What You Didn’t Know About Dolley Madison

By Karen Harris

Dolley Madison, wife of US president James Madison rescues a portrait of George Washington from the White House before the British troops set fire to the building during the War of 1812. A print by A Bubbett. (Photo by M PI/Getty Images)

The wife of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, Dolley Madison did much more than stand at her husband’s side as history was being made. She was an active participant in it. Spunky, loyal, and gracious, Dolley Madison helped to define the role of the First Lady as the hostess of America, but she also got her hands dirty. As we see here, there was more to Dolley Madison than meets the eye. 

Dolley was Just a Nickname

Although history remembers her as Dolley, that was her childhood nickname. She was born Dorothea Payne in May of 1768 in North Carolina. The daughter of Quakers plantation owners, Dolley's father freed his slaves after the Revolutionary War. 

James Madison

Dolley Was Married Before

Prior to marrying James Madison, Dolley was married before. But she was not a scandalous divorcee or involved in an adulterous affair with the president. On the contrary, she was a young widow. Her first husband, a Quaker lawyer named John Todd. When yellow fever swept through Philadelphia in 1793, it left more than 5,000 people dead. Among them were Dolley’s husband, John, her young son, William, and her father-in-law. 

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr Played Matchmaker

Aaron Burr is often vilified after the famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, but Burr wasn’t such a bad guy. In fact, he was the one who introduced the young widow, Dolley, to James Madison. Madison, who at that time was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives as the representative from Virginia, was staying in Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital when he was introduced to the young, beautiful Dolley. The two wed on September 15, 1794. After the wedding, Dolley was kicked out of the Quaker church for marrying a non-Quaker. 

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Dolley Spearheaded Fundraising for the Lewis and Clark Expedition

After the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson planned to establish an expedition of explorers who would survey and map the new addition to the United States. Although her husband was not yet president, Dolley helped organize fundraising efforts to pay for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. She felt strongly that a well-outfitted team of explorers needed to travel through the new land to discover its riches and to establish positive relationships with the Native Americans. 

Dolley Madison Decorated the White House

Dolley Madison was the first First Lady to live in the White House for the duration of her husband’s term in office. The newly built home was rather under-decorated when the Madison’s moved in so Dolley took it upon herself to decorate parts of the White House. She understood that the home was not just the private residence of America’s presidents, but a symbol of the wealth, sophistication, and power of the United States. The Madisons lived in the White House from 1809 to 1817. 

It was this famous portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison saved with the British set fire to the White House.

Dolley Saved the Day when the Brits Burned the White House

During the War of 1812, British troops were marauding through Washington DC, burning and looting everything in their path, with the intent on attacking the White House. Dolley Madison was at the White House with her servants while the President was away meeting with troops when the British set fire to the White House. Dolley escaped unharmed, but not until after she saved a historic painting of George Washington. She was determined not to let the portrait be destroyed or stolen by the British. 

Dolley Was Given an Honorary Seat in Congress

During her husband’s presidency, Dolley Madison became a popular and much-loved personality. In January of 1844, well after James Madison’s death in 1836, the House of Representatives bestowed upon the former First Lady a special honor. She was given an honorary seat on the floor of the House and an open invitation to sit in on congressional debates any time she wanted to. In her later years, one of Dolley’s favorite hobbies was to watch Congress debate. 

Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph

Dolley Was the First Civilian to Send a Telegram

When Samuel F.B. Morse wanted to create a buzz about his newly-invented telegraph machine, he chose Dolley Madison to send the first telegraph by a private citizen in front of a crowd of onlookers. Dolley happily sent a message of love to her friend, Mrs. John Weathered in Baltimore. The crowd and the newspaper reporters were fascinated with the new technology and the ease by which Dolley sent her message. Morse’s publicity stunt was a success. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.