The wives of the fourth, seventh and 10th U.S. presidents are identified with several unusual events in American history. One was considered scandalous for the time.
Dolley (sometimes spelled “Dolly”) Madison turned out the gaslights in the Executive Mansion as she left minutes before the British torched the building during the War of 1812. Rachel Jackson’s concerns were about her reputation and its effect on her husband’s presidency. Letitia Tyler, meanwhile, had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first president’s wife to die while her husband served in the office.
Dorothy Payne Todd Madison
Dolley Payne was the daughter of Quaker John Payne and Mary Coles, a cousin of Patrick Henry. Born at Guilford College, North Carolina, during the Revolutionary War, she was 19 when she married John Todd, a Pennsylvania lawyer. She became a young widow two years later, during 1793, when Todd died during the yellow fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia.
Dolley and her son, Payne Todd, went to live with her mother, who kept a genteel boarding house in the city. Aaron Burr was a paying boarder and he made the match between Dolley and 40-year-old congressman James Madison. Married soon after, they moved to Madison’s estate at Montpelier in Virginia.
During her husband’s presidency, Dolley was considered one of the loveliest and most popular of the early First Ladies. She also fulfilled her patriotic duties under pressure as the British army invaded the city during the War of 1812.
About an hour before the British torched the Executive Mansion, Dolley commanded that wagons be filled with the presidential silverware and key documents important to the young nation. She had them sent to the Maryland countryside for safe keeping. As Dolley headed out the door, she had a servant remove one of the most famous portraits of George Washington so that it would not fall into British hands.
Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson
Raised in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, where her father owned an iron foundry, Rachel moved with the family to the Nashville vicinity.
Her first marriage to Captain Lewis Robards was an unhappy union. Upon learning that her husband had obtained a divorce, she married an ardent lawyer and a War of 1812 hero, Andrew Jackson, during 1791. When it became public that the divorce had not been legally verified, the couple remarried.
Their love and marriage stand out as one of the most beautiful of the time. However, she may have been broken by the slanders, vilifications and whispers during the political campaign of 1828 over the confusion that ended her first marriage. Her death, believed to have been caused by a heart attack or stroke, deeply affected Jackson throughout his presidency.
The Jackson’s did not have any natural children, but they did adopt several children and raised them as their own.
Letitia Christian Tyler
Letitia was the first wife of John Tyler, the 10th president of the U.S. She was born into a planter family in New Kent County, Virginia, which also was the childhood home of Martha Washington. The family knew the Washingtons, and Letitia was about 10 years old when the first president died at Mount Vernon.
Long an invalid, Letitia died the year after her husband became president. He had succeeded William Henry Harrison, who had died one month after his inauguration.
Letitia became the first presidential wife to die while living in the White House. About one year later, one of their seven children, Elizabeth, was married at the White House.
Tyler married his second wife, Julia Gardiner, shortly after her father was killed by a cannon explosion while a guest of the president on board the USS Princeton. The Gardiner family held manorial rights to an island off of New York’s Long Island that still bears their name. She bore Tyler another seven children.