Dolley Madison’s Son Payne Todd: The Final Blow

dolley in 1840

The Venerable Mrs. Madison

Dolley Madison’s son, Payne Todd, had always been a disappointment.

Payne Todd in Brief

Dolley Madison (1768-1849) had been married to John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, for three years. Then he died, leaving her with a two-year-old son.

When she remarried, her new husband was the only father Payne Todd (1792-1852) knew. James Madison, more grandfather than father, was indulgent, supportive, helpful and affectionate. But like his wife, he was disinclined to administer the discipline that all children require from time to time. 

On the asset side, Payne grew up to be good looking like his mother, courteous and well mannered. His courtly bows were praised. His disposition was charming, again like his mother. He made friends easily.

But try as they did, neither James nor Dolley Madison seemed to make academics, hard work or profitable employment part of Payne’s agenda.

By the time he was 21, he was well on the path to dissipation from wine, women and wagering.

Madison’s Problem

James Madison, stepfather

James Madison, eighteen years older than his wife, had waited a long time to marry, and he adored her. Since Payne displayed acute disinclination toward every opportunity Madison provided for schooling, his stepfather finally tried other approaches.

As president, Madison sent the young man, then about twenty, as secretary to a small delegation appointed to St. Petersburg, Russia, hoping a diplomatic venue would be to his liking. It was. Payne loved the cosmopolitan lifestyle, particularly since he was treated like a Crown Prince. He was soon seen at all the gaming tables in the capital, quickly losing most of the generous allowance and then some that his stepfather provided.

When the delegation disbanded, Madison left the group in Paris, and began a gambler-alcoholic existence. He seldom wrote home unless it was to his stepfather (rather than his mother) asking for money, usually large sums.

The Montpelier plantation was too much for Dolley in her elder years.

Madison quietly sold off acreage from his large estate to pay Payne’s debts, rather than cause pain to his beloved Dolley. Eventually, she became aware (as did most of the country!) of the extent of Payne’s dissipation (which included Debtors’ Prison), but she never knew the extent of the money his stepfather advanced, including the heavy mortgage on Montpelier. Every effort the Madisons made to help Payne sustain himself, including an adjoining plantation to run himself, seemed doomed to failure. All his “business enterprises” were little more than disastrous get-rich-quick schemes. Nevertheless, Dolley loved her son, never spoke ill of him, and always claimed “he had a good heart.”

The only existing likeness of John Payne Todd

When James Madison died in 1836, he was eighty-five. His once-thriving plantation was in serious financial decline. His will named Dolley as his chief heir, but he also left a complex and complicated series of bequests to assorted charities, nieces and nephews that would take years to fulfill. Dolley, already in her late sixties, could not manage the plantation and finances herself. Payne, by now a dissolute alcoholic, was ill-equipped to help. She eventually sold the plantation and moved back to Washington, where she had many friends – and very few funds.

The Poor Widow Dolley 

Anna Payne Causten and her aunt Dolley Madison

Having taken a great loss in the sale of Montpelier, largely due to her son’s dissipation and debts, she rented a small house near the White House, bringing with her a few old retainers, and her niece Anna Payne Causten, who had been her devoted mainstay during James Madison’s last years.

The former president had spent those elder years annotating his diaries from the Constitutional Convention fifty years earlier, believing them to be invaluable to the country he helped found. This was his major bequest to his beloved Dolley; he expected them to be published, valued at $100,000 – enough to provide for all his bequests – and his widow.

Dolley had enlisted her son’s help in finding a publisher, but Payne proved inept as ever, and nothing came from it. Congress finally authorized funds for a partial purchase, but it was inadequate. Dolley was broke. She was neither an experienced businesswoman nor did she have a natural head for finance. Always a loving and doting mother, she had given Payne her power of attorney. As usual, he bollixed up the sale of Montpelier to a point that Dolley could no longer go back to Virginia: she would be inundated with lawsuits and outstanding claims and debts.

Dolley’s house in DC. It is still there.

Most of the existing correspondence between Payne Todd and his aging mother were either about needs: usually his, or finances and property: usually hers. There is the expected courtesy, some genuine affection, but little indication of a desire to help her.

Dolley had outlived her closest kin. Like Madison’s family, they were all into the second generation, with strife amongst everyone, usually about money. Payne Todd was all she had, despite his incompetence and dissolute habits.

It was her devoted niece-companion Anna Payne Causten who provided the day-to-day assistance and affection that Mrs. Madison had always generously provided to others. 

Dolley Madison best remembered.

Nevertheless, Dolley held her head high and maintained her consummate dignity and grace in public. Most people believed she had comfortable means, but the truth was that she was suffering financially.

The Battle of Wills

Dolley’s will had been written nearly a decade before her death, but by 1849, as her health declined, she wanted to provide for Anna. When Todd got wind of her inclination, he turned up at her bedside, lawyer in tow, with a new will, making him, her only son, sole heir of his mother’s estate. Her frail condition could not stand up under the stress and duress. She signed it.

Very shortly thereafter, when another nephew, an attorney, learned of that subterfuge, he drafted (and she signed) another will, dividing whatever estate she had left between Payne Todd and Anna, who would otherwise be left destitute. Dolley could now rest easy…

However…The battle of wills was fought for nearly three years – by then, both Payne Todd and Anna Payne Causten had died.


Angelo, Bonnie, First Families: The Impact of the White House on their Lives – 2005, HarperCollins

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

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1 Response to Dolley Madison’s Son Payne Todd: The Final Blow

  1. sheafferhistorianaz says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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