In the old days, every school child knew that First Lady Dolley Madison saved the portrait of George Washington from the approaching British Army. Fact? Legend?
The War of 1812: Target Washington
The War of 1812, the second war between the United States and England was not going well for the Americans. Its American army was miniscule, poorly trained, and staffed with officers whose last experiences were forty years earlier. Their weaponry was just as archaic.
Washington DC was only a small village barely a dozen years old. The town itself could hardly have been an important strategic objective. Common sense and military savvy would suggest the Redcoats would concentrate on the far more important port of Baltimore, Maryland. The Brits had other ideas, however. To them Washington was an important symbolic objective: a) a capital city, and b) all the more odious since it was named in honor of the man who had inflicted the erstwhile invincible British army with the loss of their colonies.
President Madison and the War of 1812
President James Madison was past sixty, small and unimposing in stature. He was a gentle soul, and one of the least warlike men to occupy the office. His decision to even engage in this latest war had been an agonizing one, undertaken with a heavy heart and heavy political arm-twisting. But the honor of our country, and the concept of freedom of the high seas (being flagrantly flouted by England) was an important issue both politically and economically.
In late August, 1814, with disheartened US troops encamped in Maryland, Commander-in-Chief Madison decided to personally rally the troops, and rode off.
Before his departure however, he took the precaution of entrusting important documents to friends who would transport them out of the capital. He also advised his wife Dolley to remain at the White House until he either returned or sent word.
Dolley Madison’s Role in the War of 1812
Dolley Madison now in her mid-forties, was the quintessential hostess at the center of Washington’s socio-political structure. She had been providing a warm and neutral setting where politicians and governmental hierarchy could meet informally on common ground. Her soirees were famous for their ecumenical guest lists. Senators rubbed elbows with tavern-keepers, generals with booksellers. Dolley Madison entertained practically daily, sometimes holding two or three gatherings on a single day.
Even in Madison’s absence Dolley had planned a luncheon. The table had been set, the food prepared, but “regrets” were coming all morning from her luncheon guests, saying they were evacuating the city.
She checked and double checked that all important papers and possessions had been removed. Then she spied the full-length Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. (Some historians claim it is only a copy, but it really doesn’t matter, does it?) It was as much a symbol of our new nation as the capital city named in his honor. She could not let it fall into enemy hands. He had been our first Commander-in-Chief, and now her gentle husband was trying to fill those august shoes.
Saving George Washington
Illustrations abound depicting Dolley Madison on stepladders, knife in hand, or stuffing a rolled-up canvas into a satchel and fleeing a burning building. That is the legend part, of course, and one should always treasure legends. They speak volumes and endear us to the subjects.
But Dolley did not shinny up the stepladder, with or without a knife. Long skirts and high-heels are not conducive for climbing. She did however summon servants to do her climbing and remove George from the wall. The resourceful First Lady then ordered the canvas cut from the heavy gilt frame. After all, a frame can be replaced, and a canvas is much easier to transport. Coincidentally, Robert De Peyster and Jacob Barker, two gentlemen from New York, were passing by the White House, and Dolley persuaded them to safeguard the precious portrait. They were pleased to oblige.
Many years later, after the legend had firmly been attached to the story, both De Peyster and Barker were elderly, as was Dolley. The three of them were in concurrence however, regarding the veracity of the episode, which by then had dozens of variations. Truth or not, the legend (or legends) took over the more prosaic truth, and the image of Dolley on a ladder, rescuing George and fleeing a burning White House with the rolled-up canvas in her satchel is the one that lingers.
The Aftermath of George
“George” was returned some time later. It hangs today in the White House East Room, next to the fireplace – with a full length Martha Washington on the other side. They both have graced the room for generations.
It is said that “George Washington” is the oldest possession in the Executive Mansion, and the only item that remains pre- the burning of the White House in August, 1814.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow
Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press
Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company
Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill