Dolley Madison Sends A Telegram

The venerable Dolley Madison, the most popular woman in Washington, if not the entire country, in the 1840s.

As “The Widow Dolley”, Mrs. Madison was the most famous woman in the country.

Mrs. Madison: Dowager Washingtonian

When James Madison died at 85, Dolley was 68, and still in good health. Montpelier, their Virginia plantation was failing however, due to Madison’s declining years and ability to oversee, to the vagaries of farming in general, and mostly to the huge debts run up by Payne Todd, Dolley’s son from her first marriage. The Widow Madison was in sorry financial straits.

Since it was obviously far more than she could handle, she sold the plantation and moved back to Washington, a place she hadn’t seen for two decades. It had changed enormously. Nevertheless, her reputation as the leader of society was still intact, with dozens of old friends who were thrilled at her arrival. It is said that when she moved into her small rented house, there were more than 100 calling cards waiting for her.

Despite the fact that her finances were meager and she could only entertain once a month, she was invited everywhere – and she went. Washingtonians said no party was “official” unless Mrs. Madison was in attendance. That included the White House, where she was happy to serve as de facto social advisor to the Van Buren, Tyler and Polk administrations.

Bottom line: Dolley Madison was a national treasure, dearly loved by all.

The Multi-Talented Samuel F.B. Morse

Samuel Finley Breeze Morse (1791-1872) was a very talented man born in Massachusetts, and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University. By the 1840s he had made a solid name for himself as a portrait artist, and could claim a growing A-list of clients. Today, his works hang in fine museums, and are considered worthy.

Samuel F.B. Morse in his older years: portrait painter and inventor.

In the competition between science and art, it is usually science that becomes the profession and art the hobby. But occasionally, like other multi-talented men such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and even Theodore Roosevelt, Morse had made a hobby of scientific pursuit.

His inventive mind imagined transmitting sound over vast distances. The means of human voice-sound was not available in the early years of the 19th century, but sound does not need to be human voice. Morse’s “avocational” experiments led him to devise a means of carrying sound through metal wire. The tap-tap-tap could actually be received at a fair distance.

Inventive minds usually keep inventing. Morse determined (after several years of experiments) that actual messages could be sent over those same wires if the tap-tapping could be arranged in a way that was easily understood, thus the Morse Code. He devised an alphabet of short and long taps that equated to letters of the alphabet. With a little practice, real messages not only could be sent, but received and “read.”

The Morse Code caught on like wildfire. Kids loved it!

It was nothing short of revolutionary. The telegraph and the Morse Code would become one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century, would change history, make Morse’s fortune, and spawn scores of other inventions. A young Thomas Edison eagerly learned Morse Code as a stepping stone to his own fame and fortune.

Unveiling the Revolution

Morse usually gets credit for “inventing” the electro-magnetic telegraph, but in reality, the actual product was a combination of several designs by several inventors. Patrick Feaster, one of the better historians seriously dedicated to the telegraph offers some fascinating details! The code, however, was Morse’s alone.

With help from other scientists and inventors, his first two-mile transmission of sound-via-wire occurred in New Jersey in 1838. Determined to expand this promising accomplishment to longer distances, Morse went to Washington to solicit assistance (financial and otherwise) from Congress. As expected, they dithered and dallied. Morse then went to Europe, where he learned to his dismay, that other scientific “competitors” had beaten him to the general punch.

Samuel Finley Breeze Morse – one of the great inventors of the nineteenth century.

Returning to the US in late 1842, he gained Congressional sponsorship by stringing wire between two committee rooms, and sent messages back and forth. Congress was impressed, to the tune of $30,000 to string wire between Washington and Baltimore, nearly forty miles away.

By May, 1844, the wire had been strung and tested, and the grand “unveiling” was scheduled.

“What hath God wrought,” was a Biblical quote sent over the wire from the Capitol Building to a Baltimore railroad station and into history. The telegraph, and just as important, its method of transmitting messages, was a huge success. It was clocked that 30 characters (dots and dashes) could be sent per minute. By the following year, New York City had telegraph wire strung to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and parts westward. By 1850, more than 12,000 miles of telegraph wire had been strung between large cities.

The Dolley Connection

Even though the public “unveiling” of this experiment in 1844 was considered important in Washington, only a modest number of witnesses actually attended the transmission – or its receipt at the other end. But when (and this gets fuzzy) a “personal” message was to be sent via telegraph, opening the way to making it a means of public/personal communication, the venerable Mrs. Madison, was summoned for the honor. Some had suggested that President John Tyler have the distinction, but he was very unpopular – and Dolley was beloved. Nobody could object.

Legends abound of course, and zealous historians can nitpick a delightful story into a bland and coma-inducing footnote. Only the intrepid truly care about exactly which date Dolley’s personal message – sending her love to Mrs. John Weathered in Baltimore was sent. It may have been the same day, the following day or even a week later. But it was sent, and Dolley sent it, by personal invitation. Further, it was sent (and received) within a few days of “What hath God wrought.”

Thus one could claim Dolley Madison, as the first to be onboard with “social media.”


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



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 Dolley Madison Sends A Telegram

  1. energywriter says:

    Great story and good suspense building. I wondered how Dolley and Morse combined to send a telegram? sd

    Jim here’s the most recent of my friend’s writings – related to your presidential trivia email. sd

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