The Early Years

Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768, the daughter of two Virginians. Her mother, Mary Coles, was a Quaker, but when they married in 1761 her father, John Payne, was not. Three years later he applied and was admitted to the Quaker Monthly Meeting in Hanover County, Virginia, and Dolley Payne was raised in the Quaker faith.

In 1765 the Paynes moved to North Carolina near where Guilford College stands today. Dolley was one of eight children, four boys (Walter, William Temple, Isaac, and John) and four girls (Dolley, Lucy, Anna, and Mary). The family returned to Virginia three years later. As a young girl she grew up in comfort in rural eastern Virginia, deeply attached to her mother's family.

In 1783 John Payne emancipated his slaves and moved his family to Philadelphia, where he went into business as a starch merchant. By 1789, however, his business had failed. He died a broken man in 1792. Dolley's mother initially survived by opening a boarding house until, in 1793, she moved to western Virginia to live with her daughter Lucy, who had married George Steptoe Washington, nephew of George Washington. Mary Coles Payne took her two youngest children, Mary and John, with her. By then Dolley Payne had married a young Quaker lawyer, John Todd. Wed in January, 1790, the couple produced two boys in rapid succession, John Payne Todd in 1790 and William Temple Todd in 1792. Her sister Anna lived with the Todds as well.

In the fall of 1793 yellow fever struck Philadelphia. Dolley Payne Todd took her two children to the outskirts of the city, but her husband remained behind. He died in October, 1793, along with their younger son, William Temple.

A widow at the age of twenty-five, Dolley Todd returned to Philadelphia. In May, 1794, James Madison asked his friend Aaron Burr to introduce him to Dolley Todd. Madison was seventeen years her senior and, at the age of forty-three, a long-standing bachelor. A member of a Virginia planter family, he had created the Virginia Plan, a draft of a framework for the Constitution. His plans and his intellectual energy had defined the agenda for the Constitutional Convention, and his influence as a delegate had been great, albeit not unlimited. From there he became a leader of the emerging Republican Party.

It was a good match. He was charming and witty among friends, but often shy and remote in public; she was outgoing, warm, and a wonderful hostess. He was brilliant and successful but a man without his own children who would care for hers. As her cousin Catherine Coles wrote her on June 1, 1794, Mr. Madison "thinks so much of you in the day that he has Lost his Tongue, at Night he Dreams of you & Starts in his Sleep a Calling on you to relieve his Flame for he Burns to such an excess that he will shortly be consumed." They were married on September 15, 1794 and lived in Philadelphia for the next three years.

In 1797, after eight years in the House of Representatives, James Madison retired from politics. He took his family to Montpelier, the Madison family estate of 5,000 acres in Orange County, Virginia. There they expanded the house and settled in. They expected to remain as planters living quietly in the country. When Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States, however, he asked James Madison to serve as his secretary of state. Mr. Madison accepted, and the Madison family -- consisting now of James, Dolley, her son Payne, and her sister Anna -- shifted to Washington, D.C.