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Dolley Madison is best known as the wife of United States President James Madison, who served from 1809 to 1817.
Dolley Madison - Mini Bio (3:04)
James Madison - War of 1812 (2:21)
Learn how first lady Dolley Madison saved one of America's first national treasures.
Dolley Madison's greatest legacy is establishing the idea that a First Lady should serve as the mother of a nation. She served as hostess of the White House by hosting social functions and establishing the chief role of the First Lady.
In 1812, James Madison became the first U.S. president to ask Congress to declare war. Find out why he wanted to wage war against Britain and how his constituents felt about it.
At just 5'4", James Madison was hardly a commanding presence, but that didn't stop him from shaping American history.
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Dolley Madison was born in the Quaker community of New Garden, North Carolina, on May 20, 1768. Her husband, James Madison, was president of the United States from 1809 to 1817. The vivacious Dolley set the template for the role of first lady, helping to establish American political traditions and maintain them through the hardships of the War of 1812. She died in Washington on July 12, 1849.
"It is one of my sources of happiness never to desire a knowledge of other people's business."
Dolley Madison was born Dolley Payne on May 20, 1768, in the Quaker settlement of New Garden, North Carolina. Her parents had moved to New Garden in 1765 from their native Virginia. Her mother, Mary Coles, was already a Quaker when she married John Payne in 1761. Payne was admitted to the Quaker monthly meeting in Hanover County, Virginia, where he attended services with his wife and her parents until the couple relocated to New Jersey.
The Paynes soon returned to Virginia, to live near the Coleses and raise their young children. Dolley grew up at her parents’ plantation in eastern Virginia, with her four brothers and three sisters.
Although John Payne owned slaves, his Quaker faith preached against the practice. In 1783, following the American Revolution, Payne finally emancipated his slaves. Abandoning the plantation, Payne moved his family to Philadelphia, going into business as a starch merchant. He died in 1792.
Mary Payne initially supported herself by operating a boarding house. Shortly thereafter, she left Philadelphia to move in with her daughter Lucy, who had married a nephew of George Washington and was living in Virginia.
In 1790, Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia. The couple had two sons, John Payne (called Payne) and William Temple. After Dolley’s mother left Philadelphia, her sister Anna Payne moved in with the Todds.
In August 1793, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia. More than 4,000 people died over the spring and summer months. By mid-September, thousands had fled the city. Dolley’s husband John and son William died of yellow fever on the same day. She was a widow at the age of 25, with her young son Payne to support.
It was not long before she met the man who would become her second husband. James Madison was a delegate to the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia. In 1794, Madison asked his friend Aaron Burr to introduce him to Dolley, who was well known and liked in the city’s social circles. Madison was 43, a lifelong bachelor 17 years older than Dolley. Several months later, Dolley accepted his proposal of marriage. They were married on September 15, 1794, and remained in Philadelphia for the next three years. Since James Madison was not a Quaker, Dolley had to relinquish her religious identity in order to marry him.
By 1797, Madison decided to retire from politics after eight years in the House of Representatives. He and his family returned to Montpelier, the Madison family plantation in Virginia. When his political ally Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third president of the United States in 1800, however, he asked Madison to serve as his secretary of state.
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The wives of U.S. presidents are often important American figures in their own right. Although they have no official responsibilities, first ladies are a highly visible part of U.S. government. The role of the first lady has evolved over the centuries, from hostess of the White House to advocates for public policy. Learn about the different causes first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama have championed over the years, from literacy to addiction to health care reform.
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