered
himself as a husband, and was accepted.
The President and Mrs. Washington were much pleased when they heard of the
engagement. Sending for Dolly Mrs. Washington asked her if the news was true.
"No, I think not," said Mistress Todd.
"Be not ashamed to confess it, if it is so. He will make thee a good husband and
all the better for being so much older. We both approve of it. The esteem and
friendship existing between Mr. Madison and my husband is very great, and we
would wish you two to be happy."
Happy they were, during the week's journey when they drove down to Virginia, to
be married at the home of Dolly's sister; and during the merrymaking following
the wedding which lavish southern hospitality, with a ball and feast after the
ceremony, made quite different from her first marriage. The quiet reserved
Madison let the girls cut off bits of his Mechlin lace ruffles as keepsakes. And
happy they were together for more than forty years.
They lived only a short time at Montpelier, Madison's home in the Blue Ridge
country, for public affairs soon took them back to Philadelphia and then to
Washington. At her husband's request Dolly laid aside her Quaker dress, entered
society and entertained frequently. Her sweet manners, her tact and kindness of
heart, made her friends everywhere. At that time party spirit ran high and
political differences caused great bitterness, but all animosities seemed
forgotten in Mrs. Madison's presence. She slighted no one, hurt no one's
feelings, and often made foes into friends. Perhaps her influence had almost as
much to do with Madison's prominence in national affairs as did his own
unquestioned ability; for her sound common sense and exceptionally good judgment
often helped him in deciding public questions.
When Jefferson was elected president he made Madison his secretary of state. And
since Jefferson was a widower and needed a lady to preside at the White House,
he often called upon Mrs. Madison for this service. Then Madison succeeded
Jefferson and Dolly became in name what she had been in effect, the first lady
of the land. Thus for sixteen years she was hostess for the nation, and a famous
hostess she was indeed.
"Every one loves Mrs. Madison," said Henry Clay, voicing the common sentiment.
"And Mrs. Madison loves everybody," was her quick response.
The president used to say that when he was tired out from matters of state a
visit to her sitting-room, where he was sure of a bright story and a hearty
laugh, was as refreshing as a long walk in the open air.
But even with such a mistress of the White House the affairs of the nation did
not remain tranquil. Trouble with England, which had long been brewing, came to
a crisis and war was declared in 1812. As most of the fighting was at sea, life
at Washington went on undisturbed until August of 1814, when the British landed
five thousand men near the capital and marched to attack it. The town was" in a
panic when the messenger rode in at full speed, announcing fifty ships anchoring
in the Potomac.
"Have you the courage to stay here till I come back, to-morrow or next day?"
asked the president.
And Dolly Madison replied, "I am not afraid of anything, if only you are not
harmed and our army triumphs."
"Good-by then, and if anything happens, look out for the state papers," said
Madison, and rode away to the point where the citizen-soldiers were gathering.
Many Washington people began carrying their property off to the country, but the
brave woman at the White House did not run away. At last there came a penciled
note from the president:
"Enemy stronger than we heard at first. They may reach the city and destroy it.
Be ready to leave at a moment's warning."
Most of Mrs. Madison's friends were already gone, even the soldiers who had been
left to guard the executive mansion. Not a wagon could be secured. "Bring me as
many trunks as my carriage will hold," ordered Dolly Madison and set to work
packing them with the-nation's most valuable papers. Night came but the lady of
the White House worked on. At dawn she began searching through her spyglass,
hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband. All she could see was here and there a
group of soldiers wandering about, men sleeping in the fields, frightened women
and children hurrying to the bridge over the Potomac. She could hear the roar of
cannon, the battle was going on only six miles away; still the president did not
One of the servants, French John, offered to spike the cannon at the gate and
lay a train of powder that would blow up the British if they entered the house.
But to this Mrs. Madison objected, though she could not make John understand why
in war every advantage might not be taken.
About three o'clock in the afternoon two men covered with dust galloped up and
cried, "Fly, fly! The house will be burned over your head!"
Some good friends had succeeded in getting a wagon and Mrs. Madison filled it
with the White House silver.
"To the bank of Maryland," she ordered, and added to herself, "or the hands of
the British— which will it be?"
Two friends came in to urge haste, reminding her that the English admiral,
Cockburn, had taken an oath that he would sit in her drawing-room and that other
officers had boasted they would take the president and his wife both prisoner
and carry them to London to make a show of them. They were just ready to lift
her into the carriage when Dolly stopped.
"Not yet—the portrait of Washington—it shall never fall into the hands of the
enemy. That must be taken away before I leave the house."
The famous painting by Gilbert Stuart was in a heavy frame, screwed to the wall
in the state dining-room, but in that frantic hurry there were no tools at hand
to remove it.
"Get an axe and break the frame," commanded Dolly Madison. She watched the
canvas taken from the stretcher, saw it rolled up carefully, and sent to a place
of safety. Later it was returned to her, and to-day hangs over the mantel in th»
red room of the White House.
One more delay—the Declaration of Independence was kept in a glass case,
separate from the other state papers. Notwithstanding all the protests of her
friends, Dolly Madison ran back into the house, broke the glass, secured the
Declaration with the autographs of the signers, got into her carriage and drove
rapidly away to « house beyond Georgetown.
None too soon did she leave. The sound of approaching troops was heard. The
British were upon the city. They broke into the executive mansion, ransacked it,
had dinner there in the state dining-room, stole what they could carry, and then
set fire to the building.
Instead of sleeping that night, Dolly Madison, with thousands of others, watched
the fire destroying the capital, while the wind from an approaching storm fanned
the flames. Before daybreak she set out for a little tavern, sixteen miles away,
where her husband had arranged to meet her. The roads were filled with
frightened people, while fleeing soldiers spread the wildest rumors of the
Arrived at the inn finally in the height of the storm, the woman in charge
refused to take her in, saying, "My man had to go to fight; your husband brought
on this war and his wife shall have no shelter in my house!"
The tavern was thronged with women and children, refugees from the city, who
finally prevailed on the woman to let Mrs. Madison enter. The president arrived
later, but before he had rested an hour a messenger came crying, "The British
know you are here—fly!"
Dolly Madison begged him to go to a little hut in the woods where he would be
safe, and promised that she.would leave in disguise and find a refuge farther
away. In the gray of the morning she started, but soon came the good news that
the English, hearing reinforcements were coming, had gone back to their ships.
At once she turned and drove toward the city. The bridge over the Potomac was
"Will you row me across?" she asked an American officer.
"No, we don't let strange women into the city."
In vain she pleaded. He was firm. "We have spies enough here. How do I know but
the British have sent you to burn what they have left? You will not cross the
river, that is sure."
"But I am Mrs. Madison, the wife of your president," she answered, throwing off
her disguise. Then he rowed her across the Potomac. Through clouds of smoke,
past heaps of still smoldering ruins, she made her way to the home of her
sister, and waited there for Mr. Madison to return.
While the White House was being rebuilt the Madisons lived in Pennsylvania
Avenue, and a brilliant social life centered about them. They revived the levees
of Washington and Adams, gave handsome state dinners and introduced music at
When Madison's second term was ended they went to live at Montpelier, their
beautiful Virginia home, where they entertained with true southern hospitality
the many friends and tourists who visited them. Mr. Madison, for many years an
invalid, busied himself with books and writing.
Soon after his death in 1836 Dolly returned to Washington, to be near her old
friends. Her home again became a social center, for her tact and beauty and
grace made her always a favorite and a leader. She entertained many
distinguished guests, "looking every inch a queen," the British ambassador
declared. Sometimes there were as many visitors at her receptions as at those at
the White House. All the homage of former times was hers, and much consideration
was shown her by public officials, Congress voting her a seat on the floor of
Brougnt up in strict Quaker ways, she adorned every station in life in which she
was placed. And in a crisis when the White House was in danger, Dolly Madison
was courageous enough to delay her departure till she had saved the Stuart's
Washington and the Declaration of Independence. - By:
Grace Humphrey, Women
in American History: An American History Published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company,
full address leaf, Free Frank "Free D.P. Madison" by her at the
upperright, and addressed in her hand to Miss Mary E.E. Cutts in
Washington.With a very
dark circular red "Orange C.H. VA June 8" postmarkBlack seal with "DM" initials is intact.
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