Dolley Madison — one of America’s original first ladies and a Philly girl — has one of best rags-to-riches stories in America. She is the subject of a documentary by the political cable channel C-SPAN.
She was born to a fairly prosperous farming family in North Carolina in 1768. Soon after the Revolutionary War, her father, John Payne, emancipated all his slaves, sold the plantation, and moved to Philadelphia. Things took a downward turn.
“Dolley’s father made a conscious decision, as a member of the Society of Friends, to change their way of life,” said historian Kerri Diethorn of the National Park Service. “He wasn’t successful. He was so un-successful as a businessman the Quaker meeting read him out of membership.”
Diethorn oversees the Todd House near Independence Mall for the park service. The Todd House is where Dolley Payne became Dolley Todd, the wife of the prominent attorney John Todd. She had married up.
“When you look around, you see evidence of comfort,” said Diethorn. “There’s carpet on the floor, the furniture is upholstered, there is the current style of dishes. The Todds are living comfortably in a nice house, unlike more than half of Philadelphia’s population.”
The Todd House is one of the locations seen in CSPAN’s documentary series “First Ladies: Influence and Image.” All 46 first ladies, from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, will get their own 90-minute documentary. The gargantuan project rolls out a new installment every week.
“They have very public causes now. In the 19th century, it was behind the scenes,” said series producer Mark Farkas, on the role of first lady. “So much of it now is in front of cameras.”
Dolley a striking presence in Washington
Although there were no cameras in 1809, when Dolley Madison first moved into the White House, she did her best to be visible. Her deft social skills helped the popularity of her husband, James Madison. She also helped create the interior design of the White House.
But she didn’t always enjoy that stature.
Back in Philadelphia, when she was 25 years old living a humble but comfortable life with John Todd, the yellow fever epidemic swept through the city. She lost her husband and 3-month-old son to the illness. She was left to fend for herself and her 1-year-old, John Payne.
“When her first husband dies, she runs into a lot of trouble,” said Andy Och, director of the Dolley Madison episode. “She has to petition for custody of her children. Her brother-in-law was pressuring her to sell the law library, the only thing of value for a widow. At a young age, she has to stand up and take what’s hers.”
“All the while it’s said she’s striking looking, she’s very attractive. She becomes one of the most eligible widows. She couldn’t walk down the street without people wanting to talk to her,” said Och.
One of those people was Aaron Burr, who would become vice president under Thomas Jefferson. He introduced Dolley to his old college friend James Madison. The rest, as they say, is history.
She arrived in Washington in 1801, became first lady in 1809, and remained the grande dame of American society for decades to come.