Amazing Internet Research: Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

My father’s great-grandfather James Steele Hanks was born in 1809–Thomas Jefferson was the president of the United States and Dolley Madison was the queen of Federal City society.

I can never quite wrap my brain around how young the United States is when I think about that fact.

My children knew their great-grandfather–he was 90 years old when my oldest son was born and was 103 when he died.

My sons knew their great-grandfather, even though my father never met his.

But still; the generations were not that far apart.

I think about how short a span of time our nation’s history encompasses when I look at this daguerreotype taken by Matthew Brady in 1848:

Dolley Madison by Matthew BradyThat’s basically a photograph of the wife of the fourth president of the United States. She knew President George Washington–his nephew was married to her sister!

Dolley Madison died in 1849. She had her photo taken several times. I can’t find the permissions for two other photos, but you can examine them through the University of Virginia here and The National First Ladies Library here.

The photo of Dolley at the National First Ladies Library shows her standing with President James K. Polk and his wife Sally, along with President James Buchanan and his niece Harriet Lane who served as his first lady. She appears to be the tallest woman in the photo.

Born in 1768, on the cusp of the American Revolution, Dolley grew up in South Carolina and Virginia on a plantation. She lived until 1849–or– from the founding of the republic to the California Gold Rush. She was 81 when she died, several months after the photo on the right was taken.

(Daguerreotypes were developed in the 1830’s.)

Interestingly, Dolley’s father John Payne, a Virginia planter who probably knew some of my ancestors, emancipated all his slaves after the American Revolution. Perhaps Dolley’s family was more progressive and up-to-date than we imagine Virginians of the 18th century.

Dolley’s fame came during the War of 1812 when she cut Gilbert Stuart’s famous painting of President George Washington out of the frame, rolled it up and stuck it in her bag when she fled the White House just ahead of the British. The British Army burned the president’s mansion, but Dolley saved the day, including original drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

She frequently wore a turban on her head, in the style of the times, and just stayed with it over the years.

I’ve thought more about Dolley Madison in the last year because my friend Mary Tatem has written an historical novel in which Dolley’s a minor character. Mary’s story, Victory Stitches, includes the dramatic scene of Dolley fleeing the mansion during the War of 1812, and provided me with insight into Dolley’s easy way with servants and friendliness–attitudes you can see in her photos with her sweet half smile..

What I appreciate about old photos like this one is they reveal what people actually looked like. The painting at the top of this blog post show a much younger Dolley, of course, but the photographs–particularly this one and the University of Virginia picture–confirm that the “real” Dolley was not quite as beautiful as the painting.

Don’t you wish the photo could talk? Wouldn’t you love to hear her southern drawl?

Tell me about your most amazing Internet find!


Tweet: The closeness of #history #Dolley Madison! http://ctt.ec/C4b1n+ @michelleule

 Tweet: A photo of the REAL #Dolley Madison!  http://bit.ly/19aLJII @michelleule

Leave a comment


  1. Guess what? I was JUST watching “Save Our History” (I think that’s the name of the show!) this morning. The producers were documenting the restoration of Montpelier, James Madison’s plantation in Orange, Virginia. About five years ago I got to visit Montpelier–we lived about an hour away at the time–during the restoration. Beautiful! The grounds are absolutely incredible! The restoration people even found the original fireplace mantle, either from a local neighbor or in one of the outbuildings–I can’t remember. 🙂

    • I think the American Experience program on PBS has done one on Dolley, but I haven’t been able to pull it up on PBS.com. My genealogy goes back to the Madison’s Orange Co. Neighborhood at the same time, which is fun to read through! I love that era.

  2. Wow! GREAT find!

    My best Internet find was my wife. We met on a Catholic Singles website.

    • I think you found the best find, Andrew! All my friends who’ve found spouses on the Internet have been blessed!

  3. Since you are a Dolley lover too, perhaps you might enjoy my blog articles on the Great Lady! http://www.featherfoster.wordpress.com


Thoughts? Reactions? Lurker?

%d bloggers like this: