Dolly Essay

Dolly Payne Madison was born in Guilford County, North Carolina on May 20, 1768.

Dolly was born the first girl in a family of several children to Quaker parents,
John Payne and Mary Coles. She spent her childhood in Scotchtown, Virginia.

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“The Paynes were well connected and sufficiently prosperous, small planters
in Hanover County.”1 The Quaker house forbade festivity, shunned amusement
and frowned upon the world’s vanities. After a preliminary visit to
Philadelphia, John Payne returned to Hanover County to dispose of his property
and free his slaves and in July 1783 he settled with his family in the pleasant
city of Philadelphia. In Philadelphia Dolly brought loveliness and charm to the
Quaker Evening Meetings. In her mind, however, there were other things in
Philadelphia more engrossing than the routine of meetings. Under her Quaker gown
Dolly’s heart yearned, frankly and without any shame, for these things. Yet,
when her family told her to marry John Todd, she stood up dutifully at first and
second meeting and proclaimed her willingness to do so. His father was an
eminent Quaker schoolteacher; John was a prominent young lawyer, twenty-seven
years old. She did not contend against John Todd. “Dolly had the ability to
accept whatever fate might have to offer and make the very best of it.”2
They were married on January 7, 1790, at the Friends’ Meeting House on Pine
Street. In the summer of 1793 there came the yellow plague. Dolly was struggling
with her children along the crowded road to Gray’s Ferry, one of the panic
driven throngs escaping from the stricken city. John Todd stayed behind to give
his able bodied and courageous help, and before the winter was over Dolly had
lost her husband and her baby. Dolly herself was desperately ill for she had
caught the fever from John when he came staggering out at last to Gray’s Ferry.

She recovered to find herself a widow at twenty-five, and executrix of her
husband’s will. In the fall Dolly returned to her mother’s house, which was now
a boarding house. At all events, the Senator from New York, Colonel Aaron Burr,
lodged at the Madison Lodging House. He told everyone about the pretty widow
Todd. He finally told his friend Congressman Madison of Virginia. The
Congressman, however, disliked women after Catherine Floyd had ended their long
engagement. One day James Madison saw the widow driving by and began pestering
Colonel Burr for an introduction. In the spring of 1794 Dolly and James were
introduced for the first time. It was not long before their engagement was
rumored all over Philadelphia. John Todd had not been dead a year when, on
September 15, 1794, James and Dolly were married at Harewood. Now there was a
new Philadelphia for Quaker Dolly, the Philadelphia she had always longed for.

“The town had never been more gay, a continually changing pageant of
foreign guests and ministers.”3 A brilliant scene graced by the presence of
many of the emigrated nobility of France. In her new role, as Mrs. Madison of
Montpellier, Dolly plunged into these festivities with all the stored-up zest of
her restrained girlhood. For three years Dolly brought a fresh, bright
personality to enliven Lady Washington’s somewhat stuffy levees in the old brick
house on Market Street. Dolly Madison adored the Washington’s. Dolly made
friends in all camps for James Madison, which probably helped him win
presidency. He did not care for all the routs and levees so he retired to his
beloved town of Montpellier, to his solitude and his books. On the morning of
March 4, 1801 the Federalists were defeated, and Thomas Jefferson was to take
his place as President of the United States. Soon secretary of state Madison and
his wife were dragged away from Montpellier again and came to reside in
Washington. “Present me respectfully to Mrs. Madison,” Mr. Jefferson
wrote, “and pray her to keep you where you are, for her own satisfaction
and for the public good.”4 Since Mr. Jefferson was fond of them both, and
because he was a widower, Mrs. Secretary of State Madison found herself
presiding at the head of the Executive board. For eight years, “Queen
Dolly,” as they called her, ruled over the social destinies of the
Executive Mansion in spite of the demands upon her strength and the humidity of
the malarial marshes, which crippled her with inflammatory rheumatism from which
she suffered for the rest of her life. In March, 1809, Mr. Jefferson retired,
smiling to Monticello; Mr. Madison inevitably became President, and Dolly moved
into that Great House of which she had already been mistress so long. After
Madison became president official functions became more elaborate. The inaugural
ceremonies were none the less brilliant and impressive. The President’s House
became known as the “castle” in the Madison era. “Washington was
coming into its own, blessed with more attractions than any other place in
America.”5 Tuesday, August 23, 1814, Mrs. Secretary of the Navy Jones found
it necessary to write to Dolly that, “I am packing with the possibility of
having to leave, for the British are near.” There was suppose to be a big
dinner for all the Cabinet at the Madison’s but the British fleet was in the
Chesapeake. British troops were marching through the woods to Washington and the
Cabinet officers were with the President at General Winder’s camp. The British
kept right on marching by the Bladensburg road which no one had thought to
obstruct, and instead of dining at Dolly’s, the Cabinet went streaming across
the country to Bladensburg with the army. On Wednesday, August 24, there was a
battle. An unfortunate battle in which the base British fired rockets at the
astonished militia, so that they departed in some confusion to their homes. At
Washington that afternoon there was tumult and clamor in the streets. Dolly
scanned the horizon with a spyglass and saw nothing to encourage her. There was
a dust of departing family coaches. Dolly is best known for her flight from
Washington in 1814, when the British invaded the city during the War of 1812.

She saved many state papers and a portrait of George Washington. At three
o’clock a messenger came galloping up and told Dolly that she must leave. For
the second time in American history, the British were coming! At Dolly’s
suggestion, “French” John Siousa and Magrau, the gardener, broke the
frame containing Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Mr. Washington and gave the
picture to some gentlemen for safe keeping. Dolly herself passed through the
dining room, crammed some things into her reticule, and was then driven to
Georgetown in her carriage. The Castle was abandoned; to be raided, first, by
American stragglers, and then to be burned by the British who conflagrated it
after marching fifty sailors and marines silently through the avenue. Mrs. Smith
wrote to Dolly, “How gloomy is the scene, I do not suppose Government will
ever return to Washington.”6 The Castle was conflagrated, only it’s
blackened walls remained, and Dolly established herself in the Tayloe mansion,
the famous brick “Octagon.” On February 4, 1815, there was news in the
streets of victory at New Orleans, and the name of President-to-be on every
tongue. On February 13, Mr. Gallatin, Mr. Adams, Mr. Clay, Mr. Bayard, and Mr.

Russell had made a treaty. The whole town went to Mrs. Madison’s; someone was
ringing a dinner bell. It was a gay winter; the “Peace Winter of
1815.” On March, 1817 Mr. Monroe won Presidency and the play was done for
Dolly. Now there was noting but Montpellier and the calm monotonous beauty of
the Blue Ridge. Dolly was now forty-nine. After the Castle and the Octagon,
there was a quiet, slightly dilapidated, colonnaded mansion against a background
of unchanging trees. Dolly was to spend the next twenty years, quite cheerfully
and serenely in her native state. She still received a succession of visitors.

Then the accumulating years brought separation and sorrow, Mr. Monroe died in
1831, Dolly’s sister, Anna Cutt, in 1832, and at last, in 1836, Madison himself.

Dolly was very sick afterwards, however, a visit to the White Sulphur in 1837
did her good. She found something to occupy her in editing and publishing her
husband’s Reports of the Constitutional Congress. She was sixty-nine now and for
Dolly nothing remained but the lonely contemplation of fading scenes. Dolly
returned to Washington in 1837 with her niece. It was a new Washington in many
ways, but turned to her with respectful attention. Montpellier had to be sold
because her son, John Payne Todd, who neglected his mother, was in debt.

Washington, however, never neglected Dolly, and often sent her baskets of fruit
and provisions. Congress did not forget Dolly either, and gave her a seat on the
floor of the House during her lifetime. Congress also paid for Mr. Madison’s
Reports. “It was February 7; Dolly was at the close of her eightieth year,
she was in white satin with the inevitable turban-and on July 12 she died.”


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