Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons
One of Betsy Bonaparte’s more surprising friendships was with Dolley Madison. On the surface, the two women seemed to have little in common, yet they had an amiable relationship that lasted many years. For example, while Dolley was in the White House, Betsy often looked in on Dolley’s son at his boarding school near Baltimore. And Dolley Madison once gave Betsy the commission of buying her a turban or anything fashionable on her next trip to Europe because she so admired Betsy’s taste.
Dolley Madison, born Dolley Payne, was raised as a Quaker in Virginia. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was a teenager. When Dolley was twenty-two, she married a young lawyer named John Todd, with whom she had two sons. Tragedy soon struck, however. The terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793—which wiped out some 11 percent of Philadelphia’s population—killed both her husband and her younger son, who was only three months old.
Within a year, Dolley had met and married James Madison, a bachelor who was seventeen years older than she was. As the main author of the U.S. Constitution, Madison was an important political figure, so this new relationship thrust Dolley into a much different social sphere than she had been used to.
She proved to be more than up to the task. After Thomas Jefferson became president, James Madison became his secretary of state and Mrs. Madison served as the hostess for the widowed president. After eight years, Madison succeeded to the presidency, and Dolley Madison officially became the first lady. She was famous for her entertaining. The following description comes from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:
Under Mrs. Madison’s direction, Benjamin Latrobe had transformed the oval drawing room into a blazingly colorful salon that was the talk of Washington. Latrobe had repainted the walls sunflower yellow, highlighted moldings with strips of pink wallpaper printed with white and dark green leaves, hung crimson velvet curtains with gold tassels, and laid a carpet with a red, blue, and gold arabesque pattern. Dolley Madison held open houses every Wednesday in the lavishly decorated room. So many people attended—sometimes as many as 400 in a day—that the regular event became known as Mrs. Madison’s “crush or squeeze.”
Dolley Madison became a beloved national hero during the War of 1812. When it became evident that the British were going to take Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and that it would not be possible to protect the President’s Mansion, Dolley stayed to oversee the removal of as many precious and important items as possible—including a full-sized portrait of George Washington. It is this action for which she is best remembered today.
Although Dolley and James Madison remained devoted to each other, Dolley did have one major sorrow. Her surviving son Payne Todd was an irresponsible alcoholic. His behavior was a trial to his mother, particularly after James Madison’s death. Because of Payne’s heavy spending, Dolley Madison spent much of her later years in poverty.