Holly C. Shulman
Early Years | Secretary of State Years |
First Lady Years
| Montpelier Years
Widowhood: Selling the Papers of JM | Widowhood: Settling the Will of JM | Widowhood: Mounting Debts and the Publication of JM’s Papers | Widowhood: the Final Years at Montpelier, 1841–1843 | Widowhood: The Sale of Montpelier, 1844
Born in 1768 in North Carolina to Quaker Virginia-born parents, Dolley Payne returned with her family to Hanover County, Virginia, when she was a baby. She spent the next decade and a half growing up in colonial Virginia, although no records have survived to tell us the story of those years. In 1783 her father, John Payne, manumitted his slaves and moved the family to Philadelphia, where he set himself up in business as a laundry-starch merchant. By that time Dolley had seven siblings: brothers Walter, William Temple, Isaac, and John Coles, and sisters Mary, Lucy, and Anna. Another girl, whom the Paynes named “Philadelphia” to celebrate their move, died in infancy.
Philadelphia was a thriving city in the 1780s, a leading commercial and cultural center, and the largest city in the British colonies of North America. In 1790 it became the capital of the new nation. But post-Revolutionary Philadelphia was also suffering from inflation and economic turmoil. By 1789 John Payne’s business had failed, he was unable to pay his debts, and his Quaker meeting expelled him. Mary Payne opened a boarding house to support her family. Amidst this family upheaval Dolley met her first husband, John Todd, a young Quaker lawyer, and married him in 1790. They soon had two children, John Payne and William Temple. In 1792 her father died, and a year after that the yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia.
Contemporary accounts of the epidemic are horrifying. No one understood the disease and everyone feared it. Children were orphaned, families perished, and adults fled their spouse and kin. In the fall of 1793 Dolley Payne Todd moved to a countryside resort outside Philadelphia, but her husband remained in the city to care for his parents and his law practice. First his parents died, and then he too perished. On October 14 Dolley was left a widow, with no father or father-in-law to help care for her and her child.
Less than a year later, on September 15, 1794, Dolley married James Madison, a prosperous Virginia planter, a leading Republican politician in the new government of the United States, and the architect of the Constitution. He was seventeen years older than she, and an Episcopalian rather than a Quaker. Never previously married, he was short and unprepossessing of figure, but he was brilliant and witty and he offered her security, a willingness to take on her young son, and the promise of returning to the Virginia world of her youth.
The Madisons rented a spacious and comfortable three-story house in Philadelphia. Her mother moved in with her sister Lucy, who had wed the nephew of George Washington, a young man named George Steptoe Washington, and brought with her the two youngest Payne children, Mary and John Coles. Dolley took into her household her sister Anna, and the new family unit consisted of Dolley, James, Anna, and Dolley’s toddler son, John Payne Todd.
It was in these years that Dolley first began to experience political society and to learn about national politics. She socialized within the world of diplomats, congressmen, and government leaders. She and her friends gossiped about politics and politicians. And she experienced the bitterness of partisan dispute as President Washington’s government fell out over Alexander Hamilton’s plans for assumption and funding of the national debt and then quarreled over the Jay Treaty.
When the Federalist John Adams was elected president in 1796, James Madison announced his retirement. In 1797 the Madisons moved to Montpelier, the comfortable plantation that belonged to James’s parents, located in Orange County in the Piedmont region of Virginia. There, Dolley devoted her life to her family and socialized with the local gentry. She had a young son and a teenage sister to care for. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson, a Republican and a close friend and political ally of James’s, was elected President. In May of 1801 Dolley would make yet another move, this time to the new capital city of Washington, D.C., after Jefferson named James Madison as his secretary of state.
Dolley and James Madison arrived in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1801. Thomas Jefferson had been elected president of the United States on the Republican ticket in an election that remains one of the most hotly—and bitterly—contested in American history. Jefferson asked James to accept the cabinet position of secretary of state. James agreed to do so, but the Madisons delayed coming to Washington until May as James’s father was dying.
In 1801 Dolley was thirty-three years old and gracious, attractive, gregarious, warm, and charming. She arrived in a city that was newborn and still awkward, ugly, and filled with poverty; it was a difficult place to live in for many of those accustomed to the grace and charm of a major city such as Philadelphia or London. Often hard to traverse, its streets were sometimes blocked by potholes and were frequently filled with dust or mud. It was more a town than a city, with a population in 1801 of only around three thousand. Many of the European diplomats sent to the United States remained in Philadelphia rather than brave the discomfort of Washington. There was no old elite, no resident culture. Congressmen more often than not lived as bachelors in boardinghouses, returning home to their wives and families as soon as Congressional sessions ended. The permanent elite included cabinet members, a small government bureaucracy, and a few diplomats. Washington was also a city torn by partisan strife, albeit governed by a president who firmly kept party hostility from his door, carefully inviting only members of one political group or another to the White House to dine, and then nearly always in small numbers.
The Madisons knew all the members of Washington society. They invited the city elite to tea, dined at their houses, and met them at the races, and Dolley became friends with many of the wives. In this small society Dolley thrived. She was quickly known for her grace and generosity. But that did not keep her from becoming embroiled in the politics that roiled the city and the nation. Even in these years she found herself being asked to help others through patronage for government jobs, or to help strangers who needed government aid. And many of the letters in this section touch on contemporary politics and diplomacy, as well as on politicians and diplomats.
The conflict in which she played the most conspicuous role took place when Thomas Jefferson manipulated diplomatic protocol to express his hostility toward Great Britain, an event that has become known as “the Merry Affair.” Britain decided to send a minister (and not the lower-grade representative known as a chargé d’affaires) named Anthony Merry to Washington. Jefferson decided to flaunt diplomatic protocols through etiquette, and thereby to thumb his nose at Britain. The president dressed in his most casual clothes to receive Merry, who was scandalized. When the president held a reception dinner for the British minister and his wife, he took Dolley into the dining room on his arm, rather than Elizabeth Merry. Dolley thus became a pawn in Jefferson’s chess games of domestic policy and foreign relations. It must have been a negative lesson for both Madisons; certainly Jefferson’s rule of “Pell Mell” was not one to which the Madisons adhered after 1809.
It is during this period that we find ourselves reading about Dolley and her family, about her domestic anxieties, pleasures, and grief. In 1804 her sister Anna married a congressman from the Maine District of Massachusetts, Richard Cutts. Dolley adored her sister, and mourned her parting. In 1805 Dolley began a long bout with an ulcerated knee, which finally took her to Philadelphia for months of care under the ministering hand of Dr. Philip Syng Physick. It was the longest period in their married lives that the Madisons were separated and their letters are filled with their mutual affection. That same year her brother, John Coles Payne, exhibited his addiction to alcohol and gambling. In 1806 two of her nieces died. In 1807 her mother passed away, and a year later her sister Mary succumbed to tuberculosis.
By the start of 1809 her once-large family had been reduced to two surviving sisters, Anna and Lucy, her alcoholic brother John, her still-young son, John Payne Todd, and her husband. The letters in this section reflect her feelings of pain and loss.
On March 4, 1809, James Madison was inaugurated as the fourth president of the United States, and Dolley Madison became the nation’s third First Lady. No longer was she simply a leading member of the ruling elite of the city; she would now preside over the capital with a series of new duties as the wife of the head of state that would claim her time and attention. Her letters reflect this shift. There is less talk about family joy and sorrow. The correspondence in this section often concerns patronage, political gossip, and political activities.
She began the process of defining the position of a republican mistress of state—the republican equivalent of the queen married to the reigning monarch—on the day of her inauguration. She chose a gown of beige velvet and wore a turban with a feather. By American standards her dress was elegant, perhaps even regal; by European standards it was far too simple and plain. It was a statement of American republican leadership: fit for a new nation; good enough to meet the diplomats representing the world’s powers. She proceeded to decorate the White House, working with the famous architect Benjamin Latrobe and her old friend, his wife, Elizabeth Hazlehurst Latrobe. And finally she initiated her series of evening entertainments, so popular that they soon became known as “squeezes.” She threaded a path between the demands of the radical Republicans whose support her husband needed, and the unrelenting Federalists, whose enmity was part of her husband’s political challenge.
Even before taking up her duties, Dolley was pressed to help others gain political influence, patronage, and favors. She concentrated her energies on aiding her kith and kin. She went out of her way for her cousin Isaac Coles and her old friends the Randolphs. She brought young women, such as Phoebe Morris, to live in the White House in order to meet potential husbands and refine their social skills.
The politics of the Madison presidency was dominated by foreign affairs, especially the conflict between France and England. In June of 1812 the country declared war against Great Britain. Dolley strongly supported the war from the beginning, but when the enemy opened operations in the Chesapeake Bay in 1813 her temper grew hot, and she came to despise Rear Admiral George Cockburn. That summer proved especially difficult as James grew gravely ill. A year later, in August 1814, the British landed troops thirty-five miles from Washington. August 24 found Dolley guarding the White House, and with the advance of the British troops, saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington along with official papers, silver, and other valuables.
When the Madisons returned to Washington, they moved into the Octagon House, a mansion owned by John Tayloe located close to the White House. And with the nation they soon rejoiced in the end of war.
Throughout these years, Dolley continued to cherish her family. In 1809 her brother-in-law George Steptoe Washington died, and her sister Lucy spent much of the next several years living in the President’s Mansion before marrying Supreme Court Associate Justice Thomas Todd in 1812, in the first wedding ever held in the White House. In 1809 her brother, John Coles Payne, returned from North Africa, where he had spent more time gambling than working at American diplomacy. Her son, John Payne Todd, failed as a student, and the Madisons sent him along with the peace mission headed by Albert Gallatin in 1814, where he, like his uncle, began accumulating debt.
By 1817 Dolley had succeeded in establishing herself as the First Lady of the land, and in so doing set the model for her successors to follow. As her old Philadelphia friend Eliza Collins Lee wrote her on March 4, 1817, “it is more difficult to deserve the gratitude and thanks of the community than their congratulations. You have deservedly received of all.”
James Madison left office on March 4, 1817. The Madisons remained in Washington for another month, packing up their belongings, going to parties in their honor, saying good-bye to what had been, in so many ways, their city. In April they departed and returned to Montpelier, the Madison family estate.
It was a seismic shift for Dolley. Although she had resided in the countryside for the first fifteen years of her life, since then she had lived an urban life, first in Philadelphia and after 1801 in Washington, D.C. Prior to their retirement in 1817 the longest period she had spent in Orange County was the four years between 1797 and 1801. She had been a young mother then, and during her Washington years Montpelier had been more of a summer home than a permanent residence. Now she was moving to a quiet, rural, plantation where she would be mistress of over one hundred slaves living in villages of slave cabins on four different farms.
The Madisons received visitors by the score. Some were local gentry, others members of the Madison and Payne families, and then there were the distinguished politicians, writers, diplomats, reformers, and other dignitaries who added their numbers to the ranks of those for whom Dolley provided. Dinners for twenty were not unusual. Visitors flocked to Montpelier even when James was confined to his bed, too ill to move about.
It would have been difficult in the best of circumstances to entertain such a constant flow of company, but economic conditions in Virginia after the end of the war made the effort even harder. Demand for U.S. grain sharply declined, and there were dreadful seasons for tobacco and wheat. And yet there were always so many mouths to feed: slaves, family, and visitors. As Dolley complained in July of 1832, she would not depend on a plantation for pin money.
Problems with her family members made matters worse. John Payne Todd gambled and drank his way up and down the East Coast, spending money as if it were water, behaving as Edward Coles once wrote, like a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Her brother John Coles Payne married and settled nearby, but like his nephew he remained unstable and an alcoholic. And her brother-in-law, Richard Cutts, Anna’s husband, went bankrupt and defaulted on his loans, leaving James to pick up the pieces. Her beloved sister Anna died in 1832, and soon after that James’s health began steadily to decline.
Throughout this period Dolley assisted James in editing his papers. James believed that the sale of his collected works would support Dolley as a widow. The two of them spent hours editing and copying letters and writings.
By 1836 James was clearly failing. Dolley increasingly had to spend her time nursing her husband, who had become her patient. He died on June 28, 1836.
Her marriage had lasted forty-two years. It had been a great success, giving her security, loving companionship, care for her child, and a role to play on the national stage. She in turn had served her husband well with love, support, and steadfastness. After his death she would enter the last period of her life, that of a widow, now on her own. It would be a new undertaking, and in many ways the most difficult one of all.
When Dolley Madison became a widow on June 28, 1836, she was faced with the task of selling her husband’s papers. Ten months later, by April 4, 1837, she had accomplished the task. It was an extremely difficult period filled with loss and illness.
Nine days after James died, on July 5, Dolley wrote her first letter that we have from this period. She reached out to her brother-in-law, Richard Cutts, widower of Dolley’s closest sister Anna. “I could never doubt your sympathy, dear brother, and require it much now.” She was turning to those she loved and whose support she craved. “I would write more, dear Richard,” she penned, “but have no power over my confused and oppressed mind to speak fully of the enduring goodness of my beloved husband. He left me many pledges of his confidence and love. Especially do I value all his writings.”
Between July 1836 and the spring of 1837, she struggled to sell those writings. The couple had retired from Washington in 1817, and over the succeeding twenty years Dolley herself had put in many hours of labor copying James’s materials and helping him in any way she could. James was certain that his notes on the debates during the Constitutional Convention, combined with a large number of other essays, records, and letters, would be worth the small fortune of $100,000 when sold. Dolley believed him implicitly and explicitly, and approached the problems of widowhood with that promise in mind. Her tasks were multiple: to find a publisher for his papers, to pay out of the money received for these the bequests and the legacies contained in his will, and to continue to run Montpelier, the Madison family plantation.
As she pursued the tasks of selling her husband’s oeuvre, distributing his charitable donations, and finding all of the nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews to whom James had left a bequest, she encountered numerous problems. It proved impossible to locate a publisher whom she could trust and who wanted the manuscript, and so eventually she sold James’s papers to the Federal government. Unearthing all of the Madison family members indicated in James’s will was extraordinarily hard, as many had moved outside Virginia and settled in distant places. Montpelier had been a financially losing proposition for decades, and at the age of sixty-eight Dolley had no skills to run the farm and manage over one hundred slaves, let alone do so profitably. And her health seriously deteriorated. She lost weight, suffered from chills and painful eye inflammations, and could barely handle a pen well enough to sign a letter.
Nor did she have the love and support she craved and needed. Her son had always been a gambler and an alcoholic, and throughout the Madisons’ years of retirement, John Payne Todd had continued to work his way through the family money. His debts had created financial pressure on the family that James Madison was hard put to support. “None of these debts,” James wrote in a draft of a letter to his former secretary, close friend, and Dolley’s cousin, Edward Coles on February 23, 1827, “am I now provided [for], or have the prospect of being so.” With his stepfather dead, Todd remained a needy and demanding absent son whose mother could never deny him anything. That left Dolley alone at Montpelier with her brother, John Coles Payne, and his family, but Payne was himself concerned about what would happen there subsequent to James’s death, and determined to decamp for the West. Only Payne’s daughter Annie, Anna Coles Payne Causten, remained by Dolley’s side. She was sweet and loving, comforting and obedient, but young and innocent and a very slender reed.
Dolley survived by listening to the advice of a few well-connected friends and playing her old Washington game of influence to the best of her now-rusty abilities. On March 4, 1837, Congress purchased many of James’s papers for $30,000. On April 4 she could write her friends and supporters, William Cabell and Judith Page Walker Rives, “my general health is better.” And, she went on, “I am very grateful for your efficient exertions on my behalf.”
Dolley Madison spent much of her first two years as a widow locating her husband’s nieces and nephews, or their living children, in order to fulfill the terms of James’s will. By 1836 many of them had not only left Orange County but had forsaken Virginia itself, and were now living somewhere west of the original thirteen colonies. In some cases Dolley and her Orange County neighbors and relatives had lost all contact with those who had moved; they had to discover who was dead and who was alive.
Widowed, Dolley Madison found herself faced with the task of finding and paying for the legacies James Madison had bequeathed a variety of institutions, including the American Colonization Society, Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and Madison College. These gifts totaled $12,000. In addition she had to fulfill his bequests to his nieces and nephews, or their surviving children. These costs amounted to an additional $9,000. James had calculated that the total sum of $21,000 could be met by the sale of his papers. Dolley, perhaps without having consulted James prior to his death, also agreed to purchase her brother’s farm for $4,000. It all added up to $25,000. Many of the documents in this section of the DMDE, therefore, record her legal quest for family clarification and list the receipts for the money she gave to each bequest and legacy.
There is little record here of the emotional toll this took on her, except her continuing ill-health and never-ending eye problems, but there is no doubt that she found her assigned tasks difficult indeed. It was not easy to locate relatives who had moved as far from Virginia as Texas or Illinois. After Dolley had supported her brother, John Coles Payne, and his family for most of his life, we can only guess at her sense of desertion as he committed himself to leave the neighborhood where he had lived for more than two decades. The Madison family seems to have provided little emotional—and no financial—support through her trials. Her niece Anna Coles Payne Causten remained with her, always by her side, but she was still a young woman, and only able to help with such tasks as letter writing or receiving visitors, or presumably shopping for food while in Washington. Her son, however, the serpent in the Garden of Eden in Edward Coles’s famous words, was largely away from Montpelier, residing either in New York or Washington, occasionally writing her, rarely helping her. When at home, and involved with her debts and land, Dolley gave her power of attorney to John Payne Todd “to ask, demand, sue for, recover and receive of & from all the several debtors of the late James Madison all such sum or sums of money, debts and demands whatsoever which are now owing unto the Estate of the late James Madison” (February 15, 1837). And she sold him land for the consideration of a single dollar.
In these years we see Dolley begin the process of selling off pieces of Montpelier, doing so from financial necessity. She offered her brother’s farm to James and Reuben Newman, despite John Payne Todd’s suggestion that she find another purchaser. Between July of 1836 and April of 1840 she made twelve conveyances of land, thus diminishing Montpelier and the Madison estate.
Despite her grief there were also moments of pleasure during these years. We can sense Dolley returning to her old social self as she receives visitors at Montpelier. Her beloved friend Anthony Morris visits her in May of 1837, bringing one of his granddaughters. The now-grown children of her daughter-sister Anna Cutts also come to spend time with her, as does the only living daughter of long-dead sister Mary Payne Jackson. In August of 1837 she and Anna visit the Virginia Springs, where they are feted and make a grand tour of the whole region.
She returned to Washington in October of 1837. She moved into the house James had purchased from Richard Cutts after Richard’s finances collapsed. Dolley slipped back into society, visiting with the President, Henry Clay, and his wife; William Preston and his wife; Daniel Webster and his wife; Joel Poinset, John J. Crittendon, John Peter Van Ness, James K. Polk, and their wives; the ministers from France and the independent nation of Texas, and more. Our lists are incomplete, but there is enough to remind us that Dolley returned to the national capital a star in her own right and the relic of the last of the Founders.
At the beginning of 1839, Dolley Madison was living in Washington, DC. While she is located there we hear about her active social life as she sees the president, Martin Van Buren, and many of her old friends. Martin Van Buren’s eldest son and private secretary, Abraham, is married to Dolley’s cousin, Sarah Angelica Singleton Van Buren. President Van Buren being a widower, Angelica serves as his hostess and the marriage creates close ties between Dolley and the White House. She remains in the capital until sometime in late July or early August, at which point she returns to Montpelier.
Dolley remained at Montpelier throughout the rest of 1839 and 1840. As she repeatedly informs her friends, she had planned to leave for Washington in the late fall of 1839, but snow arrived early and she settled down for a long winter. As she wrote Eliza Collins Lee on 19 February 1840, “Our winter set in a month earlier than usual & before two marriages in our family, of great-neices & nephews could be consumated I was literally weather bound―they would not allow me to leave home before I had given them frolicks & partaken of others―.” We know of two family marriages: Caroline Matilda Hite married Alexander Baker on 27 August 1839, and Lucy Taliaferro Madison married Colonel John Willis on 2 July 1839. Whether or not these were the events that delayed her departure for Washington in 1839 we cannot be certain, but it is clear that for most of the years 1839 and 1840 she was in residence in Orange County.
Her eyes continued to give her trouble and periodically she had difficulty writing. Anna often acted as her amanuensis. She continued to experience financial difficulties. She considered renting out her mother-in-law’s portion of Montpelier, but did not. She did let out her house in Washington to William Campbell Preston and his wife Louise Penelope Davis Preston. Despite her straightened circumstances, we have no evidence that in 1839 or 1840 she sold any of her slaves. We know that John Payne Todd, her son, suggested to Louisiana planter and politician George Augustus Waggaman that his mother might be willing to sell: Waggaman wrote Dolley on 6 October 1839 that he had talked to Payne, who “thought it probable, in order to rid yourself of the trouble of the management, you would be willing to dispose of the negroes on your Estate, in Virginia.” Dolley responded to Waggaman on 10 October 1839 that she “had not at any period intended to part with more than half about fifty, owing to their reluctance to leave this place or its neighbourhood, added to which the Manager at Montpellier is now finishing a large and tedious crop of Tobacco and preparing for a similar one of wheat, Tobacco, &c. which seems to require them all except the children of which there is a full proportion.”
It grieved Dolley that she was in debt to her family, especially Mary E. E. Cutts. On 29 April 1840 she wrote Richard Dominicus Cutts, “I am so much in arrears to you that I am ashamed to remind you, or Mary of it, promising better relations hereafter—still I am always your[s] in constant love.” And as the depression of 1837 dragged on, Dolley’s economic problems increased. Her debtors were unable to repay her money owed, and she in turn was unable to pay off her own debts. As she again told her nephew Richard Dominicus Cutts, this time in a letter written 12 May 1840: “The day on which I received yours I hastened to the Court-house where I had some hope of success in an appeal for one thousand dollars out of the three promised to me at the time you remember. I saw the gentleman, and saw, too soon, that I could not obtain it―nor could I extort another promise of it at any given time. It is all in vain for me to lament my disappointment or expect money here until ‘times (as they say) get better’―in the meantime, I stay at home in waiting, You, should not wait for, but receive your due if it was within my power―Here, is property in both land & negroes but they cannot command one hundred at this time, and I fear that I have not sufficient in Bank to pay my discount there―thus situated dear Richard I know not what to do―or would have done it, after knowing your necessity―but there was none to be loaned and, thus they say now.”
She remained involved in the publication of her husband’s papers. They were moving toward publication by 1840, and went on sale that March. Yet the publication process was met with one obstacle after another. It became entangled in party politics when a motion to distribute for free the three volumes to all members of Congress invoked fierce opposition from Senators Thomas Hart Benton and Silas Wright, who convinced President Van Buren to pocket-veto the bill. In April of 1840 the shop where the volumes had been printed went up in flames, along with the many still-unsold copies, although the plates were saved. And Dolley had to deal with the implicit accusation that somehow James Madison’s desire to free his slaves upon his death had been thwarted (presumably by her) when she received Lewis Tappan’s request to see James’ will in April 1839. At first she denied permission, but on 11 April she wrote Tappan and told him he could go to the Orange County Court House should he wish to find the will itself. We can presume that he did so—or sent someone to do so—as on June 13 The Emancipator published an article on JM’s will, and Tappan pasted a copy of it into his diary.
While living in Orange County, Dolley’s son Payne embarked on an unsuccessful project to develop a marble mine. And in 1840 her sister Lucy, now widowed for the second time and ill, visited her. We learn that Lucy’s children by her second marriage have not turned out well, or as Dolley wrote her niece Mary Elizabeth Payne Jackson Allen on 29 February 1840, Lucy “has endured much trouble from the conduct of her poor Johnson now no more! James too was wild and inconsiderate and Madisonia unfortunate.”
Meanwhile this installment illustrates Dolley collecting poetry and includes continued requests from family and friends for help in obtaining federal appointments. While she tried to help both her relative-by-marriage, Charles Cutts, and the grandsons of her old friend Thomas Tingey, in neither case did she succeed. Perhaps she could have exerted greater influence had she been in Washington, but her failure may simply reflect larger trends in the history of the United States Navy. The navy as it existed during the Madisons’ Washington years was still an institution actively guarding American interests against its enemies in the Napoleonic Wars. After 1815 the U.S. entered a period of peace that lasted until the Mexican War of 1846. As Christopher McKee has written, “before 1815 there had been enough to do to keep most of the officer corps on active duty . . . [but] with the coming of peace there were too many officers, [and] not enough jobs to be done” (A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession [Annapolis, MD, 1991]: xiv).
In 1841 Dolley was living at Montpelier and caring for her sister Lucy, who had suffered a stroke. Lucy’s recovery was slow and the months dragged on. Dolley wrote Judith Rives on 29 March 1841, “my dear and only sister has been with me 8 or 9 months her health being feeble.” With Anna Payne temporarily ill as well, Dolley was chained to her house and grounds as the constant caregiver. Her chores had “prevented my riding a mile since September,” as she explained, perhaps recalling the years she was bound to Montpelier tending her ailing husband. But Lucy finally recovered and departed early in the fall. That November Dolley went to Washington to enjoy her friends and a season at the national capital. She stayed nearly ten months, with a brief visit in April 1842 to Philadelphia and New York, arriving back at Montpelier in September. She remained there for over a year and finally returned to Washington in December 1843. Thus, of the thirty-six months that comprise the years 1841 through 1843 she spent twenty-six, or more than two-thirds of her time, in Virginia.
The issues of family and money dominate these letters, although other topics such as patronage and autograph collecting surface from time to time. A number of surviving letters ask for Dolley’s help in procuring jobs in the new administration of William Henry Harrison, a Whig who occupied the White House in 1841 after twelve years of Democratic rule. And she received many requests for autographs, not only of James Madison and herself, but of Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and Monroe as well. But family and money, as usual, preoccupied her.
By 1841 only two of Dolley’s seven siblings were still alive: Lucy Payne Washington Todd and John Coles Payne. Neither was doing well. Lucy’s problems were her declining health and the behavior of her two surviving children from her second marriage to Judge Thomas Todd. Their daughter, Madisonia Todd Quinn, was divorced from her husband in 1841, and their son, James Madison Todd, was eating into her finances. In 1843 Dolley learned from Lucy’s Kentucky lawyer that Lucy had “no idea of the situation her affairs were in when she left Ky,” and that she “seems to have but little as yet[.]” James continuously accumulated debts. “Wild and inconsiderate,” he constantly drew on Lucy’s account to pay them. James seems to have borne a striking behavioral resemblance to Dolley’s son, John Payne Todd, except that Payne Todd appealed directly to his mother for funds, while James Todd had to approach Lucy’s lawyer for money. And unlike Dolley, Lucy had other children and other resources. After leaving Montpelier Lucy took refuge at Megwillie, the home of William Temple Washington, one of her sons from her marriage to George Steptoe Washington.
John Coles Payne’s problems were worse than Lucy’s. By 1841 he had settled in Berlin, Illinois, a town about midpoint on the state’s north-south axis that is today an exurb of Springfield. It was virgin territory when he got there, having first been laid out in 1833 and platted in 1838. Its early settlers were farmers from Kentucky and Tennessee. John bought property, and then let it lie fallow while he drank excessively. In September 1841, his wife, Clara, sneaked out of their home in the middle of the night and fled on foot with her younger children to Newport, Kentucky, and the home of a distant Madison relation, James Taylor. As he reported to Dolley on 19 December 1841, Taylor took Clara in, gave her a house, and tried to look after her. By that December John must have passed through Newport, visited his family, and written his sister for help, for as Taylor told Dolley, “Majr P [John Coles Payne] presented to me your check for $100. which he tried to get Cashed in Cina., but as he was a stranger, he couldn’t effect it, as soon as he made it known to me, I with great pleasure indorsed it, & obtained for him the funds; & a small premium.” At that point Taylor thought John was on his way to get his son, perhaps William Temple Payne, and bring him home to support the family. If that had been the case, then John would have been disappointed, for William Temple had gone to Virginia, where he settled at Montpelier and served as the plantation manager until his death in 1843. John Coles Payne must at some time have rejoined his family, as he eventually moved with them from northern Kentucky to Barren County in southern Kentucky.
Dolley continued to suffer bad news from her son, John Payne Todd, who drank heavily, gambled, and racked up debts. His sad career featured a number of failed ventures, such as a gold mine and marble quarry. His projects failing, he resorted to requests to his mother for money or land. Payne set himself up as a gentleman farmer on a plantation near Montpelier he called Toddsberth. In the spring of 1841 a fire destroyed the house, and thereafter in the period from 1841 to 1843 he wandered around Virginia and Washington.
William Madison, James’s ferociously litigious brother, died in 1843, but before his death he had become a thorn in Dolley’s side, delaying the return of James Madison’s letters and finally suing her over what he called an outstanding debt dating back to James Madison Sr.’s will. On 28 March 1843 William Madison’s lawyer, William Green, wrote her and took the debt case to court. She told her nephew James Madison Hite in August 1843 that William Madison “was the hostile one” who brought suit for debt, “but of what nature, or for what consideration, I have never been informed.”
Her Cutts nieces and nephews remained in close touch. Although James Madison Cutts had financial troubles in 1843, went into bankruptcy court, and on 18 November wrote Dolley that he had been “lately much depressed, & therefore unwilling to obtrude my gloom or troubles on others,” Richard Dominicus Cutts told Dolley on 17 September that James was “perfectly satified with the result.” As for Richard Dominicus, he clearly missed his aunt and wished she were in Washington, as did her niece Mary E. E. Cutts, who wrote Dolley on 22 November 1843 that she was “impatient for your arrival.”
Comforting though her Cutts relations were, Dolley was nevertheless much distressed, caught as she was in the tangle of her son’s debts and her plantation’s insolvency. Moreover, all this was taking place in the midst of a national economic depression that must have seemed endless and a credit squeeze that plagued Virginia and the nation. Dolley saw her debts snowballing. She rented out her house in Washington to a series of prominent tenants: William Campbell Preston, John J. Crittenden, and James Roosevelt. She tried to take charge of her plantation management. As she told Lucy in a letter dated 13 November 1842, “When I returned on the 1st. Sept. I found the Overseer had worked for himself and ruined my prospect of any sort of Crop.” She fired the overseer and hired her nephew William Temple Washington, who remained with her until his death a year later. As she confided to Judith Rives on 1 July 1843, “finding my little Territory run wild, I became a reformer, and ere success crowned my humble attempt, I fell ill with Influenza, or violent cold, which lasted me two or three months—I am now well—but must tell you, that I have not passed the enclosure of my lawn since I came back to it, in August last.” Her attempts at reform came to nothing.
Her main assets were her houses and land. Though she rented her house in Washington she still needed cash, so she considered leasing out the half of the Montpelier house in which her mother-in-law had once lived, to “dev[ulge] myself of cares and troubles,” as she wrote Fanny Lear on 7 February 1843. But she decided against it. Instead, she received a three thousand dollar mortgage on Montpelier from John Jacob Astor in September of 1842 (the purpose of her trip to New York) and sold off pieces of the estate, some to neighbors, and some to a Richmond merchant named Henry Wood Moncure. In 1843, burdened with the additional financial obligation imposed by William Madison’s suit, Dolley began negotiations—or had John Payne Todd as her agent open negotiations—to sell the whole property to Moncure. The deal was finalized in 1844.
We will hear more from and about Henry Moncure in the documents from 1844. But before the start of 1844 we already know that he was eager to purchase Montpelier. In 1843 Moncure bought some Madison land and perhaps some slaves. He soon started negotiating for two additional young male slaves, and found a local farmer named William V. Chewning to oversee this property.
By the end of 1843 the dissolution of the Montpelier estate was in sight and with it the fate of the Montpelier slaves. Richard Meriwether Chapman had asked Dolley as early as 6 March 1841 to sell him some of her slaves, but at that time she refused. Henry Moncure, whose business included slave trading, was eager to buy not only Montpelier, but also slaves residing there. We can imagine the anxiety the Montpelier slave community must have felt by 1843 about their future as Moncure’s property. Moreover, while Dolley may have wanted to hold on to her slaves and not have them dispersed and their families torn apart, John Payne Todd had no such scruples. Payne Todd asked his relative, Walter Coles Winston, a Virginia planter who had moved to Mississippi, if he wanted to purchase Montpelier slaves. Winston initially declined, but on 13 December 1843 regretted “not accepting the offer you made me, as agent for Mr Moncure, so far as it related to the purchase of his negroes on the estate he purchased of your beloved Mother.” As the estate collapsed, so did any security the Madison slaves might once have felt.
The last 1843 letter to Dolley of which we have a record was dated 31 December. It was from John Payne Todd, still wandering, still looking for deals, and still protesting his love for his mother. But Dolley had gone to Washington, or as The National Intelligencer announced on 12 December 1843, “the respected widow of the late illustrious President MADISON, has again taken up her residence, for the winter season, in this city.” She would never again live at Montpelier.
1844 began with exuberance. On 12 December 1843, Dolley Madison arrived at her house in Washington, D.C. Although negotiations to sell Montpelier were going on, Dolley still expected she would return to Montpelier for the summer. She brought with her no special furniture or treasures that would indicate she thought of this as a permanent move. Rather, she was back for the “season.”
She had last spent the New Year’s holiday in the national capital in 1842, and again, two years later, she was at the center of society. On the Thursday before New Year's day, the President held a fancy dress ball for children, and Dolley was among the guests, “one of the greatest enjoyers of the scene, where she received from all devoted respect, which is her due.” The following Monday, the first day of the New Year, one without a cloud in the sky, crowds thronged the city to attend President Tyler’s levee and then moved on to the homes of other political and city leaders, among whom Dolley was numbered. As a Washington correspondent reported in the Charleston Southern Patriot, “Mrs. Madison, also held a levee, and as usual, received numerous visitors. Time does not appear to affect her.” Six weeks later, for the annual “Birth-Night” ball given to honor George Washington as founder of the nation, the managers of the party formed a committee especially to wait on Mrs. Madison.
On 8 January 1844, the U.S. House of Representatives bestowed upon her the greatest Congressional honor possible for a woman—a permanent seat in the House—declaring “that a committee be appointed on the part of this House to wait on Mrs. Madison, and to assure her that, whenever it shall be her pleasure to visit the House, she be requested to take a seat within the hall” (DPM1349). The newspapers were filled with descriptions of the event. As one correspondent wrote, in the middle of a speech by James Belser of Alabama, Dolley walked into the House and down the aisle, “leaning on the arm of Mr. [George Washington] Hopkins,” to the front of the Speaker’s chair, accompanied by her niece, Anna Payne, and her friend and house guest, Margaret Swinton Legare Bullen. They were given seats on the right of the Speaker’s chair, “and there, the charming, dear old lady sat, with her two handsome young friends, for half an hour, listening earnestly to the history of the formation of the Constitution, and the part her husband took in ceding the powers of the state, in regard to the election of Congressmen, to the General Government,” after which she left, accompanied by Thomas Walker Gilmer, William Wilkins, and Isaac Holmes.
Dolley worked hard to return to the top levels of Washington society. She gave parties and contacted friends. It is indicative of this goal that she asked John Young Mason to introduce her to the British minster plenipotentiary, Richard Pakenham (DPM2034). His Majesty’s government had sent Packenham to negotiate the boundary between Oregon and Canada and he was presented to President Tyler on 23 February 1844. On 15 April, Dolley wrote Margaret Bullen, “Sir Rd. Pakenham is established in Mr. Webster’s dwelling & we find him an agreeable gentleman” (DPM2017).
Dolley’s life in Washington glittered. After a nearly two-year hiatus she was fêted and honored; the newspaper accounts repeatedly portrayed her as radiant and healthy. She carried on her correspondence with those who still sought patronage or autographs, or simply were old friends. But all the while her finances continued to collapse. As Ethel Arnett noted in her 1972 biography, being so publicly honored makes it “difficult to realize that Mrs. Madison was at that time so harassed by the lack of funds on which to live.” But as she wrote her son on 22 January 1844, “you have no doubt seen in the papers a Resolution of Congress inviting me to a seat—and my answer—It is nothing in my eyes or my heart, nor would compliments even higher, unless you and myself were on safe ground with our creditors” (DPM1353).
It is to portray this reality that installment six of the DMDE includes land records and financial documents. During 1844, Dolley sold what remained of the Madison estate, including land, livestock, and slaves; she offered Congress JM’s remaining papers; and tried to keep up with her debts and lawsuits, while depending upon her always-unreliable son.
This installment portrays Dolley Madison during a watershed year of her life, 1844. It was during that year that personal debt, combined with lack of any other assets, compelled her to sell 1,767 acres—all that remained of Montpelier, the Madison family plantation, and her home since her marriage to James Madison in 1794. Her mounting debt was a the result of several factors, all of which merged into a perfect storm: a regional agricultural depression, the failure to make a profit from her agricultural holdings, the expense of maintaining her enslaved community as she sold off land, her inability to sell more of her husband’s papers, and her continuously profligate son. In her extant letters Dolley neither reflected on nor discussed any of these matters except to the extent that she did so with her son. What she said in personal conversation with her niece and companion, Anna Payne Causten, is irretrievable, but there are no extant letters from 1844 in which she turned to such previous advisors as her cousin Edward Coles or her husband’s friends, and her previous counselors, Nicholas Trist and William Cabell Rives. Her beloved sister Anna was dead, but there is no exchange on the issues of debt and sale with any of her Cutts nieces and nephews. Her two surviving siblings, John Coles Payne and Lucy Payne Washington Todd, were old and geographically distant and unable to aid her. Nor is there any surviving epistolary conversation with her Madison kin, except that of the malicious and cruel suit her brother-in-law William Madison brought against her for an alleged debt of $2,000–a suit that William’s son Ambrose chose to carry on after his father’s death. If she had farm books or personal account books, then either Dolley or her son destroyed them. The transformational and deeply emotional events of 1844 take place in a vacuum of silence.
It is possible she was, at least in part, relieved to depart from Orange County. Whatever the impact of a general agricultural depression throughout the state, it reshaped Orange. The county was never wealthy, nor was it inhabited by many nationally important families; James Madison was an exception rather than an example of the kind of person Orange County produced. But it was wealthier in the second half of the eighteenth century than the first half of the nineteenth century, when it endured a decline sufficiently severe to change the county’s economic connection to national (and international) markets. Vertical ties of trade weakened, and in their place horizontal ties to the local community strengthened: money became scarcer while local barter grew. Economic trouble brought economic “retrenchment,” or as one historian has expressed it, the county moved to a “community support network.” In its wake, this economic decline changed personal relationships, as the outside world became more distant and personal bonds ever more important. For a woman whose association with her husband’s family was mixed, and whose closest friends remained outside Virginia, this must have made the county feel increasingly claustrophobic. Her social distance from the Orange community, in turn, made bringing suit against her all the easier for those members of Orange County who wished to do so, even if she was the widow and relic of the fourth president of the United States.
The story of how her debts played out in 1844 gives witness to this assertion. The fact of debt did not automatically lead to legal action. While debtors often delayed paying off their obligations, litigation was the last step in what Bruce Mann has called the intricate steps in a dance of strategy. Both parties knew that a lawsuit would not only end up hurting one party, but possibly both parties to the suit. “Even in flush times, debtors and creditors dealt with one another with a weather eye on what the law permitted.” The court was the last step, and therefore often “began aggressively, even punitively.” We see reluctance to go to court in the repeated letters from J. L. Nicholls, asking to be paid the money he had lent. And we observe consideration in Dolley’s correspondence with her Washington friend Richard Smith, through whom the Bank of the Metropolis agrees to keep lending her money, despite her lack of collateral. In Washington, she is taken to court with deference and reluctance; in Orange she is sued with neither respect nor regard for her position as James Madison’s widow.
In Orange, she was continuously summoned to appear in Court–which she could avoid as long as she remained outside the state. William Smith, for example, was a prosperous neighbor of the Madisons who in 1829 had purchased 80 acres of land from James Madison and in 1836 an additional 184 acres. By 1839 he held a deed of trust to yet more Madison land. By his death in 1856, he owned about a thousand acres of land and 58 slaves. In Smith v. Madison, the issue at law had begun in 1840 when Dolley signed a promissory note to Todd for $2,600. A year later, Todd signed that debt over to Smith for cash, presumably at a discount. By 1844, Todd had only partially paid down that obligation. Thus on 26 June, the sheriff—Dolley’s nephew, Ambrose, son of William Madison—issued an order to seize Dolley, who was in Washington, and so could not be compelled to appear. Nevertheless, the debt had to be paid and the Court decreed that collateral could be used, and thus the court ordered Madison slaves to be sold. But by then Smith must have owed money to Henry Moncure, as we read in the the final judgement that the $1,925 awarded in the suit “is for the benefit of Henry W. Moncure.”
As a woman, Dolley had never owned property nor been responsible for a plantation before James’s death in 1836. As her husband aged and declined, they both assumed that the sale of his papers would bring her sufficient money to allow her to live comfortably for the rest of her life, both in Orange and in Washington. Some plantation wives turned out to be good managers and businesswomen. Dolley’s urban mother had opened a boarding house in Philadelphia. But Dolley’s skills were social and personal; they helped her in Washington, but not in Orange; she was ill-suited to run her own affairs; she is the widow who has never written a check or opened an account book—and when she needed to do so was totally unprepared.
John Payne Todd, as her biographers agree, was the final blow. But before reviling Todd—and at least in the historical records he is an incompetent and dependent son and perhaps even an increasingly immoral person –we must remember that Dolley had no other male relative to whom she could turn. Her brother had virtually run away in 1837, and none of men in the Madison family were disposed to help her. William, in fact, waited to carry out his vendetta on his older brother until James had died, and only then attacked his sister-in-law Dolley. It is also important to remember that there were other family members who had the knowledge and connections to help. Reynolds Chapman died in 1844, but he had never shown any fondness for his aunt; Ambrose Madison could have helped—at least by dropping his father’s complaint—but there is no record of Ambrose ever trying to help his aunt. Perhaps their utter dislike for and disdain of John Payne Todd clouded their relations with Dolley; perhaps they felt that Dolley always favored her own family and was never generous enough to them. The fact is that her Madison kin did not help, financially or emotionally. This left Dolley with an only son whom she adored, but who made her life far worse than it would otherwise have been without him. He had her power of attorney. He involved her in his debts and court cases. He did his best to destroy Dolley’s relationship with Henry Moncure and subvert the sale of Montpelier. He was always in the middle of attempts to sell his stepfather’s papers, and always made such a sale more difficult, if not impossible. He was a gambler and an alcoholic.
The reader of this installment will come across a number of letters from Todd that reveal his attitude toward financial obligations. On 5 March 1844 he wrote to his mother, “I am returning home having started among other negociations one for State Stock not to be sold, but only pledged in New York as clateral for 4 or 5000$” He argued that he could borrow at four per cent with this kind of security, but he continued, “I never consider money matters as fixed until it is in hand” (DPM2003). On 22 May 1844, two days after her birthday, he penned that he has just “borrowed on a promise for myself 500$ upwards from Parrott the old Millwright of Toddsberthe,” with what collateral is not clear (DPM2804). Todd writes to his mother in November 1844 that, having sold all of the Montpelier livestock to Moncure, Todd had gone to Gordonsville with the goal of selling some of the Montpelier cattle he no longer owns (DPM1410).
By early summer, Dolley despaired as her two hopes—to sell both her husband’s papers and Montpelier—dimmed. The first she could not make happen. As for the second, her son attempted to squeeze more money out of the sale of Montpelier and drove the purchaser, Henry Moncure, ever further away. Finally, in August, Montpelier was sold. But the dance continued throughout the fall; even with a bill of sale in hand, Moncure wrote Dolley on 5 October 1844 that he was upset he had not heard from her whether or not she wished to cancel the sale: “So long a Period has elapsed, since this Matter has been subject to your control, that I now trespass on your Courtesy, to say by return Mail what is your conclusion to confirm or to Cancel” (DPM1399). Finally in mid-October the Moncures took possession of Montpelier and moved into the house. But even thereafter Todd continued to quibble over the details of furniture, slaves, and books, and instructed his mother to beware of Moncure (“the tone of your letters would seem to give him authorities he never possessed and I think presumption which it will be my part to check if continued on business matters”) only to conclude that “personally we are all affability” (DPM1407), and to leave the reader wondering about Todd’s sanity. It is in this context that Todd decided to sell cattle at an agricultural fair in Gordonsville as referred to above—cattle that he no longer owned.
1844 drew to a close. Montpelier was gone, but Dolley’s debts remained. She was increasingly pulled into her son’s financial obligations, and she could no longer return to Virginia. She was forced to mortgage her house in Washington—probably beyond its worth given a previous mortgage held by John Jacob Astor. Her Washington, D.C., friends must have known of her plight; the national capital was a small town. Her job was to hold her head up high, act in as dignified a fashion as possible, and never show her problems to the world.
1. “Children’s Fancy Ball at the White House,” Daily Madisonian, January 2, 1844, America’s Historical Newspapers; “Congressional Intelligence,” January 1, 1844 (published January 4, 1844), Charleston Southern Patriot, America’s Historical Newspapers; “National Birth-Night Assembly,” Daily National Intelligencer, February 22, 1844, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers.
2. As found in American Memory, Library of Congress, “A Century of Lawmaking for a new Nation, House Journal, Monday, January 8, 1844; “Mrs. Madison on the Floor of the House,” New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 21, 1844, republished from the New York Tribune, America’s Historical Newspapers. The Baltimore Sun complained that she brought two other women with her, as the privilege had been given to her only. See “Twenty-Eight Congress,” Baltimore Sun, February 8, 1844, America’s Historical Newspapers.”
3. Ethel Stephens Arnett, Mrs. James Madison: The Incomparable Dolley (Greensboro, NC, 1972), 348.
4. Volume 7 of the DMDE will include the relevant legal documents.
5. John Thomas Schlotterbeck, “Plantation and Far: Social and Economic Change in Orange and Greene Counties, 1716-1860,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1980), p. 2. Schlotterbeck’s dissertation remains the best discussion of the economic and social history of Orange County before the Civil War.
6.This was despite the fact that after 1840 a railroad line ran to Gordonsville, VA, facilitating both travel and trade to the region.
7. Bruce H. Mann, Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence (Boston, 2002), 17.
8. There is a very small amount of scribbling about his accounts in John Payne Todd’s Journal, but by and large this document is very intermittent and very incoherent.