A handful of photographs of Dolley Madison exist. They depict her alone; with her niece, Annie Payne Cutts; and in a group portrait with President James Polk and others. They were taken by Matthew Brady, with the exception of the last, which was taken by an anonymous photographer. In the group portrait her face is blurred because she has moved. (They are daguerreotypes, requiring the subjects to remain still for a period). Circa 1845, they show her in her later years. Some paintings of Madison also exist, one of them done by Gilbert Stuart. As well, she wrote classical poetry and epigrams and was noted for her colorful dresses and trademark turbans.
Dolley Madison (1768-1849) was part of the Founding Generation of the American Republic. The wife of James Madison, the third Vice-President and fourth President of the United States, she was greatly influential in early American politics. In Washington DC, a brand new town in those days, American politicians largely did not know each other and related to each other with distrust and, sometimes, with violence. Women’s public role in politics was limited. Despite both these circumstances, with adroitness, Madison endeavored to create an attitude of conciliation and inclusiveness. Her salons and dinner parties in Washington DC were gathering places for elected officials to talk face-to-face and without rancor. Her tireless networking and letter-writing also supported this. Additionally, her political advice to James Madison and her influence on patronage were vital. Finally, Madison created the role of the First Lady. From hospitality to charity to fashion to decorating the White House, she established many of the parameters of the position. She was, in fact, the first Presidential wife to be called the First Lady. Greatly loved by Americans, who called her, with affection, “Queen Dolley”, she was the most famous American woman of her day.
Dolley Madison was born in Cedar Creek, a North Carolina Quaker community, and grew up in Virginia and Pennsylvania Quaker Meetings. She worshipped at Pine Street Meeting in Philadelphia, where her parents were prominent members. She always chafed at the Society’s narrowness in the 18th century, however. A charming and lively young woman, she enjoyed the good things in life. (A Quaker elder once admonished her about her behavior. Madison smiled sweetly and then, as the elder went on, fell asleep). She married John Payne in 1790, and they were known as gay Quakers. (In those days this referred to Friends who enjoyed luxuries, not to sexual identity). After Payne’s death, she married James Madison and was disowned by Friends for marrying a non-Quaker. (She recalled, years later, after visiting Philadelphia, “(I) really felt an ancient terror of them (Friends) reviving to a great degree. The Religious Society used to control me entirely and debar me from so many advantages and pleasures. (Now I’m) so entirely out of their clutches”. She continued, on occasion, though, to use both the plain language and dress. As well, that reconciliation and inclusiveness she fostered in politics may have had roots in Friends. Madison did not follow some Friends beliefs, however. Tragically, she owned slaves. Despite James Madison’s will, in her impoverished old age, she even sold them. She also supported the War of 1812 wholeheartedly. After the burning of the White House by British soldiers, she stated that she wanted to consign them to the bottomless pit. In 1845, late in life, she was baptized into the Episcopalian Church.
It is remarkable to see photographs of Dolley Madison. They are the only photos we have of a leader of the Founding Generation.