Frequently Asked Questions

We have included a number of frequently asked questions so that interested readers can scan through them for a brief answer. In addition, there are four short background essays describing different periods of her life: her youth (1768-1801); her years as a social leader in Washington, D.C. (1801-1817); when she and James Madison had retired from public life and were living at Montpelier (1817-1836); and her years as a widow (1836-1849). We suggest that you read these essays. They are simple and only a few pages each in length, but they will give you far more information than we can convey in the brief FAQs that follow.

Where did she spend her childhood?

Dolley Payne was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, but moved to Virginia when she was three. She remained in Virginia, living on a plantation, until her father freed the family's slaves and moved them to Philadelphia when she was fifteen.

What was her marriage like; were they in love with each other?

She was married twice. Her first husband, John Todd, died in 1793, and she married James Madison in September 1794. She had two children by her first marriage, one of whom survived, and none by her second. She and James Madison seem to have had a strong and happy marriage.

Was she ever sick?

She suffered from chronic eye problems, although these grew worse as she aged. In 1805 she had an ulcerated knee, which she had treated in Philadelphia.

How did she spend her free time?

She had remarkably little free time; running a household required quite a bit of work in those days. She did read contemporary novels, write letters, and pay social calls to the women of her circle.

What was the White House like when she lived there?

She was the first person to decorate the White House, which she did with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his wife, Mary Latrobe. Unfortunately it all burned when the British set the White House ablaze in 1814.

How did she dress?

Contemporary fashions were set in France and England and then modified to suit American tastes and fortunes.

Was she really a fashion leader of her day?

She was not a fashion leader when she lived in Philadelphia or Montpelier, but she was one when she lived in Washington, D.C. (1801-1817).

I've heard she was a great hostess; what does this mean?

Dolley Madison was a very socially adept woman who was not only warm and gracious but had the gift of remembering everyone's name and making all feel welcome at her house. As first lady she opened the house up for weekly parties and other social entertainments.

What was her family like?

She had four brothers and three sisters. All of her brothers except one, John Coles Payne, died before 1800. She was very close to all of her sisters, Anna Cutts, Lucy Washington Todd, and Mary Jackson. She had one surviving son, John Payne Todd, who was a gambler and an alcoholic.

What was Montpelier and when did she live there?

Montpelier was the Madison family plantation located in Orange County, Virginia. James Madison grew up there, and the couple lived there on and off between their marriage in 1794 and his retirement from public office in 1817. They lived there continuously until he died in 1836, and she finally sold it in 1844. Montpelier is now open to the public.

Did she really serve Ice Cream at the White House and was she the first to do so?

She did serve ice cream, but she was not the first to do so. Jefferson already had provided the desert for his company. The American favorite was invented in Europe.

What did she do when the British attacked Washington during the War of 1812?

She saved the portrait of George Washington, the state papers, and the red curtains she had had fabricated with the help of Latrobe (see above) when the British attacked the capital in 1814. She became an emblem of courage in the face of the advancing enemy.

She is supposed to be important; what were her major achievements?

Her achievements were of two kinds. First, she was a symbol of American bravery and independence during the War of 1812. Second, as the first first lady to serve in Washington, D.C., she became a model for all the first ladies who followed her.

Where is she buried?

She is buried at Montpelier, next to her husband.

I'd like to read more about Dolley Madison; what books would you recommend?

The University Press of Virginia will publish The Selected Letters of Dolley Madison in the spring of 2003. We have included an on-line bibliography in this site and will be putting up a digital edition of her letters by 2004.