“Our kind friend Mr. Carroll has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. The process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out. ... It is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen from New York for safe keeping.” ~ Dolley Madison
This quote from perhaps the most famous first lady to ever grace the stage of this nation’s capital, came in the hours before a column of British regulars, hardened veterans of the Napoleonic Wars led by men bent on burning Washington, D.C., to the ground, lends a striking portrait to a famous American — both in fact and in legend.
Born Dolley Payne in spring 1768 to Quaker parents in New Garden, N.C., young Dolley moved back to her parents’ native Virginia and grew up on a plantation with seven siblings.
As was the custom of Southern plantation life, the Payne’s owned slaves, despite their Quaker faith preaching against the practice. And in fact, Dolley’s father emancipated his slaves following the American Revolution, and abandoned plantation life to settle in Philadelphia as a merchant.
Tall for a woman of the day at nearly 5 feet, 7 inches, Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, and bore him two sons.
A yellow fever epidemic broke out in 1793, claiming her husband and one son on the same day, and she was widowed at age 25, with a young boy to support.
She soon met James Madison, who was a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress and one of this nation’s prominent Founding Fathers.
At age 43 and 17 years Dolley’s senior, Madison married the young widow in the fall of 1794, with Dolley having to relinquish her Quaker faith in order to be married to the non-Quaker Madison.
After eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives, James Madison had decided to leave politics and retire to Montpelier, the Madison family plantation in Virginia.
But national politics beckoned when political ally Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States in 1800, and Madison served as his secretary of state.
Called smart, vivacious and outgoing in personality, the raven-haired Dolley instantly made her presence felt in Washington social circles. Jefferson, being a widower, called on young Dolley to serve as first lady at official functions of the American government, and she helped develop and decorate the White House, the first official presidential residence completed in 1800.
In 1808, the Democratic-Republicans nominated James Madison to succeed Jefferson, and he won two terms in office.
The nation’s fourth president benefited greatly from Dolley’s social acumen and she became quite popular in Washington and across the new nation.
Dolley Madison’s place in American history was cemented for all time during the War of 1812, following the first invasion of the United States by the British.
Landing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the veterans of the British army marched toward the nation’s capital, bent on burning it down. After a disastrous failing of the military at the Battle of Bladensburg, when American soldiers literally ran from the field of battle, Washington was undefended and wide open to be sacked.
Despite everyone having left the Capitol in the face of the coming British onslaught — even the president — Dolley would not leave the White House until many important government papers and the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington had been removed and taken away to safety.
Within hours of her leaving, the British indeed sacked Washington, burning many important buildings, along with the White House.
Only severe weather turned the British back toward the sea, fleeing hurricane winds and a tornado as heavy rains extinguished the fires of Washington.
Dolley had crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, but returned to Washington a few days later, immediately attempting to return the nation to normalcy by hosting parties in the badly damaged capital city — becoming a legendary figure for her foresight and bravery in the face of British bayonets.
The Madison’s retired to private plantation life in 1817, and the former president died in 1836.
Nearly ruined by the debts and alcoholism of her son from her first marriage, and having to sell off part of Montpelier, Dolley returned to Washington, moving to a house on Lafayette Square.
In debt, she finally sold the remainder of her plantation and its slaves.
At age 81, she died in her Washington home in 1849, eventually buried at Montpelier next to her husband.
Today, she still is considered the woman who defined the role of America’s first lady.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking