Dolley Madison in Plain Clothes

Dolley by James Peale

One of the oldest of the Dolley Madison portraits, the garb may not have been strict Quaker, and jewelry was verboten, but the influence of plain attire is apparent.

For the first twenty-five years of her life, Dolley Payne Todd Madison wore Quaker gray gowns and bonnets.

Dolley:  A Strict Upbringing

Dolley Payne (1768-1849) was born and raised into a strict Quaker family.  Her father, John Payne, was a convert, and like most people who choose their religion, he rigorously observed the tenets of the faith.

It was a simple life.  Dolley dressed in the conventional Quaker gray gowns and bonnets, attended prayer meetings on Sunday, “thee’d and thou’d” in her speech patterns, and disdained everything that smacked of opulence or luxury.

Despite the adherence to Quakerism, the Paynes owned a few slaves, which would prove a great moral conflict to Dolley’s father.  But for the first twelve or fifteen years of her life, the handful of bondsmen were a part of that life.

The Paynes would be a happy and loving family, with eight of their ten children living to maturity.  But it would not be a particularly merry one.

Dolley:  The Seminal Experience

The story goes that when Dolley was around ten, and likely during one of her mother’s many confinements, Dolley was sent to spend a fortnight with her Episcopal grandmother in Virginia.

For the first time, she was exposed to bright colors, other than flowers in the fields and gardens.  Dolley never saw vivid color inside the home.   Added to the bright blues and greens and reds, she saw rich fabrics, something she would love for the rest of her life.  Velvets, silks, satins and brocades.  And jewelry!    She heard lively music.  She had been taught that music was for hymn singing only.  Here was not only music – but dancing!

And, the story continues, Dolley was treated to desserts: cakes and pies, jams and comfits.  At home, sweets other than perhaps honey, were not a part of the plain Payne diet.  Dolley’s sweet tooth would become legendary!  She would never forget this experience, and admitted on various occasions that she “did not have the soul of a Quaker.”  Dolley liked stuff.

Dolley:  The Philadelphia Story

When she was fifteen, the inner turmoil her father felt as a slave-owner, expressly forbidden by Quakerism, had finally reached the point that he manumitted (freed) his human “property,” at great financial cost to himself.  Then he sold his successful plantation, and moved to Philadelphia, the great Quaker City in Pennsylvania, where he would find “Friends.”


The house that John Payne bought for his family (and later turned into a boarding house) still remains in Philadelphia.

Her parents purchased a large brick house in the center of Philadelphia, which still stands today.  John Payne purchased a starch manufacturing concern, and the family limped by.  Dolley, as the oldest daughter, was needed to help raise the children at home.  Paynes business was a failing one, not only financially, but in his sense of personal worth.

He retreated into a severe depression which eventually resulted in his death.  The house would become a boarding house to help support the family.

Dolley Is A Quaker Bride

Meanwhile, during this time of personal and financial upheaval in the Payne family, Dolley met and was courted by a young Quaker lawyer named John Todd.  Todd was one of the few “Friends” who refused to abandon the family in its time of need.  He also had fallen in love with the attractive and very personable Dolley Payne.

It was her father’s last wish that Dolley marry Todd, and whether she did so to please her dying father or because she sincerely loved the young attorney is still debatable.  The bottom line is that she did marry him, and they had a happy, if not long marriage.   (For the record, Dolley was the ONLY one of John Payne’s children who married into the Quaker religion.  Strict obedience to the faith was not hereditary.)

Three years later, disaster struck in the guise of a yellow fever epidemic that claimed nearly a quarter of Philadelphia’s population.  John Todd was one of its victims, as was their infant son Temple.  Dolley herself was very ill, but she managed to recover.  So did her two-year-old son, Payne.

Dolley in Washington

This early image of Dolley Madison is likely the way she might have appeared at Lady Washington’s levees. Her clothing, of course, would have been far more decorous, and her Quaker bonnet would have covered her curls.

Dolley and little “Payne” returned to live with her mother and to help with the boarding house.  It was 1794, and Philadelphia was the country’s capital and temporary home to congressmen, senators and all levels of government officials .  It did not take long before The Widow Payne’s boarding house gained a reputation of being the liveliest and most enjoyable home-away-from-home in town – particularly noted for its charming and engaging hostess, the recently widowed Dolley Todd.

Still wearing her Quaker gray gowns and bonnets, once the traditional mourning black had been discarded, Dolley began was receiving invitations to First Lady Martha Washington’s levees.  One of Dolley’s sisters had married one of George Washington’s nephews, so she had “family access.”  Despite her plain clothes, her engaging personality and vivacious manners made her an instant hit with the First Family

Six months after John Todd’s death, the Widow Todd was introduced to Congressman James Madison, and her life would change dramatically.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow

Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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One Response to Dolley Madison in Plain Clothes

  1. energywriter says:

    So many details we never knew. Did she really sew White House treasures into her clothes when the British attacked Wash DC? sd

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