A widow living in Philadelphia in 1794, Dolley Payne Todd was introduced to 43 year- old bachelor James Madison by Aaron Burr. Dolley married Madison after a four-month courtship. Dolley accompanied him to his Virginia estate in 1797 when Madison retired from politics. In 1801, James Madison returned to government, appointed by newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson to be his Secretary of State. Jefferson, a widower, came to rely on Madison’s wife Dolley to serve as hostess in the recently completed White House where she was instrumental in developing it’s early décor. Upon James Madison’s victory in the 1808 presidential election, Dolley officially became First Lady on March 4th, 1809, hosting the first Inaugural Ball later that same day. Mrs. Madison was soon a power player in Washington society, presiding over weekly parties, organizing charity drives, and setting female fashion trends. But her defining moment came during the War of 1812. On August 24th, 1814, as British troops were advancing on Washington D.C., Dolley oversaw the evacuation of the White House’s valuables, remembering to save a certain portrait of George Washington. After the war, with much of Washington in ruins, there was talk of abandoning the city and restoring Philadelphia as the nation’s seat of government. James and Dolley Madison set up a temporary “White House” at Washington’s Octagon House, and by continuing to conduct business as usual, Dolley was instrumental in helping Washington D.C. remain the U.S. capital.
Leaving the White House in 1817, Dolley remained a significant figure in Washington society for the rest of her life, and was celebrated, not just for her accomplishments, but as one of the last links to the early days of the U.S. government. At the time of her death in 1849, she could boast of being friends with all 12 U.S. Presidents. Her lasting legacy is her contribution in defining the role of the First lady, and making it a crucial element of the American presidency.
Note: “American Experience: Dolley Madison” will air in the S.F. Bay Area on KQED 9, on Wednesday, March 31st at 10 pm.