The Poor Widow Dolley Madison
President James Madison Dies
James Madison was an elderly man of eighty-five when he died, frail and nearly blind, but mentally alert. Knowing that Montpelier, his once-thriving Virginia plantation was failing, he made his will.
Plantation management was always hard, but it been particularly unkind to the aging Father of the Constitution, partly due to the vagaries of farming itself and partly due to his deteriorating health which curtailed his ability to oversee properly.
But mostly, the decline was due to Payne Todd, his stepson. The Madisons had no children together in their forty years of marriage, but his wife Dolley had been a twenty-five-year-old widow with a two-year-old son when he married her.
Payne Todd was good-looking and personable like his mother. He had been given every advantage and opportunity. Nevertheless, it was clear, even from early childhood, that he was doomed to be a wastrel. By the time he was twenty, he was well on the road of wine, wenching and wagering. As he fell into debt, he would turn to his gentle stepfather, who would shield the wife he dearly loved from the hard truth about her dissipated son – and sell off another hundred acres to pay Payne’s debts.
So now, as his life drew to a close, Madison’s overwhelming thought was to provide for Dolley. She was nearly seventy, a considerable age in 1836. She would not be able to run Montpelier alone. For several years prior to his death, Madison had been reworking and annotating his papers, including the comprehensive diaries he had kept fifty years earlier, during the Constitutional Convention, which, he believed were of vital importance to the country. The diaries would go to Dolley, with his explicit instructions: sell them for publication.
Dolley Madison’s Inheritance
Dolley had spent twenty years in Washington at the pinnacle of society during those early days of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidencies. She was delighted to extend the generous hospitality of the Madison house (and later the White House) to any and all who wished to call. Sometimes they had guests for every meal. She knew everybody, and everybody knew Dolley – and loved her. After Madison’s two terms, however, they had retired to rural Montpelier, where she spent the next twenty years.
When friends invited her to visit Washington some time after Madison died, Dolley accepted. She had not been back for two decades. Realizing that she was always a city girl at heart, The Widow Dolley decided to move to the capital where she had spent her happiest years. She needed to be around people. She sold Montpelier and paid its debts, which included Madison’s bequests to nieces and nephews. By the time things were settled, she found herself in very poor financial circumstances and iffy health, exacerbated by her added financial stress. She had no trusted family members to rely on for guidance and assistance. She turned to Payne, but as usual, he was a total waste and disappointment. But she had those diaries – and hope that a publisher would be found.
Washington had grown from the tiny village of Dolley’s heyday to a burgeoning city. Everyone was delighted to have Dolley back where she belonged, and it is said that the day she moved into her little rented house on Lafayette Square, more than a hundred calling cards were waiting for her.
But a commercial publisher was not forthcoming for the Madison papers. Finally, an old friend suggested that Congress might purchase them. Congress loved Dolley – everyone did. Her hopes rose again and were dashed again. Congressmen being Congressmen, they took their sweet time about it, dickering and bickering and referring the matter to committees.
Meanwhile, poor Dolley was hard-pressed for ready cash, and everybody knew it. It was also not a secret that her son was largely responsible for her financial plight. It would take Congress nearly two years to finally complete the purchase of the Madison papers, but they also did her a great service. They arranged for the payment to be disbursed as an annuity, thus insuring that Payne Todd would not be able to wheedle the money from his always doting, but seriously impoverished mother.
But Dolley may have been poor in money, but she was rich in friendships. She was invited everywhere and went everywhere. No Washington gathering was complete without Mrs. Madison, the Dowager Queen of society. Dolley could only afford to reciprocate and open her house to guests once a month. But everybody came. It did not matter that her refreshments were simple. It did not matter that the once-great lady-of-fashion was still wearing the old turban hats of yesteryear.
Her delightful presence all by itself could make the occasion an event. Assorted great-nieces were invited to stay with their Great Aunt Dolley since the aging woman needed a little assistance. They were all delighted to live with her since they would be under the roof of the one woman who could introduce them to every eligible young man in the capital. She had the reputation of being a superb matchmaker.
When she died at eighty, she was given the largest funeral ever before seen in Washington. She was a true National Treasure, and everybody knew it. She was also the last link to the Founding Fathers, all of whom she knew so well.
- Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961 – William Morrow & Co., 1990
- Anthony, Katharine – Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times, Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1949
- Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, McGraw Hill, 1979