Saturday, October 7, 2023

Dolley Madison: America's Original First Lady


Dolley Madison is often given credit for defining the role of First Lady for US Presidents' wives. What you may not know is that Quaker Dolley Payne Todd only came into that important role through tragic circumstances, as described in Women of the American Revolution:

"In 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, and 19-year-old Dolley would have watched the political leaders of the new country as they rushed about town. She likely saw the handsome, charismatic Alexander Hamilton and the quiet, bookish James Madison, among many others who were or would become some of the most famous names in American history. Dolley’s attention, however, was on the young men of the city as she considered which might become her husband. She had a broad choice of suitors, but her father selected John Todd, a fellow Quaker. Todd was a lawyer five years Dolley’s senior, who had long expressed interest in her. John Payne, failing in business and in poor health, may have pressured his daughter to wed Todd, but the couple’s letters also indicate a love match. On 7 January 1790, she became Dolley Todd.

By that time, John Payne’s business had gone bankrupt causing his exile from their Quaker congregation. When the federal government moved to Philadelphia, Dolley’s mother, Mary Payne, opened her home as a boarding house to support the family, a decision that would have a deep impact on her daughter’s future. However, Dolley had no way of knowing that as she settled into married life and assisted her mother by frequently taking in her siblings.

She lived with her husband in a three-story brick home that still stands at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. Part of the first floor was used as John Todd’s law offices and an extensive personal library. The couple soon welcomed two sons, John Payne Todd on 29 February 1792 and William Temple Todd in September 1793. Todd’s business was successful, and their family was growing.

Had this idyllic situation continued, Dolley’s name might not have become prominent in America’s history. Tragically for the young wife, Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793 also entered into history at this point. The sickness sent government officials racing from the city for healthier air and left few households untouched, including the Todd house. John Todd sent Dolley away shortly after the birth of their second son, but he remained in the city to care for his father and a clerk in his office who had fallen ill. Approximately 5000 Philadelphians died of yellow fever that summer, and Dolley lost both her husband and infant son on the same day, 24 October 1793."

The Todd House in Philadelphia

It was after this that Dolley went to her friend Aaron Burr for help settling her husband's estate, and he introduced her to his bachelor friend, James Madison. They were married within the year. It is believed that the term 'First Lady' was used to describe Dolley Madison at her funeral, and the title has become part of the US vernacular. 

Read more about Dolley in Women of the American Revolution! It is available at Pen & SwordAmazonBook DepositoryBarnes & Noble, or your favorite book retailer. 

Also available now at Audible and!

You can also find more articles here.

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