Dolley Madison: The Impoverished Merry Widow


James Madison’s Legacy

James Madison was eighty-five years old when he died, frail and nearly blind, but mentally alert. He realized that Montpelier, his once thriving Virginia plantation was failing, partly due to the vagaries of farming itself, partly due to his deteriorating health which curtailed his personal management, and mostly due to Payne Todd, his stepson. His wife Dolley had been a twenty-five year old widow when he married her more than forty years before; a widow with a two-year-old son. James and Dolley Madison would have no children together.

Payne Todd, good looking and personable like his mother, was given every advantage and opportunity, but it was clear, even from early childhood, that he was doomed to be a wastrel. By the time he was twenty, he was well entrenched on the road of wine, wenching and wagering. As he fell into debt, he would turn to his gentle stepfather, who would shield the wife he dearly loved from the hard truth about her dissipated son – and sell off another hundred or so acres to pay Payne’s debts.

As his life drew to a close, Madisons overwhelming thought was to provide for his wife. Dolley was nearly seventy, a considerable age in 1836. She would not be able to run Montpelier alone, let alone profitably. For some years, he had been reworking and annotating his papers, including the comprehensive diaries he had kept fifty years earlier, during the Constitutional Convention, which, in essence turned an amalgam of not-very-united ex-colonies into a cohesive country. The diaries would go to Dolley, with his explicit instructions: sell them for publication.

Dolley Madison’s Inheritance

Not long after James Madison’s death, Dolley was invited to visit friends in Washington, where she had spent nearly twenty years at the pinnacle of its society. She had been the leader of social Washington since the days of Jefferson, happy to extend the generous hospitality of the Madison house (and later the White House) to any and all who wished to call. Sometimes they had guests for every meal. She knew everybody, and everybody knew Dolley – and loved her. Then after Madison’s two terms as President, there were twenty years of retirement in the rural countryside of central Virginia.

Realizing that she was always a city girl at heart, The Widow Dolley decided to move to the capital where she had spent her happiest years. She sold Montpelier and paid its debts, which included Madison’s bequests to nieces and nephew. She was left in very poor financial circumstances and failing health, which suffered with her added financial stress. She also had no trusted family members to rely on for guidance and assistance. But she had those diaries – and hope that a publisher would be found.

Washington had grown from a tiny village in Dolley’s heyday, to a burgeoning city. Everyone was delighted to have Dolley back where she belonged, and it is said that the day she moved in to her little rented house on Lafayette Square, more than a hundred calling cards were waiting for her.

But alas, a commercial publisher was not forthcoming for the Madison papers. An old friend suggested that Congress might purchase them. Congress loved Dolley – everyone did. Her hopes rose again. And again, they were dashed. Congressmen being Congressmen, they took their sweet time about it, dickering and bickering and referring the matter to committees.

Meanwhile poor Dolley was hard pressed for ready cash, and everybody knew it. It was also not a secret that her son was largely responsible for her pecuniary situation. It would take Congress nearly two years to finally complete the purchase of the Madison papers, but they also did her a great service. They drew up the contract to be paid as an annuity, thus insuring that Payne Todd would not be able to wheedle the money (a considerable $30,000) from his always doting, but seriously impoverished mother.

She was, of course, invited everywhere, and went everywhere. No Washington gathering was complete without Mrs. Madison, the virtual Queen Mother of society. Dolley of course was happy to accept the invitations, although she could only afford to reciprocate and open her house to guests once a month. But everybody came. It did not matter that her refreshments were simple. It did not matter that the once great lady-of-fashion was still wearing the old turban hats of yesteryear. All that was needed was her delightful presence to make the occasion an event. Assorted great-nieces were invited to stay with their Great Aunt. The aging Dolley needed a little assistance – and the young girls had the enviable distinction of being under the wing of the best connected woman in Washington; the one who could and would introduce them to every eligible young man in the capital. She had the reputation of being a superb matchmaker.

When she died at eighty, she was given the largest funeral ever before seen in Washington. She was a true National Treasure. She was also the last link to the Founding Fathers, all of whom she knew so well.