Legend has a tendency to eclipse reality when it comes to Dolley Madison. Her decision to remain in the White House until she had secured the safety of George Washington's portrait, even as British troops bore down upon Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, remains a staple of American mythology. Yet reality rivals legend when one considers the tenure of the "Lady Presidentress." By the time Dolley Payne Todd Madison had attended her husband's inaugural in 1809, she had already served intermittently as presidential hostess during the Jefferson administration. Dolley Madison was thus aware of the perks, responsibilities, and the criticism inherent in the job and was the first presidential spouse to fully embrace the role. She enjoyed the first inaugural ball and appeared at numerous events both with and without her husband. She paid and received calls, held "dove parties" where congressional wives discussed current events, hosted political dinners, and gave wildly popular public receptions. While Dolley Madison had accommodated herself to the informal style of entertaining required in the Jefferson White House, she reinstated some of the formality of earlier administrations when she became hostess in her own right. She replaced the smaller dinners preferred by Jefferson with larger events, holding "drawing rooms," a less formal version of the levees hosted by Martha Washington and Abigail Adams.
She was also the first to decorate the White House, a task often associated with the twentieth-century first ladyship of Jacqueline Kennedy. Nevertheless, it was Dolley Madison who assumed, under difficult circumstances, what traditionally had been a man's responsibility. Working within a tight budget, Dolley balanced the elegance required to impress international visitors and domestic political opponents, on the one hand, and the modesty reflective of a republican nation on the other. It was a challenge she accepted not only in decorating the presidential mansion, but in entertaining there well. Through her purchases of wallpaper, furniture, and china, and in the nature of the receptions she hostessed, Dolley Madison combined sophistication with simplicity. Although she completed her decoration of the White House by 1810, throwing a gala to display her achievements to the American public, her hard work would be ravaged by war. She maintained some semblence of a social calendar, holding various events to boost public and troop morale. All entertaining came to an abrupt halt, however, when British troops threatened to invade Washington, D.C. Despite repeated urgings from the mayor, Dolley Madison refused to evacuate her home until the last minute. When she finally left the White House, she not only saved George Washington's portrait, but several government documents as well.
After the War of 1812, Dolley devoted her energies to improving the welfare of orphaned children in Washington, D.C. She assumed leadership of the cause, donated her time and money, and encouraged other women to follow her example. Many women did, not only in support of her cause, but in attending public events such as luncheons and orations, and in conversing with men at her receptions. They viewed her as a role model, adopting her fashions and asking her for advice. Although a social icon, Dolley Madison was also interested in contemporary political issues. Her dove parties, while social in nature, had political overtones as she used them to gain information for her husband. When President Madison was disabled from sickness in May 1813, Dolley might well have assumed some of his official responsibilities, though there is little hard evidence to support such a claim. The first presidential spouse to renovate the White House, Dolley Madison was revered as a hostess and fashion trendsetter. Likewise, her exploits during wartime carved out new responsibilities for presidential wives. Separately and collectively, each of these actions would help redefine the role and responsibilities expected of future First Ladies.