Dolley Madison’s Early Life: The Tragedy Before the Triumph

Dolley Madison, 1804, by Gilbert Stuart

Dolley aka “Dolly” Madison, known as the originator of traditions continued by subsequent First Ladies, experienced personal tragedies in her early life.

Dolley or “Dolly” Madison, wife of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, is known as originating traditions that continue to this day. Lauded for her gracious hospitality, beauty, and gift of putting foreign dignitaries and regular Americans alike at ease, Dolley’s stunning fashion sense was literally applauded. But the smiling hostess and superb conversationalist survived losses and that make her later generosity and kindness all that more remarkable.

The Payne’s Financial Downturn

Dolley Payne, later to become Dolley Payne Todd, and then Dolley Payne Todd Madison, was born in North Carolina. Later, the family relocated to a Virginia plantation. Dolley’s father freed the family slaves and moved the family to Philadelphia, where a series of poor investments in both land in the west and in a starch factory in Pennsylvania quickly diminished the family coffers.

Used to a life of comparative ease, Dolley took on more chores, including making the family meals. She credited her time in the kitchen to helping her develop recipes later used in entertaining as a political wife. After her father’s death, Dolley’s mother took in boarders.

Known for her beauty, Dolley married a Quaker lawyer, John Todd, who was taken with her charms, enough so that he did not demand a dowry, as was the custom.

Yellow Fever in Philadelphia

Dolley gave birth to Payne Todd, and then to William. In 1793 yellow fever swept through Philadelphia. Dolley was stricken with the disease. She awoke from her illness to learn her in-laws, youngest son, and husband had all succumbed.

Dolley’s sister Anna continued to live with her, but her mother closed the boarding house and moved in with one of Dolley’s other sisters. Dolley’s husband had left her with enough funds to live independently, but her beauty attracted suitors.

Courted by many, including the infamous Aaron Burr, Dolley remained unswayed until the persistent James Madison set his sights on her. After a short time, the couple married.

Religious Ostracism

Displeased by Dolley’s marriage to a non-Quaker, the Society of Friends (Quakers) “reads her out of the Meeting.’ Rather than mourning the loss of her Quaker mooring, Dolley found it liberating. For years she had struggled to dress plainly in order to keep within Quaker tradition. Freed from religious strictures, Dolley melded restraint with color and form to remake fashion.

By 1803 Dolley rose to become the most fashionable and charming hostess in the nation, giving dinners for the widower President, Thomas Jefferson. Later, when her own husband rose to the office, Dolley became the First Lady in name as well as in fact. Her domestic skills and sense of fashion having grown in a garden that was not without thorns.


  1. Gerson, N.B. The Velvet Glove: The Life of Dolly Madison. Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, 1975.