Dolley Madison the symbol was very different from Dolley Madison the historical figure, although both speak to the American yearning for identity.
During her lifetime, Dolley Payne Todd Madison was a partner to James in multiple ways—one half of a loving marriage, an effective political connector, and a hostess so able that she would set the tone for hospitality not only in Washington but all over America. Her actions went a long way towards improving public perception of James Madison as well as making inroads for her husband among other politicos of the day. Today, we inherently understand that a spouse's popularity has significant impact on a presidential candidate’s chances with the public, but it was Dolley Madison who showed just how important a president’s partner can be.
Dolley Payne Todd’s charms were legendary among her circles, beginning with the Philadelphia Quaker community in which she lived with her parents and then her first husband, John Todd. After the death of Todd and their youngest son, William—on the same day from a yellow fever outbreak—the young widow broke with the Quakers to marry James Madison. Her new husband had already made a name for himself as a statesman, but it was Dolley’s particular skill with people that turned their drawing room into a place of political connection.
James took his place behind the presidential tiller in 1809. Once installed in the White House, Dolley quickly began to make changes, working with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to select stylish furniture and interior decor, and turning the sometimes stodgy, sometimes too exclusive gatherings of presidencies past into welcoming, graceful affairs. If James’s political philosophy emphasized the importance of the individual, Dolley made each individual visitor personally feel that importance. Her unique brand of hospitality was emulated by a very young nation anxious to craft an identity.