Defining the Role of First Lady
While her husband James Madison was President of the United States, Dolley Madison was known for her social graces, her White House receptions, and for her decorating skills. However, she was also a skilled household manager and a fearless protector of early US heritage. She began her tenure at the White House working in the Thomas Jefferson administration to assist in the completion and decoration of the newly constructed presidential residence. This intimate knowledge of the White House and its contents would help save precious items from being destroyed.
As the British advanced on Washington in the War of 1812, Madison ordered his wife and family to leave the District for their own safety. With the British army not far away, intent on torching the White House and the Capitol, Dolley Madison stayed at her post until the last moments, directing the collection and storage of irreplaceable items such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. She refused to leave the White House until the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington was safely secured. When the large picture could not be removed from the wall, she ordered the frame broken and the portrait cut out rather than leave it to be destroyed by British soldiers. Dolley was evacuated to Virginia where she stayed until the immediate danger had passed, then returned to Washington to help rebuild her beloved home.