While Madison was serving as secretary of state from 1801 to 1809, Dolley assumed the role of White House hostess for the widower president, Thomas Jefferson. While Madison was president in 1814, during the War of 1812 with the British, Dolley was left behind in the White House while her husband went into the field. As British troops marched on Washington, Dolley famously took down an enormous portrait of George Washington and smuggled it out of the city to keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy.
In terms of personality and style, the couple was a study in contrasts. The 5′ 4″ intellectual Madison was shy and sickly-looking; he paled in comparison to his robust, voluptuous and lively wife. Dolley was described as having all the social graces and zest for life that her husband lacked. The couple was devoted to each other and, after his retirement from the presidency, she helped him organize and prepare his presidential papers for publication.
Following Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley was forced to pay debts incurred by their financially reckless son and was left penniless. Her financial distress was relieved when Congress purchased Madison’s papers from her. Congress also gave the enormously popular and influential former first lady an honorary seat in Congress, from which she frequently viewed sessions. She passed away in Washington, D.C. in 1849 at the age of 81.