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The Tragic Life Of Dolley Madison, A Badass First Lady

Updated November 2, 2020 56.8k views14 items

The First Lady is an important title in American politics. But while everyone has an opinion on what makes a "good" first lady, few citizens could tell you where the image of the ideal presidential spouse comes from. The credit for setting the standards of First Ladyship belongs to Dolley Madison, a lesser-known but undeniably badass First Lady who left her mark on United States history.

Dolley Madison was the wife of President James Madison. Born in 1768, she was witness to many integral moments in the establishment of the United States, and she had a direct hand in more than a few of them. There are countless facts about Dolley Madison that prove she was an elegant and admirable First Lady. But history, sadly, didn’t grant her a happy ending. The tragic story of Dolley Madison is one worth repeating, and one that all Americans should know.

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  • She Lost Her First Husband And Child To Yellow Fever

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Dolley's peaceful life in Philadelphia was not to last. She settled down with her husband John Todd, and they soon had two children. But in 1793, yellow fever hit the city. The entire family got sick, and Dolley’s husband and second child perished. Both she and first born son, Payne, fell ill as well, but were able to recover.

    Dolley was a widow and single mother at the age of 25.

  • She Had A Whirlwind Courtship With The Older James Madison

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Shortly after the heartbreaking loss of her husband and child, Dolley became reacquainted with James Madison through his friend Aaron Burr. The two began a whirlwind romance that became the talk of town. The affair had a tinge of scandal to it - Dolley was a new widow, and Madison was 17 years older than her.

    The couple met in May of 1794, and were engaged in August that same year. Dolley was asked to give up her Quaker faith as a condition of the marriage, since Madison did not practice the religion himself.

  • She Supported The Lewis And Clark Expedition

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    A few years before she became the First Lady, Dolley Madison had a hand in the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Although she couldn't trek across the country herself, she organized a group of D.C. women who gathered supplies and solicited donations for the explorers. With the support of Dolley Madison, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were able to chart the western half of the country.

  • She Became The First "First Lady"

    Photo: firstladies.org / via Pinterest

    James Madison was elected the fourth President of the United States in 1809. Dolley Madison became the third First Lady - Thomas Jefferson's wife had died before he took office. In many ways, however, Dolley was the first "First Lady," as she set the standard that future presidential partners would be judged by.

    She shared her opinion on matters of state, publicly supported her husband, and made the most of her social standing. Dolley even began the trend of First Ladies doubling as fashion icons. She was an extremely popular figure; her nicknames included "Lady Presidentess" and "Queen Dolley."