With a separate autographed free frank; The only letter from Madison to his son that we can find having been offered for sale in the last 40 years.
"It is painful to utter reproaches, yet how can they be avoided? Your last letter to your mother made us confident that we should see you in a few days."
After the Revolution, Virginia couple John and Mary Payne emancipated their slaves and moved their family to Philadelphia. Among their children, all raised as Quakers by their mother, was daughter Dolley. In January 1790, Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia. They had two sons, John Payne (called Payne) Todd and William Temple Todd. There was a terrible yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, and on October 24 of that year deep tragedy struck when Dolley's husband John and son William both died. She was a widow at the age of 25; her family had perished and she was alone with only one companion, one year old son Payne.
Dolley Payne Todd and James Madison, who represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives, likely encountered each other at social events in the federal capital (then at Philadelphia). Some sources state that Aaron Burr, who had been a fellow student with Madison at Princeton, and with whom he had remained friends, stayed at a rooming house where the widow Dolley also resided, and it was Burr's idea to introduce the two. In May 1794, Burr made the formal introduction between Madison and the young widow. Madison was seventeen years her senior and, at the age of 43, a longstanding bachelor. The encounter apparently went smoothly, for a brisk courtship followed; by August Dolley accepted his proposal of marriage. They were married on September 15, 1794, and lived in Philadelphia for the next three years. The relationship between James Madison and his scintillating younger wife was a deep, loving one. This is so much so that the Montpelier website states that they were a "couple rarely apart." Madison informally adopted the two-year-old Payne, raising him as his own son. By all accounts, he was a dutiful and loving father figure for the young boy, who referred to Madison as “Papa.” As James and Dolley Madison had no children of their own, Payne was their only child.
In 1797, after eight years in the House of Representatives, Madison retired from politics and returned with his family to Montpelier, the family plantation in Virginia. When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he asked Madison to serve as his Secretary of State. Madison accepted, and he, Dolley, and son Payne moved to Washington. There she helped to furnish the White House, and as Jefferson was a widower, she sometimes served as his First Lady for official ceremonial functions. Then, from 1809-1817, James Madison was President and Dolley Madison the First Lady. She was renowned for her social graces and hospitality, and contributed much to her husband's popularity as president. One of the greatest First Ladies in history, the name Dolley Madison is mentioned alongside Abigail Adams, Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Young Payne could be a charming man, and was once described as “one of the most amiable youths in the world and worthy of such a mother [as Dolley].” He was also an accomplished pianist with a passion for art and theater. However, he disliked work, and as a youth used what excuses he could to avoid his studies. As an adult, he liked to gamble, drink heavily, and spend money, though he had little of his own. In 1815, he traveled to Europe as Albert Gallatin’s attaché on a diplomatic mission. However, he passed most of his time in Europe pursuing leisure activities and gambling. He ran up a then-enormous bill of $8,000, which Madison had to pay, acknowledging he “was not unprepared for a heavy demand for expenses of J. P. Todd.” Payne could be belligerent and was jailed for a number of shooting incidents. Many considered him a spendthrift who squandered his parents' money. During the 1820s, Payne traveled to Philadelphia and New York, where he gambled, drank, and accrued significant debt. The Madisons were forever trying to find him a wife, but Payne, though he was involved with a whole string of women throughout his adulthood, never married.
Payne spent two stints in debtor’s prison, the first in early 1826 and the second in 1829-30. His parents bailed him out, the second time mortgaging Montpelier to raise the money. Yet as every parent knows, despite all of the aggravation a child like Payne may cause, they loved him dearly anyway. They sought his company, his safety, his happiness, his reassurance, and his love.
Autograph letter signed, Montpelier, November 13, 1825, to Payne, whom he addresses as "My dear P", a heart rending letter showing that family difficulties do not spare the famous and prominent. "What shall I say to you? It is painful to utter reproaches, yet how can they be avoided? Your last letter to your mother made us confident that we should see you in a few days. Weeks have passed without even a line explaining the disappointment or soothing the anxieties of the tenderest of mothers, wound up to the highest pitch by this addition to your long and mysterious absence. As ample remittances were furnished for all known purposes, your continuance where you are under such strange appearances necessarily produces distressing apprehensions. Whatever be the causes of it, you owe it to yourself as well as to us to withhold them no longer. Let the worst be known, that the best may be made of it. I wish not to dwell on the subject, but I must not conclude without imploring & conjuring [summoning] you to hasten to the embraces of your parents & to put an end to the uncertainties which afflict them, giving immediate assurance that you will do so by a line to your mother by the first mail after this gets to hand. You cannot be too quick in affording some relief to her present feelings. Your affectionate father, J. Madison." A search of public sale records over the past 40 years fails to turn up even one letter from Madison to his stepson, nor do we recall having seen any. This is thus an extraordinary rarity, if not unique, in showing Madison as parent.
The fears of the parents were justified. Considering how close in time this letter is to Payne's first incarceration, it is quite likely he was disappointing and worrying his parents because of the debts leading to that incarceration.