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Dolley Madison: An Impressive First Lady

If James Madison was kind of a nerd, his wife was anything but. Born in 1768 to a poor Quaker family in Philadelphia, Dolley Payne Todd’s marriage to Madison was her second. After her first husband died in 1793, Aaron Burr introduced her to Madison. Within a few months, she was married to “the great little Madison,” as she called him.

She took to being First Lady like a duck to water. After all, she had practiced for the job for eight years as the White House’s unofficial hostess while Thomas Jefferson, a widower, was president. When Madison took over, Dolley assumed the task of decorating the great house.

Her charm also made her a great political asset to her husband. “She is a fine, portly, buxom woman who has a smile and a pleasant welcome for everybody,” observed the writer Washington Irving.

Dolley also showed her pluck when the British army invaded Washington and burned the White House. With British soldiers less than a rifle shot away, Dolley stubbornly refused to flee until a portrait of George Washington by the famous artist Gilbert Stuart could be saved. Dolley died in 1849 at the age of 81, 13 years after her husband’s death.

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