Dolley Madison Level AwardHave you ever wondered how the Level Awards got their names? Each award is named after a person (or people) who have made a positive impact on our country.
Hello, my name is Dolley Madison. I was born on May 20, 1768 to John and Mary Payne, Virginia farmers.
We moved to Philadelphia when I was a teen. I was tall with black hair, white skin and rosy cheeks and I combined a pleasant appearance with a loving and lively demeanor. I had a great number of suitors, but I was not quick to commit. Eventually, in 1790, one suitor, John Todd won my hand and we were married.
Todd was not only a lawyer, but a loving and generous husband to me. Todd even helped my family in their financial difficulties as my father's business failed and he later died. We were blessed with two sons. Yet the new baby was just a few months old when Philadelphia was stricken by an epidemic of yellow fever. Though the family tried to escape the disease, Todd became ill and died shortly after. Both myself and the baby also caught the disease. Thankfully, I recovered but sadly my baby did not.
I was in a state of mourning for quite a long time, but I knew I needed to go on with a new life. In 1794 I was introduced to Congressman James Madison from Virginia. Madison was 42 but he still was interested in me (I was only 26). I was not ready to get married again, and it took quite a bit of convincing for me to marry him. Even General and Mrs. George Washington tried to help persuade me to marry James. I finally accepted, we were married in September, 1794 and then quickly returned to Philadelphia because Congress was in session. I entered a lively social routine of dinners, balls, and receptions where I tried to present myself with poise and charm. James and I enjoyed three more congressional terms in Philadelphia before he retired from Congress and we moved to Montpelier, James’ Virginia farm. We remained in Virgini for four years until the new President Thomas Jefferson appointed James as Secretary of State. We returned to public life in 1801 but this time, in the new Federal City of Washington, it was very exciting!
I loved being a hostess and society leader. I was once described as possessing “Unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace. It seems to me that such manners would disarm envy itself and conciliate even enemies.” I was also able to assist at the White House when widower Thomas Jefferson welcomed me as hostess at an occasional state affair. Aside from my entertaining duties, I was also encouraging and advising young women relatives and friends as they entered society and sought a good marriage. I am proud to say that I was particularly successful when two of my sisters married well – one to a congressman and the other a Supreme Court Justice.
In 1809, when James was elected president, I entered the next phase of my life. I began to preside over official events as First Lady. I ran the White House receptions in such a way, that they attracted many visitors, particularly since the president’s house was a public building and open to any caller. Not only did these visitors keep me busy, but I also decorated the White House, developed a social schedule of dinners and receptions that was fitting for the President’s Home, returned as many calls as I could and managed a large staff. Whew, it was tiring, but exciting and fulfilling at the same time.
James was re-elected in 1812, and we remained in the White House. The War of 1812 had been raging for some months when finally Washington itself was threatened by a British invading force. As they came nearer, James and several cabinet members hurried out to inspect the city’s defenses, leaving a small force to defend me and the White House. As the invaders neared, James sent me a note to evacuate. I told my sister of the efforts to secure national treasures by saying; “I have pressed as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as is it impossible to procure wagons for its transportation…” Later, “our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, [had] come to hasten my departure and [was] in a very bad humor with me because I insist[ed] on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington [was] secured, and it require[d] to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I [had to] order the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out; it [was] done – and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York for safekeeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me prisoner in it by filling the road I am directed to take…”
I eventually reached safety and was able to join James. Unfortunately the British burned many public buildings, including the White House. In 1817, we retired to Montpelier and I remained there for nearly 20 years. We continued to receive a steady stream of visitors, and I tried to remain a charming but very practically-minded homeowner.
During the next ten years, I lived in Washington as society icon, but I actually struggled with debt and lived in genteel poverty. As I grew older, I was baptized and confirmed at the Episcopal church I attended. I died on July 12, 1849, and my funeral brought such honors and attendance than had been seen in Washington for many years.
My courage and poise in securing an important portrait won widespread admiration from soldiers as well as history. I also experienced the loving respect and honor derived from a happy marriage and being remarkable member of the nation’s Founding Fathers. I hope you too can be a courageous woman that makes everyone who walks through her doorway feel welcome and loved.
Adapted from information found on historyswomen.com.