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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 594


This is the grave of Dolley Madison.

Born in 1768 in the Quaker town of New Garden, North Carolina, Dolley Payne grew up in slaveholding luxury. When she was a child, many Quakers still held slaves. Her parents moved to Virginia when she was a child and she mostly grew up on her parents plantation. In 1783, her father, like many Quakers after the Revolution, became convinced that slavery was a sin and emancipated all his slaves. To say the least, his daughter would not follow him down this road.

In the aftermath of emancipation, the family was downwardly mobile. They moved to Philadelphia, where her father opened a business as a starch merchant. When that failed, he was expelled from their Quaker meetinghouse since business failures were seen as a personal weakness steeped in sin. He died soon after. By this time, Dolley had married a lawyer in Philadelphia named John Todd. They quickly had two children. But he and one of the children died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Dolley was now a young widow with a small child, a situation made worse by the fact that since women could not execute wills, it was Todd’s brother who did it and he refused to give Dolley her money until she sued him.

Soon after this tragedy, Dolley Todd met James Madison. She was considered beautiful; Madison was not exactly a physical specimen of masculinity. A wisp of a man (in their marriage, she would pick him and run around the house), the writer of the Constitution did have an amazing education and certain charm. This somewhat mismatched couple became of the most successful and famous marriages in American history. He was 43, she was 26. The Quakers expelled her for marrying a non-Quaker. But then, she loved herself some slavery and got to spend the rest of her life in the luxury of unfree labor.

Dolley followed James back to Virginia after he left Congress and when Jefferson named him Secretary of State, she came with him to Washington, D.C., along with the slaves that she governed. Her great charm helped establish the role of leading women in Washington, when James was Secretary of State for sure but especially when he was president. She played the leading role in furnishing the White House and became friends with the wives of many leading European diplomats, making her a force of her own in American and global politics. She basically invented the role of the First Lady, having often been the official hostess at many gatherings during the widowed Jefferson’s presidency and expanding that role when she was in fact First Lady. She was such an important person that she was given her own personal seat in Congress, which continued after Madison left office when she was in Washington. Probably what she is most famous for is saving the few key artifacts of early American history when the British burned the White House in 1814.

When Madison left office in 1817, the family moved back to Montpelier. There they lived in slowly growing poverty, a combination of her son’s incredibly wasteful and gambling ways and the lack of a profitable commodity to grow anymore in Virginia. James and Dolley responded to this by selling off their capital without the slightest bit of evidence of remorse. This capital was of course their humans. As the award-winning tour and exhibits at Montpelier demonstrate, neither James nor Dolley ever expressed the slightest bit of concern for their slaves, the breaking apart of families, or any of the horrors of the institution. For both of them, living life without slaves was unimaginable.

When James died in 1837, Dolley sold Montpelier and most of the slaves and moved to Washington. She even sold her favorite long-time servant, a man named Jennings. In this case, Daniel Webster bought him off her and then allowed him to earn his freedom by paying him back through work. She was still a big deal in Washington social circles. She tried to sell James’ papers to support herself and finally Congress bought them, in part to save the past and in part to give this famous and well-liked former First Lady a way to sustain herself. But by the end of her life, Jennings was actually supporting her out of pity and duty, even as she had sold everyone else to often horrifying masters, including himself. Despite her very real poverty, she remained a big enough deal though that when the government toured the USS Princeton in 1844, when the cannon exploded that killed the Secretary of State and Secretary of War and nearly John Tyler, she was there too. She died in 1849, at the age of 81.

Dolley Madison is buried at Montpelier in Virginia. She was initially buried at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, but was later moved there with the permission of the plantation’s new owner.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! I am off this weekend for another round of grave visits, so I hope you can help keep this series alive. Most of the people are disturbingly not horrible and some are outright heroes, so I’m not sure what I will do with that, but hey, I guess there are good Americans too. Sort of. If you would like to see other famous American women profiled, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Phyllis Schlafly is in St. Louis and Betty Friedan is in Sag Harbor, New York. Previous posts are archived here.

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