Defining a Nation

Defining a Nation > National Symbols, Stories & Icons > The First Lady

St. Leonard Creek
Dolley Madison, as painted by Gilbert Stuart, helped shape the role of American first ladies. Courtesy Library of Congress

The role of the first lady gained greater visibility during the War of 1812 era, thanks to the gregarious, charming and fashionable Dolley Madison. Legend has it she was the first to be called “first lady” when President Zachary Taylor delivered her eulogy in 1849. Dolley set a standard to which many future first ladies would aspire.

The consummate White House (then known as the “President’s house”) hostess, Dolley brought sophistication to the capital. During her husband’s presidency, Washington was still a small city, and hardly cosmopolitan. In the words of Attorney General Richard Rush, it was “a meager village, a place with a few bad houses and extensive swamps.”

President James Madison was an awkward, dour man. His wife, in contrast, was warm and welcoming, and she took the lead hosting political figures and events.

Dolley’s fame increased after the burning of Washington. In August 1814, with the British only miles away, she was still at the White House, trying to save as many of the nation’s documents and treasures as she could.

When she returned to Washington after the British occupation, Dolley reinstated her Wednesday evening "drawing rooms" (receptions), which were popular with politicians, diplomats, and other Washingtonians.

Dolley Madison helped shaped the role of first ladies in public service. She was the first to formally support a public project when she helped found a home for orphaned girls in Washington.

 

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