Within hours after Dolley Madison “rescued” the portrait of George Washington, the British Redcoats marched in and torched the city.
The British Invade Washington
Politicians and military personnel alike were surprised that the British Army would target Washington, DC. In 1814 the village was barely fifteen years old, and had no strategic importance whatsoever.
What it did have, however, was symbolic importance: the capital city of Britain’s erstwhile colonies – the colonies they had lost forty years earlier. Perhaps even more galling was that the town was named for George Washington, the general who had tweaked John Bull’s nose.
The Redcoats entered an empty White House. The town itself was practically deserted. Everyone had evacuated earlier in fear of a possible invasion. Dolley Madison had been expecting guests, and the White House dining room was still set for the party. The invading British soldiers were happy to help themselves to whatever delicacies were available. Legend has it that they even drank a toast to the popular First Lady, and their general, Sir George Cockburn, commandeered one of her cushions as a souvenir. Then they lit torches, touched them to the draperies and furnishings, and departed. The flames were visible for miles.
Aftermath of the Storm
Within hours, Providence, in the form of a hurricane, put out the fire. The drenching rains may have saved the building from complete destruction, but the water damage coupled with the fire damage would make the Executive Mansion uninhabitable.
During the next weeks, Washingtonians began returning to their capital city. That included President and Mrs. Madison, who were returning to a house they could no longer occupy. For weeks there had been a growing hue and cry in the newspapers and legislatures around the country to move the capital farther inland and away from any path of destruction. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was frequently mentioned.
James Madison was opposed. He believed strongly that our young country should not and must not be chased away from its chosen center. He was the youngest of our Founding Fathers, but in 1814, was past sixty. While he was acknowledged as a brilliant polemicist and political philosopher, many of his contemporaries considered him a weak president. Some said he only was elected to his first term because of his great friend and mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Then there were those who said he was only re-elected because of his immensely popular wife.
Popular or not, Madison was adamant about keeping the US capital in Washington City. Mrs. Madison, who always supported her husband’s political views, was just as adamant. But while Madison would set the course, it would be Dolley who would gently steer the course to help save Washington for a second time. This time it was not George, but the City of Washington itself.
The Octagon House
John Tayloe III was a prominent Washingtonian who owned an elegant brick house only two blocks from the President’s Mansion. Called the Octagon House because of its interesting architectural shape, it was considered one of the best-designed homes in the young capital. It had been spared from the fire.
Since the White House was far too badly damaged to permit occupancy, Tayloe offered the use of his home to the President and First Lady. Its circular reception room was a charmer, and presented an inviting atmosphere to receive guests. The dining room, of course, was much smaller than the White House State Dining Room. It could only hold fifty – and it was tight at that. Nevertheless it would do nicely for their purposes. The Madisons accepted the offer and moved in.
No sooner had they unpacked, than Dolley opened their new digs for a reception. Caterers and confectioners were called, invitations were sent. The Presidency was back in business.
A Public Relations Bullseye
James Madison may have been the political mastermind for keeping Washington DC as the capital city, but it was his wife who made it happen. She was arguably the most popular First Lady the country has ever had. It was a true talent on her part. The charm was natural and sincere and generally unerring.
By “entertaining as usual” Dolley Madison sent a message not only to Washingtonians, but to the country itself: the capital was staying put. The discreet lobbying that took place at Dolley’s soirees was focused on fixing and rebuilding – not moving away. It provided solid support for President Madison’s policy against turning tail and running. The message was sent and it was clear: The United States would not be intimidated by any foreign power. And, of course, if Mrs. Madison was still entertaining, things obviously couldn’t be that bad.
President and Mrs. Madison would never live in the White House again. The structural repair was extensive and would take more than two years to complete. By that time, President James Monroe had been inaugurated.
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