On our recent visits to the homes of early Virginian presidents, our guides and the exhibits revealed that each of those presidents held views opposing slavery. Although Washington never publicly condemned the institution, in private communications he indicated that he opposed slavery and said that it was morally wrong. Jefferson stated that slavery harmed both the enslaved and the owners, and he proposed gradual emancipation. Madison at the Constitutional Convention advocated an immediate cessation of the importation of slaves. Monroe labeled slavery a “blight.” Even so, each owned slaves and benefited from the institution. On the visits, I wondered again about the conflict between their words and their actions. But on this trip, I also learned more about Dolley Madison and for the first time I considered her intellectual journey.
I had known only that Dolley Madison was married to James Madison and that she was a famous for her social skills. The guide at Montpelier confirmed her ability to draw people out and to get her guests talking with each other even when they were political enemies. The guide also told the spouse and me other things about her that we had not known.
She was born in North Carolina to Quaker parents, Mary and John Payne, Jr., and Dolley was raised a Quaker. The prosperous family moved to a Virginia plantation when Dolley was an infant, but in 1783, when she was fifteen, her father, inspired by Revolutionary War ideals and his Quaker faith, freed all his slaves and moved the family to Philadelphia, where he failed as a merchant. In a short time, the family went from prosperity to penury.
When twenty-two, Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia. Two sons quickly followed, but when the youngest boy, William, was three months old a virulent yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia. Dolley’s husband and her son died on the same day, and her husband’s mother and father died shortly thereafter. Dolley’s father had died a year before and her mother had moved to Virginia to live with Dolley’s sister. The twenty-five-year-old Dolley, without means of support, was alone in Philadelphia with a young son to support.
Along came James Madison. The federal government was then meeting in Philadelphia, and Madison represented Virginia in the House of Representatives. The story has it that James was introduced to Dolley by Aaron Burr, Madison’s college classmate. Less than a year after her first husband died, Dolley married James Madison, who was seventeen years older than she and had not been married before. Dolley’s young son, Payne (really John Payne), became part of the Madison household, but Dolley and James had no children of their own. This reminded me that George Washington also married a widow who already had had children. George and Martha Washington, like James and Dolley Madison, had no biological children of their own. Clearly Martha Washington and Dolley Madison were fertile so the failure to have children seems to have rested with George and James. I wondered if there was any significance in that fact.
Dolley and James stayed in Philadelphia until, in 1800, the federal government moved to that literal swampland that became the city of Washington. The Madisons lived in that new town until 1817, as James first served as Secretary of State under President Jefferson and then two terms as the country’s fourth President. After his retirement James and Dolley moved fulltime to the Madison family home, Montpelier, a large plantation with many slaves.
Hearing this, I wondered what Dolley truly thought about slavery. Did she think about her various families’ different relationships to slavery? Her father felt so strongly about the institution that he freed his slaves and thereby completely altered his and his family’s life. Without slaves, Dolley’s life must have changed radically from the wealth and comfort offered by a Virginia plantation to the poverty of a failed Philadelphia merchant life. Did she resent what her father had done or had her Quaker faith imbued her with same principles as her father? Did she, too, see slavery as evil and in contradiction to the ideals of the Revolution?
She and her first husband had no slaves, but what was her reaction when she learned that Madison had household slaves in Philadelphia? Or when she realized that her new beau owned hundreds of slaves at Montpelier? Of course, she may not have been in much of a position to object to Madison’s slaveholding, but somehow, as did many others in this era, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, she must have made an accommodation with that institution.
After James Madison died, Dolley Madison was again in poverty. Part of the reason was her son. Payne never “found” himself, we were told. He never married nor had a sustained career. He flitted from one enterprise to another running up debts, which James Madison paid. As a result, Madison mortgaged Montpelier. After Madison died, Dolley moved back to Washington and had Payne manage the plantation, but he did so disastrously, and Montpelier had to be sold shortly after he took charge.
After hearing Payne’s story of never being married and deeply unhappy, I wondered if he had been gay. I said something to the spouse, and she had had a similar thought. Of course, I have no real knowledge that he was, but if Payne was gay, what was his life like? Would it be surprising that he was deeply unhappy and became an alcoholic?
Dolley not only sold Montpelier, she also sold all but a few of Madison’s slaves whom she took to Washington. Her poverty continued, however, and she periodically sold her household slaves to maintain her comfort. Although she was revered in Washington, abolitionists denounced her for these sales, especially because they happened in Washington, the nation’s capital. How did Dolley feel about these criticisms?
(Continued on May 25)