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Dolley Madison – the very first First Lady

Tijana Radeska
Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison – the wife of the 4th President of the United States – James Madison, was the first to acknowledge the idea that the President’s wife, or the “First Lady” has the role of “mother of the nation”. She performed the role of the First Lady even before her husband became President, at the time when Thomas Jefferson was in power. He was a widower and close friend to the Madisons, so Dolley would arrange the social events by his side.

Dolley Madison - First Lady of the United States

Dolley Madison – First Lady of the United States

Dolley was born in 1768, to the Quaker settlement of New Garden, North Carolina. In 1790 she married a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia – John Todd, and with him she had two sons – John and William. In August 1793, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia during which more than 4,000 died. Dolley lost her husband and son on the same day as a result of the fever. She became a widow at 25 and had a son to support.

Engraving of Dolley, c. 1800.

Engraving of Dolley, c. 1800.

A year later she was introduced to James Madison through their mutual friend Aaron Burr. At the time Madison was a delegate to the Continental Congress. Even though he was 17 years older than Dolley, he had never been married before and proposed marriage to her. After a few months, Dolley accepted his proposal and married him. Since Madison wasn’t a Quaker, Dolley was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying outside her faith.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

They were known to have a happy marriage. While Madison was Secretary of State, Dolley served as a First Lady for the ceremonial functions of President Thomas Jefferson, and when James Madison succeeded Jefferson, she created the role of First Lady officially. While her husband worked as a President, she stood by his side taking care of the social activities related to the office.

Dolley was responsible for the decoration of the White House and for organizing the social gatherings there. When the White House was burned down during the War of 1812, while escaping, she ordered the slaves who worked in the White House to take down the portrait of George Washington hanging on the wall, and took it with her.

Dolley at the end of her tenure as First Lady in 1817

Dolley at the end of her tenure as First Lady in 1817

In 1817 James Madison retired from politics and the family moved to Virginia. After his death, Dolley organized and copied James’ papers over the course of a year. Congress authorized $55,000 as payment for editing and publishing seven volumes of the Madison papers. Dolley’s son and her sister Anna stayed with her during this time.

A daguerreotype of Dolley in 1848, by Mathew Brady

A daguerreotype of Dolley in 1848, by Mathew Brady

She died at her home in Washington in 1849 at the age of 81. She was first buried in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., but later was re-interred at Montpelier next to her husband.