Best Known For
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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The Madisons, including Dolley’s son Payne, moved to Washington, along with their domestic slaves from Montpelier.
Dolley Madison made her presence felt in Washington. Since Thomas Jefferson was a widower, he frequently called on the smart and vivacious Dolley to serve as his first lady at official functions. Dolley also contributed to the development and decoration of the White House—the first official presidential residence in the new United States.
In 1808, the Democratic-Republican caucus nominated James Madison to succeed Jefferson. He won two terms in office, serving from 1809 to 1817. Dolley’s weekly gatherings contributed to her husband’s popularity as president and provided a social setting for politicking.
A significant episode in the construction of Dolley’s persona occurred during the War of 1812. As the British army neared Washington in 1814, Dolley Madison ordered that White House staff save a portrait of George Washington from the flames. Dolley Madison fled the city, crossing the Potomac into Virginia. A few days later, she returned to the city, where she continued to host parties, maintaining the social vitality of the badly damaged capital.
In 1817, James Madison retired from public life, and he and Dolley returned to the Montpelier plantation in Virginia. They remained in Virginia until James Madison’s death on June 28, 1836.
Dolley’s financial situation had been weakened by the exploits of her son, Payne Todd. In 1830, Todd went to debtors’ prison in Philadelphia. The Madisons sold land and mortgaged half of the Montpelier plantation to pay his debts.
After James Madison’s death, Dolley organized and copied her husband’s 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.
In the fall of 1837, a year after her husband’s death, Dolley Madison returned to Washington, moving into a house on Lafayette Square. She left Todd in charge of Montpelier, but it quickly became apparent that his alcoholism rendered him unable to maintain the plantation properly. Dolley first attempted to sell the remainder of James Madison’s papers to help support her son. Unable to find a buyer, she sold Montpelier and its remaining slaves.
Dolley Madison died at her home in Washington in 1849. She was 81. Initially buried at the Congressional Cemetery, she was later was re-interred at Montpelier, where she lies next to her husband.
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