Dolley Payne Todd Madison
May 20, 1768, in Guilford County, North Carolina
July 12, 1849, in Washington, D.C.
Dolley Madison was 40 years old when her husband James Madison became president, and she served as first lady throughout his term in the years 1809-1817.
When Dolley became first lady upon her husband’s election to the presidency, she had already established herself as an engaging hostess by helping President Jefferson entertain at the White House periodically. Her years serving as first lady for both Jefferson and her husband are legendary for her friendliness, warm hospitality, and skillful entertaining. In later years President Van Buren remarked about Dolley’s tenure as first lady, “Mrs. Madison is the most brilliant hostess this country has ever known.”
Dolley is not only remembered for her social skills, however. She is also celebrated for having saved priceless White House artifacts from the White House before they were destroyed by British troops during the War of 1812. Though others urged her to leave the White House immediately when the sounds of battle approached, Dolley insisted on gathering what she could––her husband’s letters, the national seal, and the portrait of George Washington. The portrait’s frame was screwed to the wall, so it was necessary to break the frame in order to save the portrait. Not long after she left with the White House treasures in a wagon behind her, the British burned the White House. When she and her husband returned, the home was in ruins and they lived in the Octagon House for the remainder of Madison’s term so the White House could be rebuilt.
Check out an alternative perspective to the legend in the article “Primary Sources: Dolley Madison’s Letter to Her Sister About the Burning of the White House” on this website.
Senator Elijah Mills remarked about Dolley’s affability as first lady, “She welcomed all classes of people, greasy boots and silk stockings.”
Regarding her efforts to save artifacts from the White House before they were burned, Dolley asserted, “Anyone would have done what I did.”