Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768. She was the daughter of John and Mary Payne, devout Quakers who owned a farm in Virginia. When Dolley was 15, her father decided to follow Quaker teachings and free his enslaved people. He sold the farm and moved his family to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, his new merchant business failed. This was taken as a sign of weakness by the Quaker community, and John Payne was expelled from the Quaker Meeting. Mary took in boarders to make ends meet. It was a difficult time for the Payne family.
When Dolley was 22, she married a Quaker lawyer named John Todd. Some think that Dolley’s father pressured her into the marriage. When her father died in 1792, Dolley invited her 11-year-old sister, Anna, to stay with her and help care for her two young sons.
In 1793, a yellow fever outbreak swept Philadelphia. Dolley lost four members of her family: her father-in-law, her mother-in-law, her husband, and her baby son. Her sadness was overwhelming but so was living as a young widow with a child and sister under her care. During Dolley’s lifetime, men were considered responsible for their female relatives because of the practice of coverture. But all the men who might have cared for Dolley had passed. Her husband left her some money in his will, but his brother withheld it until Dolley sued him. In the early days of her grief, she had only $19, many debts, and the unpaid bill for her baby’s funeral. She needed to remarry to keep her family together. Supporting herself, Anna, and her son, Payne, as a single woman would have seemed impossible at the time.
At this time, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. There was a very active and exciting social life in the city. Dolley was a beautiful woman who soon caught the eye of many men, including Virginia Congressman James Madison. James was famous for drafting the U.S. Bill of Rights. He was also a wealthy slave owner, but Dolley seemed unbothered by this. They married in September 1794, less than a year after her first husband’s death. This second marriage caused a scandal in the Philadelphia Quaker community. James was not a Quaker, and many did not think Dolley waited long enough before remarrying. Dolley, like her father, was expelled from the Quaker Meeting. From then on, she attended Episcopal services with James and complained about her rigid Quaker upbringing.
For the rest of her life, Dolley was seen as a national hero. Some even called her America’s Queen.
In 1801, newly elected president Thomas Jefferson named James his secretary of state. Dolley and James moved to the nation’s unfinished new capital, Washington City. Because Jefferson was a widow, Dolley cohosted events at the White House when women were present. This gave her first-hand experience of the dysfunction surrounding the capital’s social scene. The new Constitution and Bill of Rights had established a government, but no one could agree on how exactly to run the country. The political parties in Washington did not cooperate. Political debates occasionally erupted into physical fights. Jefferson preferred to host only one political party at a time at the White House. This kept fights out of his home and gave him power as the only person who met with all sides of a debate.
James and Dolley took an entirely different approach. The Madisons invited everyone to mix at their home on F Street. It became the center of Washington’s social scene. When James was elected president in 1808, Dolley did the same thing at the White House. Her social events were fun, noisy, relaxed, and so crowded that they were called “squeezes.” An elegantly dressed Dolley circulated through every party. She made introductions and kept conversations friendly, even if guests were political enemies. Her events created an environment where officials could meet regularly with members of opposing parties, easing some of the tensions in the city. She helped create the informal but essential political culture that is still part of Washington, D.C. today.
Dolley’s next big accomplishment came during the War of 1812. The British invaded Washington City, and the Madisons escaped just hours before the White House was burned to the ground. Dolley rescued a portrait of George Washington and crucial government papers before she fled. She insisted on waiting for James even though it was dangerous. Reports of her quick thinking and bravery, combined with her dedication to rebuilding the city, impressed the public. For many, Dolley symbolized the values with which Americans prided themselves. These values included being down-to-earth, authentic, brave, tough, resilient, and refusing to be beaten down. For the rest of her life, Dolley was seen as a national hero. Some even called her America’s Queen.
At the end of James’s second term, the Madisons returned to their plantation. They hoped for an easy retirement, but Dolley’s son, Payne, created ongoing problems. He had serious gambling debts that the couple had to pay off to protect his reputation. When James died in 1836, Dolley was once again a widow who had to take care of herself in a society that offered her few choices. To make matters worse, Payne kept creating new debts that left her with very little money. She sold James’s papers to Congress but made less than she hoped. Next, she sold some of her enslaved people in violation of James’s will. The enslaved people were given no choice in this decision. Finally, in 1844, she sold her home Montpelier and returned to Washington. She was still an American icon, perhaps the country’s most beloved woman, at the time. President Zachary Taylor referred to her with a new term of honor: First Lady. But her financial struggles continued to the end of her life in 1849.