Life & Contributions
Dolley Payne Todd Madison is one of the nation’s most famous first ladies, known especially for her hospitality at the White House. When her husband, James, was president, her Wednesday night receptions were the most popular events in the city. Contemporaries called them “squeezes” for the crowds. The American author Washington Irving remembered “the blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison’s Drawing room” and her “smile and pleasant word for everybody.”1 Quoted in “Becoming America’s First Lady: How Dolley Madison Conquered the Nation’s Capital,” Thomas Jefferson’s Montpelier website, montpelier.org/learn/dolley-madison-becoming-americas-first-lady (accessed March 13, 2020). She did not discuss politics, but by encouraging men of opposing political views to converse in a convivial setting, she increased her husband’s popularity and advanced his political ambitions.
Dolley was a young widow in 1794 when James Madison, a congressman from Virginia, asked to meet her. The previous year, during a yellow fever epidemic, she had lost her husband and infant son on the same day. Now Madison brought joy to her life. “In this Union I have every thing that is soothing and greatful in prospect,”2Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Elizabeth Collins Lee, September 17, 1794, The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010), http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu. she wrote a friend the day after she and Madison married. To some they seemed an unlikely couple. He was quiet and studious, she was charming and vivacious. Together they would make history.
The Madisons moved to Washington in 1801, after President Thomas Jefferson named his friend secretary of state. Jefferson was a widower, and Dolley sometimes assisted at his White House entertainments. She made friends, remembered names, and dressed in the latest of fashions — high-waisted gowns, a silk turban on her head. In 1809, when James’s election as president made her first lady of the White House, she redecorated the parlor in “sunflower yellow” and set chairs in semicircles to encourage conversation.3William Seale, The President’s House: A History, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2008), 1:122, 127. The White House burned the night of August 24, 1814, set on fire by British troops in the War of 1812. Dolley stayed until the very last minute, making sure Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington was sent to safety before she fled.
Perhaps Dolley Madison is best remembered today for this brave act, but she is honored in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for her diplomatic art of bringing people together.
Portrait of James Madison
French Porcelain Coffee Cup and Saucer from Dolley Madison's Service
Dolley Madison's Hand-Written Monogram
High-Relief Profile Bust of James Madison
Portrait of James Madison, 5th Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson
Paris Nast Porcelain Plate from President James Madison's Service