Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Dorothy Payne Madison 1768 ~ 1849

 


Dorothy Payne Madison

There are few figures on the canvas of American history that stand out with such undimmed charm as that of beautiful Dolly Madison. Certainly no one of its kerchiefed dames of the early Republic made their public and private life a better example of American womanhood to American girls of the succeeding generation than the bright-eyed Quaker girl widow, who became hostess of the White House in 1809.

By the chance of a parental visit, it was in the province of North Carolina, under the reign of King George III, that Dorothea Payne was born, on the 12th of May, 1768. By lineage and residence, however, she had a good right to call herself "A Daughter of Virginia," for her parents returned to their Hanover county plantation when she was an infant, and it was at the old school in Hanover that she learned her first lessons. Her grandfather, John Payne, was an English gentleman, who came to Virginia, and married Anna Fleming, a lady of Scottish birth, and who was descended, it is claimed, from the Earl of Wigton, a Scottish nobleman. Her father, John Payne, Jr., married Mary Coles, the daughter of an Irish gentleman from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. This Mary Coles was descended from the Winstons, of Virginia, a family known for its aristocratic lineage. Indeed, it is reasonable to suppose that much of Dolly Payne's conversational gift was a legacy from these Winstons. Her mother's uncle, Patrick Henry, the orator, was said to have inherited his talent from his brilliant mother, Sarah Winston, while another cousin, Judge Edmund Winston, was a local celebrity.

Of the three strains of blood, English, Irish and Scotch, that flowed in Dolly Payne's veins, the Irish appears to have predominated. The roseleaf complexion, the laughing eyes, the clustering curls of jet-black hair, the generous heart and persuasive tongue, all these were legacies from the County Wexford ancestors. The "Cousin Dolly" for whom Dolly Payne was named was the lovely Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge granddaughter of the famous Sir Alexander Spotswood, of Virginia. Curiously enough, this "Cousin Dolly" married two of Dolly Payne's mother's cousins, first, Patrick Henry, and, after his death, when her little namesake was nine years old, Judge Edmund Winston, making a bewildering maze of cousins, as they used to do, and still do, down in Virginia, Dolly Payne's father was a Quaker, and so little Mistress Dolly wore her ashen gown down to her toes and the queer little Quaker bonnets and plain kerchiefs and long cuffs covering her dimpled arms, as prescribed for those of her sex by the decree of the "Friends." But this sober dress was not to her mind, it seems, for we read that she wore a gold chain about her neck, under the folds of her kerchief, a sin which she confessed to the old black "Mammy Rosy," and who, no doubt, after scolding her for such an impropriety, consoled her with an extra allowance of some particularly longed for dainty.

It was on account of John Payne's religious belief that he set free his Negro slaves, sold his plantation, and moved his family to Philadelphia, where he hoped to find more sympathy than was to be had from the Virginia cavaliers. But John Payne found his financial position much embarrassed with the sale of the Virginia plantation, and was, no doubt, glad when a desirable suitor, in the person of young John Todd, a Quaker lad and rising young lawyer, asked for the hand of Mistress Dolly. Mistress Dolly herself was not enthusiastic in the matter, but she finally yielded to her father's desire, and was married to Lawyer Todd on the seventh day of January, 1790, in the Friends' Meeting House on Pine Street. There were no minister, no bridal veil, no wedding music, no dancing, and no drinking the bride's health, nor any of the merrymaking her gay young heart would have liked. Her wedding must have cost her many a pang in its absence of all gayety and brilliancy.

Dolly's years with her first husband were brief, though happy, and they ended tragically. Three years later John Todd died of yellow fever, that swept over Philadelphia, and Dolly Todd was left a young widow in poor circumstances, and with one child, Payne Todd, who was in after years to sadden and shadow her life. She went to live with her mother, then also a widow, in straitened means, who had taken some gentlemen to board. But Dolly's sunny nature would not let her brood over her grief. Now, for the first time, she was mistress of herself. There was no Quaker father or Quaker husband to restrain her in her life of frivolity. This period of her life was her real girlhood, and that training school for the personal charm and social grace wherein lay the secret of her future greatness. In about a year after the death of John Todd, Aaron Burr, who had been an inmate of Mrs. Payne's house-hold, introduced the young widow to James Madison, who had already made a wide reputation. Mrs. Todd wrote to a friend that Mr. Burr was going to bring "that great little Madison'' to call upon her. The "great little Madison" called; in the words of a biographer, "He came; he saw; she conquered." Shortly after this Mrs. Washington sent for Dolly, and questioned her about Madison's attentions, strongly advising the youthful widow to accept him as a husband. She did so at once, receiving the President's and Mrs. Washington's heartiest congratulations. Dolly's sister had married George Steptoe Washington, the President's nephew, so there was a connection in the two families, and the second marriage was solemnized at Harewood, the estate of her brother-in-law, on September 15, 1794. From Harewood they went to Montpelier, Madison's home, in Orange County, Virginia, traveling over a distance of a hundred miles by coach.

It was here, through his wife's influence, that Madison was induced to hold his seat in Congress until the end of the Washington administration, which concluded in 1797. When it ended Dolly Madison lived in Philadelphia, for Madison did not come to take part in national affairs again until Jefferson became President, in 1801, and in the meantime the seat of government had been moved to Washington. Then the man who had framed the Constitution of the United States, and was known as the "Father of the Constitution," was needed, and Jefferson appointed Madison Secretary of State. From this time began Dolly Madison's social reign in Washington. She became, indeed, a power to be reckoned with in political games. For, though she made no effort to mix in the affairs of state, her influence was felt indirectly in matters of great importance.

In 1809, Dolly Madison's husband succeeded Jefferson as President, and she realized her ambition by becoming the first lady of the land. She was equal to the occasion. When shy young youths came to the White House it was she who put them at ease. When aiders of the opposition party grew most bitter, the President's wife was always unfailing in her courtesy and attention to their wives. In her drawing room opposing elements met, and she smoothed away the friction with one of those rare smiles or a pleasant word. Even during the trying period of the War of 1812, when Madison was torn to distraction by the Peace party, she was the most popular person in the United States. The story of her cutting out Washington's portrait from the frame when the British were about to enter the Capital, does not seem to be quite true; she had the frame broken because it had to be unscrewed, and there was no time to lose, but one of the servants actually did it. It was a sultry August day that the English fleet sailed up the Chesapeake and anchored at the mouth of the Potomac. At sight of the enemy's ships Washington presented a spectacle very much like Brussels had before Waterloo fell. The bewildered crowds were employed in conveying valuables out of the city, and an endless procession of coaches and chaises, with flurried-looking occupants, went streaming out of the Capital. Mr. Madison and his secretaries were at Bladensburg, the field of battle, and his wife was unwilling to leave Washington until he returned. In spite of her great anxiety she kept brave and cheerful, and even planned a dinner party for the night which was to witness the burning of the Capital. She saw one official after another go out of the city, but heroically refused to desert her post and, though the British Admiral sent her the startling word that he would make his bow in her drawing-room, not until a messenger from her husband arrived, crying, "Clear out, clear out ! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!" did she turn her back upon the White House. And even then she took time to save a carriage load of cabinet papers and the White House silver. Then, reluctantly, she took her departure. "I longed, instead," she affirmed with spirit, "to have a cannon from every window."

She barely escaped the marauding British troops, for it was only a few hours later that they entered Washington, and set fire to the Capitol. By the lurid light of that burning building the destroying army marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where they partook of the wines and viands that had been prepared for Dolly Madison's dinner party. Mrs. Madison, meantime, with her little train of followers, was journeying to meet Mr. Madison, as some penciled notes from him had directed. Of the next few days' wanderings of the President and his wife, which, to us, in our later century, read like a comedy of errors, it can only be said that had President Madison showed the same coolness and judgment as his wife, much of the ridicule to which he was subjected would have been avoided.

But in the days of general rejoicing that followed the declaration of peace Mr. Madison's official blunders were forgotten, and Dolly Madison became more popular than ever. The soldiers, returning home from their long service, stopped before her home, "The Octagon," to cheer. Her receptions in this comparatively small house were more brilliant than those of the White House had been. In the gayeties of the "Peace Winter" Dolly framed a memorable epic in the annals of Washington society. James G. Blaine wrote of her: "She saved the administration," and while, perhaps, his praise was too great, she held greater social and political sway than any other woman of her country. In the midst of her greatest social glory she had one great grief. Her son, Payne Todd, the "American Prince," had his mother's charm, but not her nobility.

After Madison's two terms were over he returned again to Montpelier, where he lived until the year 1836, when he passed out of the world in which he had left so lasting an impression.

After his death Dolly Madison returned to Washington, where the remaining twelve years of her life were spent in the house now owned by the Cosmos Club, but which is still called the Dolly Madison Mansion. Here the old lady, now in poverty, for Montpelier had been sacrificed to pay the gambling debts of her unworthy son, lived, still retaining her old popularity, and receiving attention from everybody who resided in or came to Washington. The nation settled a goodly sum upon her, and voted her "A Seat in the House."

When Dolly Madison died, July 12, 1849, her funeral was conducted with pomp that has marked no other American woman's last rites. The President and Cabinet, Senate, Diplomatic Corps, Judges of the Supreme Court, and officers of the Army and Navy, clergy, and all Washington society attended. It was a pageant worth her beautiful life record. In late years her body was removed to Montpelier.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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