Creation of the American Nation (2006).
Dolley Madison is remembered in history by most for securing a portrait of George Washington as thousands of British soldiers advanced on "Washington's City" during the War of 1812 (and sadly, she's remembered by some for snack cakes). In addition to being the "First" First Lady, Dolley Madison should be remembered for introducing the "process" of politics via the "Unofficial Sphere" in the U.S. Government. James Madison was one of the key figures that created political parties, but Dolley Madison was the person that figured out how the political parties could actually conduct the business of government. She, more so than her husband, was the one that created a place with an atmosphere in which politicians of different parties actually talked to each other, and the government was able to function.
In history, timing is crucial. James Cameron wanted to release "Titanic" in the summer of 1997, but editing delayed the release, and it reached theaters in late-1997. I'm convinced that if "Titanic" had been released in the summer, it would not have become such a mega-hit; it was much-better suited for a "winter release". Other famous examples of excellent timing (whether on purpose or by accident) would include the Beatles in 1964, and "Star Wars" in 1977. Dolley entered Washington at the best-possible time, in terms of politics. As the wife of the Secretary of State in 1801, Dolley was in a unique position to diffuse the tension in America's "Honor Culture."
For James Madison, these "Wednesday Nights" presented a "win-win" situation for
his introverted personality. Dolley was able to institutionalize what progressive reformers decades later would call "Association". Instead of the middle class and working class "mixing" together at an amusement park, which reformers hoped would reduce class conflict, Dolley mixed political parties and genders, and succeeded in reducing political tension and conflict. Dolley knew from the beginning that women needed to be involved in this "Association"; women were key in the "Unofficial Sphere." In this setting (and also with correspondence), women were able to exert their influence in the political arena, without being seen as leaving the private sphere. Dolley positioned herself perfectly, in that she was able to influence politics, and was seen (by most, anyway) as a lady that remained in "her sphere" - Aaron Burr wasn't so lucky. Burr's motives weren't the same as Dolley's, but he also wanted bipartisanship, and was one of the very few politicians in his era that could-and-would work with the other party (John Quincy Adams was another of the few politicians that also worked with the other party). But, Burr was labeled a "traitor to his class", in particular by Jefferson, and, in the East anyway, became a political persona-non-grata. Dolley was not seen as a "traitor to her class", or as a "trespasser in the public sphere." She was able, through great effort, ability, and skill, to conduct a balancing act between aristocracy and democracy.
The importance of Dolley Madison's "Unofficial Sphere" was seen when it ceased to exist for a time during the "Eaton Affair." The "ruling class" feared the rise of democracy, which they perceived as a threat to their power and status, and Margaret Eaton became the "Lighting Rod of Hate." Her social bona fides were not near the equal of these "ladies of quality", and, in essence, Margaret and her husband, Jackson's 1st Secretary of War, were "shunned" from the social events. And, when the Eatons hosted, there were many no-shows, adding insult-to-insult. The result of these actions was that the business of Washington, D.C. ground to a halt; discussions and decisions were not being conducted or made because the "Unofficial Sphere" of government was temporarily absent. Something, or rather, someone else was absent as well - Dolley Madison. It would be hard to fathom how the "Eaton Affair" would have reached this critical point had Dolley, or someone similar, been "running point" in the "Unofficial Sphere" of government.
(Below: a daguerreotype of Dolley Madison (seated) late in her life in the 1840s)