When Dolley Payne Todd married James Madison on September 15, 1774, it was somewhat shocking. Not that she remarried, but that she didn’t wait at least a year after John Todd’s death. She also married outside the Quaker faith, which of course meant that she was read out of Meeting. But, Dolley was practical. She knew that as a woman in the 18th century, she had very few options unless she was married, and she had a son to think about. On the day of her wedding, she wrote to a friend that she knew her “little Payne” would have a “generous & tender protector.”
She may have been somewhat ambiguous about the relationship. After signing the letter “Dolley Payne Todd”, she went back after the wedding ceremony and signed underneath, “Dolley Madison! Alass!” Nevertheless, Dolley and James were well suited to each other. James was considerate and even-tempered, as was Dolley, and they had similar backgrounds. If returning to the type of life she lived in her girlhood bothered her, we don’t know. Dolley, Payne, and her sister Anna soon moved to Madison’s plantation in Virginia. As the oldest son in his family, the plantation became John’s after his father’s death, but his mother was still living, so Dolley didn’t immediately have to become a slave mistress.
When Dolley married James, she knew he was a political man, but it wasn’t clear whether or not he would continue his career in politics. Not because he didn’t want to, but because the country was in such turmoil. The government without parties that George Washington envisioned didn’t exist. Republicans such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison feared a monarchical government with actions such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. On the other hand, the Federalists feared mob rule as in the bloody French revolution. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson easily won the election of 1800, and selected James Madison as his Secretary of State. Dolley was headed to Washington.
When Dolley moved to Washington, what she found was, what appeared to be, a group of little villages connected by muddy roads which became almost impassable when it rained. The city had been planned and eventually would be beautiful, but it would take time. Most congressmen didn’t bring their families and lived in boarding houses which clustered around the capitol building. The Executive Mansion and the Supreme Court Buildings each had their own little group of buildings, the separation mirroring the separation of powers as described in the Constitution.
Unlike New York City and Philadelphia, Washington didn’t have an existing social structure. There weren’t many year-round families, but there were a few who had, in most cases, moved there for the purpose of business. Dolley wanted to bring together these families with congressmen and foreign diplomats. But it was going to be a delicate process, because of the new President’s stand on society.
Thomas Jefferson liked social functions, but he didn’t want to mix society with politics. He particularly wanted to avoid having women involved in politics. As the United States’ ambassador to France at the beginning of the French revolution, he blamed all of the excesses on the Queen. He also wrote home that all of the reforms would fail unless the men controlled the “influence of women in the government.” He intended to do that in America.
Once in office, he immediately discontinued the weekly levees, opening the Executive mansion to the public only on July 4 and New Year’s Day. Instead he held small separate dinner parties for either Federalist or Republican congressmen and his cabinet members, and of course he excluded women.
Dolley had to tread lightly to avoid alienating Jefferson, but she set out to make the Madison home the center of Washington society. As soon as she moved in, she began to make calls on the other women in the city. Then she began to hold small parties where she invited a mix of people, men and women, Federalists and Republicans, locals and foreign diplomats. She combined elegant food with good conversation, but was careful not to be too extravagant. And, she remained non-partisan whenever possible. Margaret Bayard Smith, an author and prolific letter writer, said that Dolley extended to both parties “cordial attentions” and “undistinguished politeness.”
She was truly brilliant in the social realm, and Jefferson always liked her. But not everyone did. During the eight years before Madison became President, she was the subject of her share of gossip and slander. It was rumored that James “pimped out” Dolley and her sister, Anna, to foreign visitors, that she had an affair with Jefferson, and that she and James had no children because Dolley was too “hot.” I don’t know how “hot” she was, but of course it had nothing to do with their childlessness, and there was no truth to the other rumors. Even the fact that John Todd returned to Philadelphia when he became infected with yellow fever in 1793, to protect the family, got turned around on Dolley. It was said that she “banished” him to die alone.
This last rumor was particularly hurtful, and Dolley had other personal griefs to deal with during this time. Her mother died, then two nieces, followed by their mother, Dolley’s sister Mary. Also, Dolley was deprived of the person who was possibly her closest confidante;her sister Anna got married. Anna had lived with Dolley for her entire life. When Dolley married John Todd, Anna moved in with them, and had continued to live with Dolley and James.
Dolley poured all of her grief out privately in letters to family, but to the public she showed a smiling face. She kept her hurt feelings and griefs to herself, and made every effort to rise above it, avoid pettiness, and appear bipartisan. And it worked. By the time Jefferson’s two terms were coming to an end, the Madison home had become the primary place for political activity in Washington.
Dolley was a serious political partner to James from the beginning of their marriage. She often acted as a secretary for him, even after he became President if his official secretary was ill. So when it became clear that Jefferson was going to abide by the two term precedent set by Washington, it was time to go into campaigning mode.
While James may have been the obvious choice for the next President, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion. He had challengers from his own party as well as the Federalists. Of course it would have been unseemly for James to campaign, but Dolley had laid the groundwork. They had relationships with everyone that mattered in Washington and all James had to do was be present when she invited them over.
Dolley had honed her skills over the last eight years, in addition to building the social structure of the city, and it paid off. By the time of the election, any serious challengers from within the Republican party had dropped off and James defeated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the Federalist challenger, by an electoral vote of 122 to 47. And Dolley’s contribution didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, Pinckney said that he had been beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison, and famously added, “I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”
Dolley is widely recognized as the woman who defined what the role of a First Lady should be, but what I wasn’t aware of is that the work began eight long years before she reached the Executive Mansion. Also, her impact was about much more than society and campaigning. She understood that for the young nation to survive, the men in government had to work together, and often that is much easier to do when people can meet on neutral ground.
First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789 – 1961 by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
The History Chicks podcast on Dolley Madison
CSPAN First Ladies Influence and Image
Feather Schwartz Foster: Presidential History Blog has a number of excellent posts about Dolley.