Dolley and Her Sisters: The Merry Wives of Washington

Dolley Payne was the eldest daughter of eight; she had three younger sisters.

Dolley Payne: Quaker Daughter

John Payne, Dolley’s father was a convert to the Quaker religion, and like many people who choose their faith, was strict in its observances. The family moved from North Carolina (where Dolley and her older brother were born) to Virginia, where they had a comfortable mid-sized plantation. They lived there until Dolley was around fourteen or fifteen.

While she received a basic education of reading and writing and sufficient arithmetic to manage household accounts, she was mostly trained in homemaking skills – and helping to tend to the younger siblings who appeared at regular intervals. It was a close and loving family, but perhaps because of their “plain” manners, it was not opulent or particularly merry.

The Payne family moved to the house (below the steeple).

Since Quakers were adamantly against slavery, John Payne finally made the hard decision at great financial loss: he manumitted (freed) his slaves, sold his plantation, and moved the family to Philadelphia, a Quaker City. He purchased a starch business, which eventually failed.

The Payne Girls: Lucy, Anna and Mary

Lucy Payne (1777-1846) was only fifteen when she “eloped” with George Steptoe Washington, nephew and ward of General George Washington, the country’s first president. The strict Quakers expelled her for marrying out of faith, but it did not deter her; she maintained strong relationships within her family. Her marriage to Washington’s nephew was a happy one, living on his inherited plantation “Harewood,” in what is now West Virginia. (It was at Harewood that Dolley and James Madison were married in 1794.) Lucy bore two surviving children and the marriage lasted until Steptoe’s death.

Mary, the youngest Payne sister, (1781-1808) married Judge (and later Congressman) John G. Jackson before she was twenty, and moved to what is now Clarksville, West Virginia. She died of consumption at 27. Only one of her several children lived to maturity.

Dolley’s sister Anna Payne Cutts. The resemblance is there. So is the gown.

Anna Payne (1779-1832) was Dolley’s special charge. A full ten years her junior, Dolley considered Anna her sister-daughter, and the relationship between them would be extremely close for life. When Dolley married Philadelphia attorney John Todd, Anna came to live with them. She was around eleven at the time; old enough to be helpful and even companionable. But after only three years of marriage, John Todd died, and Dolley, her two-year-old son Payne, and Anna went to live with her widowed mother, who had turned their home into a boarding house to make ends meet.

Not quite a year after Todd’s death, Dolley married Congressman James Madison, bringing Anna, along with little Payne to live with them in Philadelphia. Later they moved to Madison’s Montpelier plantation, and finally moved to Washington, where they lived while Madison was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. It was there that Anna met and married Massachusetts (now Maine) congressman, Richard Cutts in 1804. By that time, the age gap between Dolley and her little sister had evened out; they were close companions and confidantes.

The Madison White House & Its Merry Wives

In 1809, James Madison took the oath of office as the country’s fourth President, and moved into the White House.

Washington was still a small village, and congressional sessions were by and large, seasonal. Elected Representatives traveled from their homes periodically, and stayed in boarding houses or hotels for the few months of the session. If they had relatives in town, it was a bonus.

First Lady Dolley Madison had always been extremely close to Anna, and when the Cutts’ came for the Congressional sessions, they stayed with the President until their own house was ready.

Dolley’s sister Lucy Washington was the widow of George Washington’s nephew George Steptoe Washington.

George Steptoe Washington died in 1807. Perhaps from loneliness and a need to be with family, his widow Lucy and their small children came to Washington. They were also urged to stay at the White House.

It was while she was living with the President and First Lady that the widow Lucy Washington met the widowed Supreme Court Justice Thomas Todd (no relation to Dolley’s first husband). They married in 1812 in a small White House ceremony, considered the first White House wedding on record.

For a brief time, all three of the Payne sisters lived under one roof. Considered attractive, they were also said to be particularly amiable and delightful company, much like the reputation enjoyed by their oldest sister, Dolley Madison.

A portrait of author Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis.

New York author Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), on his way to a notable career in both literature and diplomacy, visited the White House during that time, and remarked on the pretty and pleasant trio, likening them to Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Their spouses were prominent, their political “connections” were impeccable, their influence on “society” was notable; their good looks and cheerful presence made the fashionable salons even more popular.

Gilbert Stuart, the foremost portrait painter of that period captured their likenesses – and their general resemblance.

The Merry Wives: An Epilogue

Mary Payne Jackson died when she was still in her twenties, and never really had the opportunity to know her sisters as an adult and peer.

Lucy Payne Washington Todd lived mostly in Kentucky, where her second husband was a prominent and early settler. When he died, Lucy made periodic visits to both Montpelier and Washington.  She lived until 1846.

Anna Payne Cutts died in 1832, at the relatively young age of 52. Her death devastated her sister-mother Dolley.

Dolley Payne Todd Madison, the eldest, outlived all her siblings, and her popularity not only as First Lady, but as any lady, has seldom been eclipsed. She was 81 when she died, and her final illness was mercifully brief and generally without pain.


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

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.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, James Madison, Nifty History People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dolley and Her Sisters: The Merry Wives of Washington

  1. energywriter says:

    So much to learn about our early presidents and their families. Thank you.

  2. sheafferhistorian says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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