Mrs. Madison: The Widow Dolley

The widowed Dolley Madison spent the last decade of her life in poor finances, but rich in friendships.

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

The Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolley Madison when she was at the height of her good looks and popularity.

The Legacy of James Madison

James Madison lived to be eighty-five, frail and failing, but mentally alert.

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

Payne Todd, was good looking and personable like his mother, given every advantage and opportunity, but it was clear from early childhood, that he was doomed to be a wastrel. By the time he was twenty, he was on the road to wine, wenching and wagering. As might be expected, he fell into debt, regularly turning to his gentle stepfather, who would shield the wife he dearly loved from the hard truth about her dissipated son. Then he would sell more acreage to pay Payne’s debts.  Dolley knew, but she did not know the half of it.

As James Madison’s life drew to a close, his overwhelming thought was to provide for his beloved wife. 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 had turned an amalgam of not-very-united ex-colonies into a cohesive country. These diaries would be left to Dolley, with his explicit instructions: sell them for publication. He expected that they would fetch a substantial sum.

Dolley Madison’s Inheritance

The Madison estate in Orange County, VA, before it was restored to its former glory. It was too much for the Widow Dolley to handle.

Dolley could not run Montpelier alone, let alone profitably. In 1836, when Madison died, she was close to seventy, a considerable age at the time. Not long after her husband’s death, Dolley was invited to visit friends in Washington, where she had spent nearly twenty years at the pinnacle of society. She had been the leader of social Washington since the days of Jefferson, happy to extend her generous hospitality to any and all who wished to call.  She knew everybody, and everybody knew Dolley – and loved her. Then after Madison’s two terms as President, they returned to Virginia to spend twenty years of retirement in the rural countryside.

Realizing that she was a city girl at heart, The Widow Dolley decided to move back to the capital where she had spent her happiest years. She sold Montpelier and paid its debts, which included honoring Madison’s bequests to nieces and nephews. She herself was left in poor circumstances. Her health was being to show her advancing years, adding more troubles to her financial stress. She 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.   Then she moved to Washington.

Hello Dolley!

The town had grown from a tiny village in Dolley Madison’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.

dolley in 1840

Photography was a new invention in the 1840s, and this is one of the rare photos of the elderly Mrs. Madison.

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

payne

Dolley’s son Payne Todd was a great disappointment. Congress wisely set up her funds as an annuity, so could not wheedle money out of his already impoverished mother.

Meanwhile the Widow Dolley was hard pressed for ready cash, and everybody knew it.  It was also no secret that her son Payne was largely responsible for her pecuniary difficulties. Congress would take nearly two years to finally complete the purchase of the Madison papers, but they also did her a great service. They arranged that the contract be paid as an annuity, thus insuring that Payne Todd would not be able to wheedle the money 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 was always delighted to accept invitations, but she could only afford to entertain guests once a month. But everybody came! No matter that her refreshments were simple. No matter that the once great lady-of-fashion still wore the old turban hats of yesteryear. Her delightful presence was sufficient to make every occasion an event.  Assorted great-nieces were invited and delighted to stay with their Great Aunt Dolley. The young girls had the enviable distinction of being under the wing of the one woman who could introduce them to every eligible young man in the capital. She had the reputation of being a superb matchmaker.

When she died at eighty-one, she was given the largest funeral ever before seen in Washington. She was a National Treasure, and everybody knew it. She was also the last link to the Founding Fathers, all now long deceased. She had known them all very well. And they loved her too.

Sources:

  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961 – William Morrow & Co., 1990
  • Anthony, Katharine – Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times, Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1949
  • Moore,Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography , McGraw Hill, 1979
  • http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/dmde/editorialnote.xqy?note=all

 

 

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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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2 Responses to Mrs. Madison: The Widow Dolley

  1. Mrs. Madison has always been one of my favorite First Ladies. I think almost every account I’ve read about her emphasizes her gracious hospitality – what a charming legacy! I enjoyed this post very much.

  2. snippett says:

    It was an odd coupling wasn’t it?

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