|Montpelier Station, VA||July 12, 2005|
A staple of early Washingtonian society was Dolley Madison, the wife of politician James Madison. The vivacious Mrs. Madison occasionally greeted guests to the Executive Mansion for President Thomas Jefferson, a widower, even before she served as the official hostess during her husband’s presidency. Dolley Madison was extraordinarily popular and influential, and she used her acumen to facilitate agreements among members of opposing political parties. After James Madison won the presidential election of 1808, his Federalist opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, is said to have remarked, “I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.” The unofficial Madison-Madison ticket, as Pinckney might qualify it, is interred in the Madison Family Cemetery at Montpelier near Orange, Virginia.
The Madison Family Cemetery is enclosed by a brick wall, with its perimeter extending 70 feet by 95 feet. Roughly 100 of the fourth president’s kin are interred in that particular burial ground on the Montpelier property. The former plantation has several other repositories for human remains, including an unadorned field where the humans the Madisons enslaved are laid to rest. Over 200 enslaved people are buried there.
Former President Madison died in 1836. After eight years, the widowed Mrs. Madison’s financial situation spurred her to sell the estate and separate enslaved families. Dolley relocated to her Washington, D.C., residence on a permanent basis and died there in July 1849 at age 81. Her body was kept in the public vault of Congressional Cemetery in the capital’s southeast quadrant until February 1852. The former first lady’s remains were then sheltered in another of Congressional’s tombs, in the private vault of her niece’s father-in-law, James Causten. It was not until 1858, with the help of nephew Richard D. Cutts, that Mrs. Madison was reunited with Mr. Madison in the family cemetery, thereby fulfilling her “desire and request to be laid by his side.” Or, at least, as best as it could be fulfilled; with no room beside the Father of the Constitution, Mrs. Madison was resigned to the earth behind him.
Mrs. Madison’s obelisk’s height pales in comparison to that of her husband’s monument, but it was still twice as tall as I stood at age ten. I gained some ground on it by the time of my second tour of Montpelier, which came a decade after my first visit — to the day.
"And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!"
- Dolley Madison
August 24, 1814 in a letter to one of her sisters, written as British troops advanced toward the Executive Mansion in Washington, D.C.
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Calogera, Kaitlin and Rebecca Grawl. 111 Places in Women’s History in Washington That You Must Not Miss. Cologne, Germany: Emons Verlag, 2021.
Madison, Dolley. Dolley Madison to sister, August 23, 1814. Letter. From National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, Our White House. https://ourwhitehouse.org/primary-sources-dolley-madisons-letter-to-her-sister-about-the-burning-of-the-white-house/.
Madison, Dolley. Will of Dolley Madison (February 1, 1841). From Encyclopedia Virginia. Accessed November 2, 2022. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/will-of-dolley-madison-february-1-1841/.
Witteman, Barbara. Dolley Madison: First Lady. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 2003.
Zall, Paul M. Dolley Madison. Hauppauge, NY: Nova History Publications, 2001.