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Dolley Madison: She Walked Many Dark Roads and Became The First Lady

Updated on August 12, 2010

Famous Quote

"There is one secret, and that is the power we have in forming our own destinies."

Dolley Madison    Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Dolley Madison Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Dolley Madison    Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Dolley Madison Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

A little background

This quote is in the National Library and was quoted by Dolley Madison. Having felt a great affinity with the fourth first lady the research for this article began in earnest when this quote was discovered. Many people have felt they could control their own destinies. It is a part of the belief of free will however; sometimes our destinies lead us down dark roads.

Dolley Madison walked many dark roads in her life. She lost her youngest son and her first husband to yellow fever. She had a son who was a gambler and an alcoholic that she supported and paupered herself to pay off his debts. She had to watch as the first White house burned to the ground.

Yes, Dolley walked many dark roads. But she had a great many lights and friends along the way, so many that when she died it was in her eulogy that the term “First Lady” was ever used and continued to be used to apply to the women who assisted in the White House at the side of every president afterward.

It is because of Dolley Madison that all other wives of presidents or women who helped presidents who were bachelors or widows were given that honorary title as First lady. She was well and truly loved by the American people even before she came into the White House as wife of James Madison. However, I am getting ahead of my story.


Dolley's Early Years

A story as rich as Dolley deserves to be told slowly for it is certainly full of unexpected twists and turns. She was born on May 20, 1768 to Mary Cole Payne and John Payne. Dolley had an aunt whose name was Dorothea and some say Dolley was the nickname for this, however, in her will Dolley wrote “I, Dolley Madison” so it is generally believed this was her given name with the true spelling.

Dolley's mother was a Quaker but her father John Payne, was not. However, he did apply and was accepted into the family of friends three years into their marriage. Dolley was raised as a Quaker. Dolley’s mother had eight children, four girls and four boys... Her father was a farmer but apparently, he did not prosper at that and when Dolley was ten, in 1783, they moved to Philadelphia. Dolley’s father then tried his hand as a merchant but did not do well at this either and died in 1792. After her father’s death, her mother moved in to live with her daughter Lucy and her family. By that time, Dolley was already married to John Todd in 1790, who was not a Quaker and did not become one. Dolley was deeply affectionate and beloved by all her siblings. Indeed, her sister, Anna, lived with Dolley her entire life.

Dolley and John had two sons, William Todd and John Payne Todd. The first tragedy of her young life following the death of her father struck Dolly in 1793 when a yellow fever epidemic took the lives of her son William and her husband John Todd. It was the optimistic attitude and probably her faith Dolley carried inside her that helped her through that difficult time.


The Blossoming of Dolley Madison

In 1794 an older gentleman, James Madison asked a friend to introduce him to Dolley and after a brief, probably whirlwind courtship they were married in 1794. James Madison was working in the House of Representatives at that time but after three years, he retired from politics and took his young bride to his plantation, Montpelier, where they planned to remain as gentleman farmers. However, James Madison friend, Thomas Jefferson, became the third president of the United States and made James the secretary of state! They moved back to Washington D.C where it is said that for four years Dolley was an often present and welcome addition to any social function and indeed organized many functions and teas on a weekly basis.

It was probably these four years that put her squarely in the limelight that brought out what is now known as the vivacious and bubbly personality of Dolley Madison. Indeed, she was so well loved by the American public for the four years preceding it would not be a long shot to say she greatly helped her husband become voted into the white house!

During the war of 1812 however, tragedy struck again with many important papers and information that was burned in 1814 by the British. However it was also a time of great triumph as well because despite harsh criticism at the time of peril; it was Dolley that ordered that the portrait of George Washington be broken out of its frame so the portrait itself could be saved.

The Last Part

James Madison served two terms as president and during the rebuilding and refurbishing it was Dolley who had a hand in all of that.

Every Wednesday she would hold a public tea and it was said she loved to wear outrageous hats with many feathers and birds and flowers. It would seem she did not mind so much being ostracized from the friends when she married John Todd, as he was not a Quaker and neither he nor James Madison ever applied to become friends of the Quakers society.

If they had, history would no doubt have seen a much different side of Dolley Madison. The vivacious spirit would have been greatly missed and who knows if the term First Lady would even have been given?

Destiny does indeed play a large part in our lives. I agree with Dolley that we can create our own destiny. However, destiny or the higher power or fate, whatever it is called will play right alongside our hands as well, shaping sometimes just an ordinary citizen and sometimes a great lady a servant of the people, a First Lady.

Thank you, Dolley, you are still greatly loved, greatly missed.


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    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 7 years ago from Tucson, Az

      born in '53 definitly in my time and I loved them too clara barton and florence nightingale specifically!! cause I was already going to be a nurse...I loved them all as well ha how bout that? love to you...I am working on Mary Lincoln...she was NOT one in the series i remember that...

    • bayoulady profile image

      bayoulady 7 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

      Hi b, I think Dolley Madison was the first biography I read in 4th grade. Do you remember the blue sets of biographies for historical figures in american history? Or was that before your time? I then read Betsy Ross, Clara Barton, Davy Crockett,Abraham Lincoln,George Washington Carver, LuCretia Mott, and on and on. What I would not give for a set of those books!

    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 7 years ago from Tucson, Az

      thank you suziecat7 this was fun to do as Dolley is a favourite of mine...course it was rebecca e that suggested I do a series and I am working on it...who is your favourite first lady?

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I love historical Hubs - this was a good one - thanks.