On July 19, 1849, the largest funeral procession ever held in Washington DC till that time, commemorated the life and death of its most popular resident.
The Venerable Mrs. Madison
Dolley Payne Madison was 81 when she died on July 12, 1849. Her last illness was mercifully brief, and generally painless. Most modern historians believe she had suffered a series of small strokes. Her life, however, had been made up of the stuff of legends.
What was never a legend, was her immense popularity and influence. She never voted, never held public office, refused to take credit for any political policy, insisting that she only believed in “politics by people.” Yet she was the President’s confidante and partner, not merely his consort.
During the fifty-some years she spent as Mrs. Madison, Dolley was at the pinnacle of political society, and she reigned supreme. What she wore became instant fashion. What she served at her table became cherished recipes for hundreds of imitators. How she greeted her guests – personally, without waiting for them to be introduced to her, changed standard etiquette. Her penchant for snuff and rouge shocked public morals, then quickly became conventional. Visitors to Washington were far more eager to meet her than they were to meet her husband, the President. Even in her elder years, as The Widow Dolley, living frugally in a rented house, her New Year’s Day reception found the creme of political Washington Stopping in immediately after they had attended the White House reception.
James Madison had been her second husband, the first having died only three years after their marriage. Madison was seventeen years her senior, and lived till he was 85. She outlived him by fourteen years. Despite the difference in their ages, and the fact that she was taller and outweighed him, it had little bearing on the true happiness of their married life. He adored her from the start, and she grew to love her “Jemmy” deeply. Throughout the forty years of their marriage, they were seldom separated for more than a couple of weeks.
Between word of mouth and newspaper headlines, all of Washington knew of Dolley Madison’s death by the following day. The telegraph, which had made its first appearance a few years earlier (with Dolley’s help!), certainly was utilized to broadcast the news to the rest of the country.
The Daily Intelligencer (Washington) announced “with saddened heart” the passing of Dolley Madison, and “for ourselves…it would not be easy to speak in terms of exaggeration.”
The New Orleans Daily Picayune wrote only days later, “the softening and dignifying influence of woman in society was never more happily illustrated than in the late Mrs. Madison.”
The Philadelphia Bulletin noted that she had become “almost as well known… as any of our statesmen of the same period.”
In a letter to the editor of the Richmond Whig, it was proposed that the women of Virginia wear a black mourning band for a month as a token of their esteem.
From pulpits across the country, clergymen lauded Mrs. Madison in eloquent speeches and praise.
Only a short time before her demise, Dolley formally joined the Episcopal Church. Born and raised a Quaker, she generally relinquished traditional Quaker observances when she married James Madison. During her many years in Washington, she had attended services in St. John’s Church, although she had not become a member. Perhaps realizing that her death was near, and knowing her funeral would be widely attended, she wished to make the relationship official in order to make it easier to plan the proper services.
Her funeral was likened to a state occasion. Both houses of Congress adjourned in order to attend the services and follow the procession. The pall bearers were a Who’s Who of important and prominent people in Washington, as well as being personally important in Dolley’s long life.
The Daily Intelligencer, Washington’s key publication, carried the notice of Dolley Madison’s funeral on July 17, 1849, held at 4 p.m. at St. John’s Church. President Zachary Taylor, a distant relative-by-marriage, attended with members of his family. Rev. Pyne delivered an eloquent and heartfelt eulogy to a packed congregation of Cabinet officers, congressmen, military officers, diplomats, and “citizens and strangers.”
By 5:30, the funeral services concluded, and the largest procession ever seen in Washington up to that time, followed the casket from the Church to the Congress Cemetery, where it lay until it was removed to Montpelier, to lay beside her late husband.
The End of An Era
The passing of Dolley Madison ended the line of direct links to our Founding Fathers. She was a kinswoman to Patrick Henry. While she may not have met Benjamin Franklin personally, she was a young woman living in Philadelphia during his last years, and likely had seen him in passing.
George Washington was president when Dolley was a young matron. Her sister had married one of Washington’s nephews. She had attended Martha Washington’s levees. The President personally encouraged her marriage to Madison, suggesting it would be felicitous.
She knew John and Abigail Adams. Many years later, the Widow Madison would become close personal friends with his son, John Quincy, a man her own age.
Thomas Jefferson lived in her mother’s boarding house in Philadelphia; it is said that TJ and Dolley’s mother had known each other in childhood. Then, too, he was James Madison’s closest friend for a half century. James Monroe was also part of that Virginia triumvirate of frequent cherished visitors to the Madison home.
And in her last years, she became close friends with elderly Elizabeth Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton, her husband’s compatriot at the Constitutional Convention. Life had completed its circle.
Dolley knew all of them and they all knew her. And they all loved her.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow
Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company
Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011