James Madison is one of the Fathers of the Constitution, the author of many of the compromises which allowed the Constitutional Convention to succeed in producing a working government. He is also regarded as the Father of the Bill of Rights. Madison was inarguably a political genius and a capable debater and writer, but he did not cast a large physical presence. He was just under 5’4″ in height and would have likely been able to follow a career as a jockey had he chose, weighing only about 100 pounds. He likely wouldn’t have been noticed when he entered a room anyway, and when he entered one with his wife she was the immediate center of attention.
Madison’s wife was the former Dolley Payne Todd, a 26 year old widow when she married him. He was 43. Dolley was already well known in the fledgling Washington social circles when Madison entered the White House, having served as Jefferson’s hostess on occasion when the widowed President needed someone to perform that role. Madison did not marry until he was in his forties but he spent time courting several women before settling down. Contrary to what many believe, the Madison’s had an active sex life and a happy marriage, as evidenced in their letters to each other and to friends.
Dolley Madison became famous for her beauty, but viewing her many portraits does not reveal it to 21st century eyes. In her day she was better known for her charm and boisterousness. She was a large woman and once when she received a pair of silk hose she responded that they were too small even for, “â¦my darling little husband.” A frequent house guest and long-time friend of the couple wrote that the Madisons, “â¦romp and tease each other like two children.” This was long after Madison left the White House and was home again in Virginia at his Montpelier plantation.
Dolley was known to grab her husband’s hands and pull him up on her back, to race around the room or the front lawn at Montpelier with the former President laughing, to the amusement of the children and other guests which were a constant presence there. Madison’s surviving letters to Dolley reveal a passionate side to his character which is frequently ignored. Her letters, both to her husband and more often to friends and relatives reveal an equal passion and a deep love which existed between them. Rumors and myths about Dolley’s infidelity and Madison’s indifference to it existed during their marriage, which lasted 42 years.
Many of the rumors which led to the myths of Dolley’s infidelity began with the vicious politics of his day, in which she was portrayed by enemies to be a woman of little or no morals. They were expanded upon by the British during the War of 1812, and added to by the New England states which voiced moral outrage at the behavior which existed only in the minds of the British propagandists. These reached a height during the British invasion and burning of Washington in 1814. In truth there is no evidence of Dolley Madison’s extramarital affairs beyond contemporaneous gossip and there is every indication that the married life of James Madison and his wife was happy, boisterous, and loving.