The Widowhood: 1837-1849

During her final years, Dolley Madison moved back to Washington where she took up her role as an important leader in the city's social life. If no longer the doyenne of the capital, she held a uniquely important place as the widow of the last of the Founding Fathers. Distinguished visitors would first call on the President of the United States - Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, or Zachary Taylor -- and then go across Lafayette Square to pay their respects to Mrs. Madison. The driving force of her last years was to keep her husband's works and memory alive; she was his relic.

Moving to Washington, D.C. helped to alleviate her loneliness, but it did nothing to solve her growing insolvency. She had left her son, Payne Todd, to manage the plantation. He could not do this. His health was rapidly deteriorating from alcoholism. He suffered from pains in his legs, his teeth, his back and numerous inflammations. He could not keep a schedule, but would sleep at all hours, rise at all hours, and eat at all hours. Under his guidance Montpelier steadily declined, leaving mother and son without an income from the farm.

Mrs. Madison tried to raise money by selling the rest of her husband's papers. At first she hoped to make a deal with a publishing house, rather than Congress, but she left the negotiations to Payne Todd, and in this he failed as in all else. By the winter of 1843-1844 she offered the papers to Congress, but although that body had purchased the first batch in 1837, it now refused her offer. Congress feared that any money they paid her for the papers would simply end up in the pocket of her son. Over the summer of 1843 she sold off part of Montpelier and rented out the house. But a year later one of her slaves wrote to her that the county sheriff was trying to sell the slaves to a "negro buyer" to pay off a debt her husband had never resolved with his brother, William Madison. She decided it was better simply to sell the whole estate, rather than allow the dismemberment of the slave families. But it was not done without pain. "No one," she wrote to the buyer, Henry Moncure, on August 12, 1844, "I think can appreciate my feelings of grief and dismay at the necessity of transferring to another a beloved home."

Despite her economic woes and her heartache over her son, Dolley Madison remained a hostess to the end. She became good friends with such dignitaries as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and William Seward. She kept a scrap book of her friends' calling cards, as if to make palpable her gift of friendship and her collection of luminaries. Finally, in 1848, Congress agreed to buy the rest of James Madison's papers for the sum of $25,000. This time, however, they put the money into a trust so that her son could not spend it. But by the time she received the money, she had only a few months to live.

Dolley Payne Todd Madison fell fatally ill in July 1849. She lingered for five days in bed, and then died on Thursday evening, July 12. She had known every president from George Washington to Zachary Taylor. Her funeral took place on July 17. It was a state occasion, attended by the president, the cabinet officers, the diplomatic corps, members of the House and Senate, the justices of the Supreme Court, officers of the army and navy, the mayor and city leaders, and "citizens and strangers."