StMU Research Scholars

Featuring Scholarly Research, Writing, and Media at St. Mary's University
April 15, 2017

Dolley Madison: The Women With No Fear

Dolley Madison was raised on a plantation with her family of nine in New Garden, North Carolina. She had seven siblings and her parents, John Payne, Jr. and Mary Cole Payne.1 After she reached the age of fifteen, her father sold their plantation because he did not believe in slavery. With the money he had accumulated over the years, he left the countryside to start a business in Philadelphia.2 Dolley Madison’s father slowly began to lose his business. He was not a very good business man. After losing his business in 1789, Dolley’s mother began to rent out rooms of their house to other people.3

Dolley was known for being a very beautiful woman. Many men lined up to ask her to marry. It was not until she was twenty-one years old that she met her first husband, John Todd.4 Within a year, the two were married and within three, they had two sons. Unfortunately, John Todd and Dolley’s youngest son were killed when an epidemic of yellow fever arrived. This unfortunate event left Dolley Todd alone with her oldest child.5

Portrait of James Madison, by Chester Harding, 1829 | Currently in the Madison home in Montpelier, Virginia | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After losing her husband, Dolley did not stay a widow for long. A man she had met when she was nineteen years old at the Constitutional Convention began to woe her. James Madison was one of her many fans who had tried to court Dolley many years prior.6 The odd thing was that James Madison was not exactly the kind of man that women found attractive. He lacked many attributes that women usually found admirable. He could not dance or ride a horse, and he was seventeen years older than Dolley.7 These factors did not sway Dolley’s opinion of the “Father of the Constitution,” and she agreed to marry him. Later in their marriage, she converted to Episcopalian and abandoned her Quaker affiliation.8 After this discovery by her family, she was quickly disowned and left with only her son and her new husband, James Madison. 

James Madison served as the Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson for his two terms. While under his presidency, Dolley Madison was asked by Jefferson to be in charge of the social affairs of the White House.9 She was given this position because she seemed to have loved everyone she met and treated everyone equally with care. When Jefferson decided not to run for a third term, he decided that there would be no better fit for president than the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison.10 Dolley Madison was seen as one of the best first ladies of all time. She was constantly recognized for the way she upheld herself and was loved by everyone. She was even sometimes called “Queen Dolley.”11

During James Madison’s first term in office, he faced a war with England in the War of 1812.12 In the year 1814, the British marched into Washington D.C. and toward the White House, where Dolley and James Madison were staying. As Dolley saw the British approaching, she ignored all the people in the White House who were telling her that she needed to leave. Instead, she began to load all the valuables from the White House, such as fine china, important documents, and the famous portrait of George Washington by the artist Gilbert Stuart.13 After loading as much as she could, she then left the White House. When Dolley Madison saved that painting and all the artifacts, she did not know she was leaving her mark on history. She changed the way the White House social affairs were held and saved one of the most valuable paintings in the United States. She was a very determined woman that left an impact on everyone and everything she came in contact with. 

  1. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  2. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  3. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  4. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  5. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  6. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  7. Salem Press Biographical, 2016, s.v. “Dolley Madison,” by Robert P. Watson.
  8. Salem Press Biographical, 2016, s.v. “Dolley Madison,” by Robert P. Watson.
  9. Salem Press Biographical, 2016, s.v. “Dolley Madison,” by Robert P. Watson.
  10. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  11. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  12.  Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2014, s.v. “Dolly Madison.”
  13. Salem Press Biographical, 2016, s.v. “Dolley Madison,” by Robert P. Watson.

Tags from the story

Recent Comments


  • Ashley Martinez

    Before reading this article I had little knowledge about Dolley Madison the First Lady. Dolley came from a big family and was married at a young age. I feel that the beginning of this article lacked some information. Towards the end of the article it got to the meat of the information. Dolley had been disowned by her family for changing her religious views after she married the young James Madison. Dolley was well known for saving historic art when the British went off to Washington D.C for war. She will be thanked for this action for years to come.

  • Thalia Romo

    I’ve only researched a hand full of First Ladies, but Dolley Madison really is one of my favorites. She was a determined individual, who put others before she and that showed through her getting asked to be in charge of social affairs. This article does a good job at portraying Dolley’s strengths as a powerful First Lady. She left a monumental mark on America by saving important artifacts and documents.

  • Emily Velazquez

    I was not well informed on Dolley Madison so everything I read about her in this article was the first I was reading and learning of it. The beginning of the article did not intrigue me much, however, the end did definitely draw me in. That was where all the action was and I felt like if the concentration was on that portion of the story, the story would have been a lot more interesting.

  • Matthew Swaykus

    This article was a very slow burn and did not contain a visible story arch. The author runs through the life of Dolley Madison like an Encyclopedia article and does nothing to promote how truly heroic her actions were. The last article is supposed to be the defining moment of the entire piece, yet it read just like any other chapter. Where is the emphasis and the danger? Also, the title is completely atrocious. “The Women with No Fear”, it the title exalts. However, first of all, “women” is supposed to be singular and not plural. Secondly, the title is misleading because it raises the reader’s expectations of what will be seen in the article.

  • Christopher Hohman

    Nice article. Dolley Madison was quite an extraordinary woman. I admire her father’s moral principles, especially when he decided to release all of his slaves because he no longer believed in the institution of slavery. Still though it was sad to learn that the family fell on hard times after that because of her father’s poor business skills. It is kind of strange that she married a man seventeen years her senior, but I hope it was for love and affection

  • Sofia Andrade

    Dolley Madison was very brave for staying behind a few more minutes to save valuables from the White House, instead of immediately leaving to a safe place. The actions she took back then might have not seemed significant to her at the time but she was not aware of the importance of her brave actions. Because of the few minutes she stayed behind she was able to conserve one of the most valuable painting in United Stated history.

  • Valeria Perez

    What an amazing woman! I admire that not only was she an admirable leader within the White House’s daily life but that she was also well loved and respected. It was incredibly brave of her to have saved all of those national treasures when she could have been killed by the British! I would have never thought that not riding a horse or having good dancing skills could cost you a marriage partner. Good article!

  • Damian Jennings

    Strong independent women who step outside of their comfort zone are persistent and deserve to be acknowledged by society. Women are just as equal as men and deserve to be in the same positions, jobs, working field, etc you name it. This women was a great example of taking a cause and making it into your own

  • Kaitlyn Killebrew

    It’s odd that the qualities ladies saw in a man where horse back riding and dancing. I had never heard of Dolley Madison, and the ending confuse me. The last part where it said “She changed the way the White House social affairs were held” and I wish the article continued and went into further detail about. Although it was very admirable for her to take the artifacts from the white house, I thought her bravery was more present when she converted religions and to be with her husband because it’s hard to be separated from failing.

  • Yadira Chavez

    Dolley Madison is a historical figure that i have never heard much of, but i am glad that i read this article because she is inspiring. In a time where women were urged to not be vocal about their opinions, she ignored the standards and made her life worth something. She knew when the White House was being attacked that none of the men would care about the artifacts that would be destroyed, so for history sake, she risked her life to save them.

Leave a Reply to Christopher Hohman (Cancel Reply)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.