On Watch by Marcus Fisk

ON WATCH: Hello Dolley! How Much Do You Know About Our Spirited First Lady from Virginia?

Hello Dolley!

By Marcus Fisk

The year 2020 is rapidly approaching and before you can say “Jackie Robinson,” it will be presidential election time. I know you all are as about excited as I am. It seems that only pollsters, PR reps and the news media really care about who occupies the White House since it is the jobs program of the greater Metro D.C. area.

In the next few months the parade of presidential hopefuls will start their own version of the Hollywood red carpet, appearing at town halls in all those Midwestern states we only know exist because of our 5th grade U.S. Capitals test and in the New England states that nobody visits during the winter except the locals, Amazon, and the news media (i).

Soon spouses, significant others, or arm candy will appear, brought along for the express purpose of pumping up the PR volume (ii). These personalities will be feted, chased, photographed, interviewed, dissed, selfie-ed, tweeted, and discussed endlessly as a future First lady (or First Dude) in our media-crazed nation. Oh sure, you can put forward a Jackie Kennedy, Mary Todd Lincoln, Michelle Obama, Nancy Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Florence Harding, Betty Ford, Melania Trump, or even Abagail Adams as beauties, savvy, calculating or activists to define the best First Lady, but not one of them can hold a candle to the very definition of First Lady — Dolley Madison.

Dolley Payne was born in Virginia, but her family moved to Philadelphia where her father was a Quaker elder and a starch merchant. When nobody wanted starched shirts anymore, dad’s business went belly-up and Quakers, being the forgiving lot they are, called him a failure and drummed him out of Quakerdom. Businessmen without money in the church, well, you know….

Dolley was an infectious 22-year-old beauty who, in 1790, married John Todd (iii). Being a successful Quaker attorney, Todd had certainly married up with Dolley. Just when things were going smashingly, the 1793 yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia. The disease took 5,000 lives, including one of Dolley’s two sons, her husband, and her in-laws (some might argue, a blessing). To make matters worse, Dolley Payne Todd was then faced with the Coverture Law.

The First Lady. (Archival photo)

Coverture was a good deal for men, but left women – widows like Dolley – out in the cold. Her husband had done well but women had few property rights in those days and only men could be executors of wills, so Dolley’s brother-in-law divvied up the estate. When all was said and done, she was left penniless and even had to sue her brother-in-law for the $19 he owed her.

Philadelphia was the nation’s capital then and, just like D.C. today, was a politically swinging place to be. The A-listers were always on the prowl to land anything that had power and a bank account (iv). Aaron Burr happened to be staying at the same boarding house as Dolley so, according to legend, he thought Dolley and his old college roommate, Representative James Madison from Virginia, would make a good couple (or at least have a great time while Congress was in session), so he introduced them.

Madison, a 43-year-old bachelor, was a trailblazer, and started a great American political tradition of robbing the cradle by marrying the 26-year-old Dolley. After eight years in Congress, Madison packed up his new family and returned to Orange County, Virginia.

When his good buddy and fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, was elected president in 1800, Madison came along as his secretary of state. Tom was a widower, so Dolley frequently stood in as his First Lady, commanding the city’s social events (v). It was this first taste of Washington society that bit Dolley and she found her true calling as a socialite.

After Jefferson’s administration, Madison was elected as the Fourth President of the U.S. Once again, Dolley rose to the occasion and started a trend that continues to this day. Where Jefferson clashed with political opponents and would have nothing to do with them socially, Dolley went to great lengths to invite everybody to her soirees, regardless of political party. In fact, she put the ‘party’ in ‘political’ for all her social events. In no time she became the social sorceress of Washington D.C., across political lines, and everyone went gaga to get one of her invitations.

Dolley in her later years. (Archival photo)

The only glitch in what was a perfect life was this pesky thing called the War of 1812 (’13, ‘14, and ‘15). On August 23, 1813, the British Army was in the Maryland suburbs, on their way to torch D.C., so Madison went to Bladensburg to personally take charge of our Army against the British. He realized he was in over his 5’4” head when, as he approached Bladensburg, American troops nearly ran him over as they beat feet away from the Redcoats.

As the British were marching down Pennsylvania Avenue with torches lit, multitasker Dolley dashed off one last letter to her sister and, while licking the stamp, directed servants to hide the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington and then scooted out of town as the British set fire to the White House.

After his presidency, Madison moved his family back to Montpelier, his spacious home in Virginia. He settled into life as a true Virginia Gentleman, reading, writing and riding around his tobacco plantation. When he died in 1836, he passed everything to his stepson John Payne Todd, who, in true hereditary fashion of the times, ran it into financial oblivion.

The unsinkable Dolley rallied once again and moved back to D.C., moving in with her sister Anna and her husband on Lafayette Square. During the last years of her life, Dolley Madison continued to function as a stand-in First Lady for presidents and continued putting on some of the town’s best parties.

Marcus Fisk

Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, screenwriter, pick-up soccer player, and playwright. He and his wife Pamela are former long-time residents of Alexandria and currently live in Connecticut where travel the New England shore in their 42′ Trawler ADAGIO.


i) No one else would be caught dead out in a New England snow in winter.

ii) PR professionals, pollsters, and marketeers are really the only people in the country that are even vaguely interested in an election. It means $$$ for them and lots of clout – at least until election night. Then they have to go back to their main clients – personal injury attorneys and car dealerships.

iii) No relation to Mary Lincoln – whew!

iv) Can you tell I was once a bachelor in the D.C. area?

v )Jefferson was a widower but he certainly wasn’t lonely. Sally Hemings was there, but D.C. receiving lines weren’t that progressive yet.

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