Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828)
Oil on canvas, 1804
In an age of republican simplicity, she was called “Queen Dolley” and the “Presidentess.” Dolley Payne Todd, a Quaker widow from Philadelphia, was introduced to James Madison by Aaron Burr. After the Madisons married in 1794, Dolley became an acclaimed hostess and one of the most powerful first ladies Washington has ever known.
Her weekly drawing rooms, known as “squeezes,” were designed to be a politically neutral space where all were welcome. She was beautiful, charming, and fashionable, and the perfect counterpoint to her husband’s subdued personality.
One observer commented: “She looks like an Amazon: he like one of the puny knights of Lilliputia.” Henry Clay once declared, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison,” to which Dolley replied, “that’s because Mrs. Madison loves everybody.”
After her husband’s death in 1836, Dolley returned to Washington, a respected symbol of another age. When she died, the government closed for a state funeral.