With friends like Richard Cutts, James Madison didn’t need enemies. Though Cutts was the rare New Englander who supported Mr. Madison’s War, his financial misadventures cost the president dearly.
Mr. Madison’s War, of course, was the War of 1812, deeply unpopular in New England. When Madison wanted to send state militias to invade Canada, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island refused. Some New Englanders even wanted to secede from the union.
But Richard Cutts, a congressman from the District of Maine, not only supported Madison, he married his sister-in-law and lived at the White House.
Richard Cutts paid a price for his friendship with Madison. But Madison paid a steeper price.
He was born June 28, 1771, the fifth of eight children of Thomas and Elizabeth Scammon Cutts. His father was a wealthy shipbuilder and merchant from Saco, Maine, which then belonged to Massachusetts. The family lived on Cutts Island.
Richard Cutts attended Phillips Andover, entered Harvard at 15 and graduated in 1790. He started studying law but gave it up. Then he went into his father’s business, traveling to Europe at least twice as captain of his father’s ships. He came back and twice won election for state representative.
Cutts then won election to Congress as a Jeffersonian Republican from eastern Maine. In April 1804 he married Anna Payne, youngest sister of Dolley Payne Madison, First Lady of the United States. He was 30, she was 22, and their wedding marked a highlight of the social season.
Cutts was described as a ‘dark-haired, broad-browed, handsome young man … regarded with favor by many bright eyes in Washington, and quite a squire of dames at home and abroad.’ James and Dolley Madison ‘appear to have been entirely satisfied with the character and position of Mr. Cutts,’ but it was a trial to Dolley to give up her youngest sister, who had lived with her.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Richard Cutts took off for Maine, where Cutts built a house in Saco. When Congress was in session, they lived in the White House with the Madisons. Anna Cutts and another sisters, Lucy Washington, helped Dolley with the entertaining for which she was famous.
War of 1812
Richard Cutts won re-election to Congress four times, but he supported the War of 1812, a war New Englanders viewed as unnecessary. They also felt they bore an unfair burden for the conflict. The British captured Castine in the District of Maine, bombarded towns that refused to bribe them and devastated commerce along the coast. Cutts’ support of the war cost him his seat in 1812.
The war cost him more than that. According to his friend and neighbor John Quincy Adams, the British captured or destroyed most of his ships, reducing him to poverty.
Adams was probably being kind. According to historian Stephen W. Brown, Richard Cutts had invested in dubious shipbuilding enterprises at the outset of the war, and lost heavily.
His brother-in-law, the president, came through for him, though. He appointed Richard Cutts Superintendent General of Military Supplies.
The Cuttses and the Madisons were close. When Dolley Madison famously fled the White House, she took a carriage with Anna and Richard Cutts. And when she returned, she stayed with them.
The Madisons had no children of their own, though Dolley had a grown son by her previous marriage. They loved to have young children in their midst, and cherished the seven Cutts children.
Cutts’ children viewed Montpelier, Madison’s estate, as their second home. But when Richard’s financial embarrassments grew acute, he stayed home when Anna visited her sister.
Richard Cutts liked to live large and invest recklessly. He borrowed $5,000 from Madison — about $100,000 today – in 1816.
He asked Dolley Madison’s brother-in-law, John G. Jackson, to co-sign a bank loan of $6,000 in 1817. Madison left office in March of that year, and Cutts’ job as Superintendent General of Military Supplies ended.
President James Monroe then helped Cutts out by naming him Second Comptroller of the Treasury. And Madison loaned him another $11,500 that year. And Dolley Madison loaned him money (how much is not known) belonging to her son, Payne Todd. Cutts promised to double the sum in a North Carolina gold mining venture. He didn’t.
In 1818-19 he built a house near the White House. Now belonging to the Cosmos Club, it was then one of the most pretentious homes in the District. He also bought some house lots in Washington. Cutts’ timing couldn’t have been worse, for the real estate bubble burst in the financial panic of 1819.
In 1819 he borrowed $4,500 in a loan co-signed by Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr., father of Jackson’s second wife. After Meigs died, Cutts still owed money on the loan, and Meigs’ house was sold to pay it off.
Bad to Worse
In December 1820, President Monroe wrote Madison claiming Cutts was performing poorly in his job at the Treasury. Madison defended him, and Cutts kept his job.
Finally in 1822 Richard Cutts declared bankruptcy. His furniture was sold at auction; Dolley Madison bought most of it and set up a trust for Anna. The bank seized his house, and James Madison bought it back and let the Cutts family live in it. He also bought four of Cutts’ house lots from the bank.
But no good deed goes unpunished, and Cutts’ creditors entangled Madison in two lawsuits.
Jackson bitterly complained in 1823 “Cutts is doing nothing, and never will, to pay his old debts or indemnify his endorsers.” Nor would he use his government salary to pay off old debts, wrote Jackson.
In 1828, Richard Cutts briefly went to debtors’ prison, and the newly elected president Andrew Jackson fired him from his Treasury job. His last day in office was March 21, 1829.
Richard and Anna Cutts continued to live in the house owned by James Madison. Anna died in 1832, and Madison died four years later. Dolley Madison moved into the Cutts house in 1837, where she continued to entertain frequently. She lived there for the last 12 years of her life, facing increasing financial difficulty. She eventually sold her husband’s papers for $30,000 to help make ends meet.
Her son Payne–drinker, gambler, spendthrift—bears most of the blame for her financial troubles later in life. But surely Richard Cutts deserves some approbation as well.
He lived quietly in Washington for the rest of his life, which ended on April 7, 1845. Of his last years, John Quincy Adams could only write, ‘he has resided in the city of Washington, in the retirement of private life.’
With thanks to Stephen W. Brown, Voice of the New West: John G. Jackson, His Life and Times;
David O. Stewart, Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America; and Founders Online, Madison and Richard Cutts’ Financial Difficulties: Editorial Note.
Images: Cutts Island By © Steven Pavlov / http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Senapa, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45142130; Cosmos Club By Tim1965 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8538536. This story was updated in 2023.