Although there were first ladies before her, Dolley Madison was the woman chosen to give the role of the First Lady of the White House, the prestige the title enjoys today. A widow, who at the age of twenty-five that had already experienced the ravage death leaves behind within her own family with the loss of her husband and her youngest son, this woman would set up the ceremonial and social protocol in the newly built White House in Washington D.C.
Born as Dolley Payne, in 1768, in Guilford County, her parents were Quakers and lived in the New Garden Quaker settlement located in the North Carolina colony at the time of her birth. Her mother and father, both Virginians, had moved to the North Carolina territory, after her father had taken on the Quaker faith and its vows. They departed Virginia in 1765 and returned later in 1769 to their homeland.
Dolley Madison’s childhood was not plagued with economic needs. She was raised in an affluent family. The oldest girl among her brothers and sisters, in a family which included eight children besides her parents, she was particularly attached to her mother’s side of the family.
After the revolutionary war, her father moved them to Philadelphia, where Dolley would meet John Todd, her first husband, who was a lawyer and a Quaker. Happily married she experienced her first tragedy when the Yellow Fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia in 1793. This disease would rob Dolley of her husband and her youngest son, William Temple, who both died on the same day. Death had struck its gong, and Dolley was left behind with John Payne, her oldest son, and her sister, who had been staying with her to help with the children.
What do you do when tragedy strikes?
How would you deal with the status of widowhood at such a young age?
Where do you find the anchor to keep going?
It was in these days while the Continental Congress was still being held in Philadelphia that she would meet her second husband, who would one day become the fourth President of the United States of America.
Destined to stand out, Dolley did not have any knowledge of her purpose in life as she met the long-standing established bachelor, James Madison. She was a socialite, a woman, and a Quaker. Madison, who was seventeen years older than she was, had asked one of his friends, Aaron Burr, to introduce him to her. There ensued a short whirlwind courtship, which ended with their getting married four months later. As a Quaker, reared in a faith that practiced little tolerance for people who married outside of their religion, she was expelled from the Quaker’s church upon her marriage to James Madison.
With the election of Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States, and the death of Jefferson’s wife, Jefferson extended the invitation to James Madison to come to Washington D.C. and become his new Secretary of State. Madison’s acceptance of that position opened the road for Dolley Madison to fulfill the mission she was born to fulfill.
Thomas Jefferson needed someone to do the entertaining and conduct the ceremonial protocols within the White House. Since he and Madison were close friends, he asked Dolley, Madison’s wife to take on the task. It was a job Dolley fully enjoyed. Having decided within herself, before her husband left the family plantation in Virginia, that Washington D. C. was the place where she wanted to be, she packed up their things and her moved with her husband. Thus, Dolley Madison became the unofficial First Lady of the White House and took over the responsibility of having it decorated.
Martha Washington, the wife of the first President, George Washington, had stayed in her Virginia home during her husband’s tenure as President of the United States, Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, the second President, preferred the farm and family home in Quincy, Massachusetts, but Dolley Madison preferred the spotlights of Washington D.C.
Although James Madison had not yet been elected, nor had he even considered himself for the office, Dolley was making plans. Her flair, her way of relating to people and her southern hospitality made her stand out. People enjoyed being around her. Dolley Madison was truly the most valuable contributor to James Madison’s Presidential campaign after Thomas Jefferson decided to retire.
She was more of a diplomat than her husband and many historians consider her participation in her husband’s campaign as being the pivotal point to his being elected to office. Dolley Payne Madison was a woman with a vision, who gave the title of being the First Lady of the United States of America, the dignity and honor it enjoys today.