Dolley Madison Silver Dollar

Posted by Jay Turner, NGC Grader and Attributor on 6/1/2006

What makes someone worthy of commemoration? Is it the popularity they obtained during their life?


What makes someone worthy of commemoration? Is it the popularity they obtained during their life? Is it the charity they gave? Could it be a heroic act that sets them apart? Or could it be all of the above and more? The response to these questions is a resounding, 'yes' when inquiring about Dolley Madison, an American truly worthy of commemoration.

The Dolley Madison Dollar was a commemorative that was a long time coming for such a spectacular figure in American history. It was issued in 1999 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her death. The year 1999 was special in the annals of American numismatics. It also included the first of the States Quarters, the reappearance of the Susan B. Anthony Dollar, the George Washington $5 Commemorative, and the Yellowstone Commemorative Dollar. With all of these other issues, the Dolley Madison commemorative was overshadowed and didn’t get the coverage it truly deserved.

Dolley Payne was born May 20, 1768 in Guildford County, North Carolina. The following year, her parents moved to Virginia. Fourteen years later, her father, John Payne, freed the family slaves and moved to Philadelphia. In 1790, Dolley married John Todd, Jr., a lawyer. In 1793, after the birth of her second child, Dolley lost her husband, his parents, and her second child to yellow fever. In 1794, now a widow, she met James Madison, a Congressman from Virginia, and the two married on September 5th. Because she married outside of her faith, she was expelled from the Society of Friends.

James Madison served out his term and retired from the House of Representatives in 1797. Yet his leave from politics was short-lived. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was elected President of the United States and, in 1801, James Madison was appointed Secretary of State. As wife of the Secretary of State, Dolley hosted teas, dinners, and parties for the elite. She became known throughout affluent society. She was often asked to help others through government jobs, giving government aid, and even assisted President Jefferson as the First Lady during a contentious period of establishing the country’s rules of social etiquette around the time of the Merry Affair.

On March 4, 1809, James Madison was inaugurated as the fourth President of the United States. Dolley Madison became the third First Lady for the United States. As First Lady, she took up the tasks of decorating the White House, and became the social mistress of the administration. International affairs dominated many aspects of the job. As war progressed between Britain and France, the United States couldn’t avoid the conflict, and, in June of 1812, war was declared against Great Britain. Dolley Madison was a strong supporter of the war. As James Madison grew ill, Dolley Madison found her role even more critical in the war effort.

By August of 1814, British troops had landed within 35 miles of Washington, DC. Dolley Madison was left alone with a few servants to guard the White House. As British troops approached, Dolley took action. Rather then evacuate immediately, despite concerns for her own safety, she first saved many valuables in the House, including official papers, silver, and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. She fled shortly before the British arrived at the White House. The dinner table had been set and a meal prepared, which was consumed by the British before the White House was looted and burned. These important relics of Americana would have been looted, burned, and lost forever if not for her heroic act to save them.

James Madison vacated the Presidency in 1814. By then, Dolley had established herself as the First Lady of the land and set a model for future First Ladies to follow. She devoted many of the years that followed to her family, and as James Madison grew ill, she became his full-time nurse. In 1836, James Madison died and Dolley tried unsuccessfully to run their Montpelier plantation, but she failed to make a profit. She then turned her attention to prompting Congress to purchase her husband’s papers. In 1841, she returned to Washington and became Honorary Chair of a women’s group to raise funds for the Washington Memorial.

On July 12, 1849, Dolley Madison died. President Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison, saying, “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century.”

A hundred and fifty years later, it was First Lady Hillary Clinton that gave the honor at the release of the Dolley Madison Commemorative Dollar. The unveiling of the coin occurred on January 11, 1999, in the East Room of the White House, where Hillary Clinton gave a speech honoring of Dolley Madison. The coin’s obverse, designed by T. James Ferrell, shows a portrait of Dolley Madison, surrounded by Cape Jasmine — her favorite flower. The reverse, designed by Thomas D. Rogers, shows Montpelier — the Madison’s estate. The coin had a maximum authorized mintage of 500,000 and 10% of the proceeds went to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the maintenance of Montpelier.

While the Dolley Madison Dollar had a Mint State mintage of only 89,104 and a Proof mintage of 224,403, it remains readily available. As a bonus, the quality of these coins is exceptional. NGC has graded 954 Mint State coins, and 471 have been graded MS70. In proof, the NGC has graded 1,047, and 250 have been graded PF70 Ultra Cameo. Often, the biggest hindering condition factor is improper storage of the coins, which causes them to haze or tone unattractively which precludes the 70 grade. Other factors include struck-through particles and abrasion.

The Dolley Madison Dollar is a commemorative that is well-deserved not only in recognition for her individual achievement but also for contribution to the numismatic community. Without her, the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington would not have been used for the one dollar bill. Her courage and conviction led the country through some of its toughest times. Her popularity continues today and is truly deserving of commemoration.

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