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Martha Jefferson Randolph, Maria Jefferson Eppes, Dolley Madison - First Lady

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By the time he became President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson had been a widower for twenty years. His long-deceased wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, was therefore never able to carry out the functions of a presidential spouse. While some commentators continue to refer to her as Jefferson's "First Lady," this is a misnomer, for Martha Jefferson never assumed any of the responsibilities associated with that role. Jefferson was aware nonetheless that the duties his wife would have assumed, had she lived, needed to be performed. When his two married daughters, Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph and Maria "Polly" Jefferson Eppes, stayed with him at the presidential mansion, they occasionally took on the job of hostessing. Patsy was well versed in the expectations of such a role, having traveled to Paris with her father and experienced the lavishness and rigid protocol associated with French court life. Yet the gatherings Patsy hostessed were simple affairs and quite a departure from the formal levees her two predecessors had held. That simplicity reflected Thomas Jefferson's desire to endow his administration with the touch of the "common man." Jefferson's second daughter, Polly, presided as hostess when her sister was unable. She did so only for a short time, however, dying from complications due to childbirth in 1804. Although both daughters had taken on the occasional hostessing duty for their father, neither resided permanently in the presidential mansion during Jefferson's time in office. As a result, the President looked elsewhere for a permanent substitute. Two months after his inauguration, he contacted the wife of his friend, political protege, and secretary of state, asking if she would be "so good as to dine with him to-day, and to take care of female friends expected." Dolley Payne Todd Madison thus stepped into the role of Thomas Jefferson's presidential hostess. In that capacity, she followed the example set by Abigail Adams and infused the role of presidential spouse with an even deeper political consciousness. She attended Senate debates and sparred with the British minister's wife, defending Jefferson's relaxed notions of etiquette. She frequently asked husband James Madison for the latest news on the country's international relations, suspended White House entertainments during the Barbary Wars, and supported the Lewis and Clark expedition by heading a campaign to gather necessary supplies. Although politically attuned, Dolley was equally attentive to her role as social hostess. She handled receptions and, with Jefferson's assent, even guided friends through the presidential mansion. Jefferson seemed to acknowledge the important role his daughters and Dolley Madison occupied in his administration. Indeed, in revising The Canons of Etiquette To Be Observed by the Executive, a guide to presidential protocol, the President now included Rule 12: "The President and his family take precedence everywhere in public or private." Though the role of presidential hostess had taken on added prestige, the person who held the position was not immune to public censure or personal attack. Critics openly debated the nature of Dolley Madison's relationship with Jefferson, especially as James Madison prepared to run for the presidency in 1808. Dolley's friendship with Thomas Jefferson fueled rumors that she was his mistress. Jefferson seemed rather amused by it all, thinking that his "age and ordinary demeanor" would have negated such innuendo. Yet further insinuations levied by congressmen suggesting that Dolley traded sexual favors for electoral votes sparked a full-fledged sex scandal. Despite such tactics, James Madison won both his party's nomination and the subsequent presidential election. Dolley Madison was about to become First Lady in her own right.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Peter Onuf

Professor Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His writings include:

Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (University Press of Virginia, 2001)

Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Indiana University Press, 1987)

Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775–1787 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983)