Although the decade of the 1790s were in many ways upsetting for James Madison in light of the many political defeats he and the Democratic- Republicans had suffered, they were also an extremely happy time for him in his personal affairs. At the age of forty-three, Madison seemed headed for permanent bachelorhood. He had suffered a great disappointment several years previously when his fiancée Catherine Floyd left him for another man. Early in 1794, however, Madison set his sights on a young widow named Dolley Payne Todd.
Todd was seventeen years younger than Madison, and she had a young son from her first marriage. She was prominent in Philadelphia society, and was a charming, vivacious woman. Upon the death of her husband early in 1793, she drew the attention of many unmarried gentlemen. Madison desired to make her acquaintance, and in early 1794, his old school friend Aaron Burr (famous for besting Alexander Hamilton in a fatal duel several years later) introduced him to her. Madison was immediately smitten, and began a courtship that ended with their marriage on September 15, 1794. The wedding took place at the house of Todd's sister at Charles Town, in what is today West Virginia.
Todd's family was Quaker, and her marriage to James Madison estranged her from that religious community. The Quakers' attitude did not disturb her; she was quite happy with her socializing outside of any religious community. Indeed, she was renowned as a wonderful hostess, and was seen as something of a great lady in the social circles of the governing elite. Her charm and social skills became an asset to Madison politically; he was a somber man, reticent, usually wearing black and not cutting a remarkable figure. With Mrs. Madison by his side, he was better able to forge the sort of social alliances that are always helpful in politics.
When Madison left Congress in 1797, his bitterness over politics was greatly offset by the happy prospect of settling in with Mrs. Madison at Montpelier, Madison's great home in Virginia. The two were very happy together, quite devoted to one another. They were seldom apart, and never had any children.
In 1800 Thomas Jefferson was elected President, and he called up his old friend Madison to serve as his Secretary of State. Fortunately, the nation's capital was moved from Philadelphia to a spot on the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland that was named Washington, D.C. Madison and his wife were able to move relatively easily between the new capital and their Montpelier home.
President Jefferson was a widower, and Dolley Madison often served as White House hostess for him. In 1808, Madison himself was elected President, and Dolley Madison's famous career as America's First Lady began. She brought a great deal of fashion and elegance to her role in Washington, setting a high standard for subsequent presidential wives. While Jefferson's White House had been very sober and simply furnished, Dolley brought a spirit of entertainment and fine living to the large spaces and drawing rooms of the executive mansion. She also was responsible for starting the great White House traditions of Inaugural Balls and the annual Easter Egg Rolls for local children.
Dolley Madison was beloved throughout Washington, and the women of the city called her "Lady Madison." She gained the warm gratitude of many Washingtonians and Americans throughout the country during the War of 1812. The British, upon invading the capital, set fire to the city, and the White House was one of the buildings destroyed in the conflagration. During these frightful hours, Dolley reportedly left many of her own belongings in order to save a great, life-size portrait of George Washington from the flames.
In the years of President Madison's retirement, he and Dolley were surrounded by relatives from both their families. Dolley was a great hostess at Montpelier, as well, sometimes arranging dinners for over ninety people at one time. After Madison passed away in 1836, Dolley, who was sixty-nine years old at the time, moved back to Washington, D.C., and continued on as the capital's grande dame. She lived to be eighty-one, dying in 1849.