The events leading up to the burning of the White House during the War of 1812 have been well chronicled. Eyewitness accounts and recollections by American and British soldiers, sailors, and civilians have helped bring to light this humiliating episode of America's second war with Great Britain. Among the most celebrated events of the war was the saving of George Washington's portrait by Dolley Madison before the White House was torched. Thanks to a letter written by Mrs. Madison prior to her hasty escape, the circumstances under which the painting and other national valuables were saved are described in detail. Because history is better told in the words of the eyewitness, this letter is often used by historians in their writings on the war.

Portrait of Dolley Madison - White House Collection

Recently, however, an expert concluded that there was good evidence to suggest that Dolley Madison did not write the letter on August 23-24, 1814, as the British were marching toward Washington, but later - perhaps 20 years later. While the primary elements and facts of the letter are not disputed, the tone may have changed considerably, and it does pose interesting questions for students of history about what makes a document an original.

The letter in this lesson provides a unique perspective of a tumultuous event in American history from an eyewitness and active participant who also held the prominent position of first lady of the United States. When interpreting the letter, students can look beyond the historical information that Dolley Madison provides to consider how the letter has been used throughout history and whether the "value" of the letter is altered when discrepancies, however minor, are discovered.


After reading letters written by First Lady Dolley Madison and completing the activities, students will be able to:

  1. Describe the activity and action at the White House on August 23 and 24, 1814.
  2. Characterize the tone that Mrs. Madison used in describing the events.
  3. Describe the importance of saving the George Washington portrait as a national icon.
  4. Reflect on the value of records left by public figures who participate in major events.
  5. Discuss the importance of letters as historical documents and discuss ways that they be altered over time.
  6. Discuss the destruction of the White House as a symbolic gesture by the British.
  7. List the pros and cons of the contemplated removal of the seat of government from Washington following the destruction of the Capitol, White House, and Treasury building.
  8. Describe the role of first lady and characterize the evolution of that "job."


I. Dolley Madison as First Lady

The portrait of Washington saved by Dolley Madison - White House Collection

Dolley Madison's rescue of George Washington's portrait secured her place as a legendary figure in American history, although she had made a name for herself in many other ways. She arrived in Washington during President Thomas Jefferson's administration when her husband James Madison was appointed Secretary of State. Her impact was soon felt, as she became an unofficial hostess for the widowed president's small dinner parties. As first lady during her husband's presidency, Dolley Madison played a major role in the capital's social and political scenes.

With an astute sense of purpose and considerable charm, Dolley Madison navigated the waters of Washington society in an unprecedented way. She brought together disparate groups of politicians, diplomats, and local residents in a social setting. Weekly parties, called "Wednesday drawing rooms," or "Mrs. Madison's crush or squeeze," provided a relaxed atmosphere for politicking and mingling. With no invitation required, these parties sometimes attracted four hundred guests. Some individuals who rarely associated with one another found themselves together at the White House. Even a boycott by President Madison's opposition party, the Federalists, fizzled when members realized there was no political advantage to staying away.

Mrs. Madison's presence and personality were critical to the success of the events. Dressed vibrantly in rich colors and fabrics and often adorned by an unusual headpiece or turban, she greeted visitors as they enjoyed an evening of refreshments, music, and lively conversation. Mrs. Madison also presided over dinner parties, captivating her guests with unusual menu items, such as ice cream in warm pastry, and extraordinary conversation skills.

Dolley Madison continued entertaining at the White House until war virtually reached her doorstep. The dinner table was set for 40 guests the day she left the White House. She and a few servants had remained at the White House, packing up valuable documents, silver, and other items of importance. With limited space, she made choices about what to take and what to leave. Among the items that could not be left behind was the full-length portrait of George Washington by artist Gilbert Stuart. Purchased by the federal government for $800, the portrait was as much a symbol of the republic as any other object. Once the painting was safely on its way, Dolly Madison left the White House. Residents flooded the roads out of town. Even the soldiers assigned to protect the White House had fled before Mrs. Madison. The destruction was about to begin.

II. The War of 1812

The United States declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Although war had been avoided for several years, the continued harassment of U.S. ships and impressment of American sailors by the British pushed the nations to the brink. Despite protests from pro-English Federalists in Congress, President James Madison, at the time of his reelection, had determined that there was no other solution.

For the first two years of the war, the fighting was confined to Canada, the Great Lakes, and the high seas. Great Britain was preoccupied with their simultaneous war against France and did not have the resources to devote attention to both fronts. The war was distant from the people of Washington. But once Great Britain overthrew Napoleon in April 1814, it consolidated its forces against the United States. The fighting moved down the Atlantic coast towards the Chesapeake Bay.

After a disastrous battle at Bladensburg, Maryland, which President Madison witnessed, American forces retreated. The British turned their sights on Washington. Enemy troops marched to Washington and burned the major government buildings, including the White House and Capitol. Although burning the city was primarily in retaliation for the torching of the Canadian capitol, York (now Toronto), the British also hoped to disgrace President Madison and to divide the country once again. Fortunately, the fire did not have the desired effect. After several more months of war, including the needless but successful Battle of New Orleans, the United States declared victory, ratifying the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815. For more information on the War of 1812 consult your textbook or see the bibliography.

III. The Madison White House

The White House has been an evolving structure since George Washington oversaw its design and construction. Early on, the house required considerable work to simply to make it habitable. But by the time James and Dolley Madison moved in (1809) the exterior had remained mostly constant and the White House had begun to emerge as a symbol of U.S. leadership. At the same time, the interior of the President's House, as it was formally known, needed much attention. Working with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Dolley Madison took responsibility for decorating and furnishing the White House with the enthusiasm and energy she applied to all of her endeavors. Changes occurred quickly. Fresh plaster and paint appeared in the rooms and new upholstered furniture and draperies were designed and made. The new furniture featured fashionable Grecian or neo-classical influences but, never forgetting what the President's House represented, the pieces were made in America. Artwork depicted important Americans and American themes. Mrs. Madison actively participated in the decorating including making the choice of red silk-velvet curtains for the drawing room over Latrobe's loud protests. The end result was glamorous and provided the Madisons with a home in which they could entertain graciously and effectively.

This imagined view shows Mrs. Madison packing valuables before the British arrive - Smithsonian Institution

The enjoyment of the renovations was short-lived. British troops burned the White House on the night of August 24-25, 1814. Most historical accounts reveal that they took pleasure in setting fire to the structure that represented a former colony and upstart nation. Although Dolley Madison fled the White House only hours earlier, taking with her state papers, important pieces of silver and the ultimate symbol of the country, the full length portrait of George Washington, she had expected to serve dinner to 40 military and cabinet officers accompanied by her husband. Instead, the British troops consumed the meal. They looted the house and then set fire to it. The house that had been the site of so many happy occasions was in ruins. All that remained were the scorched sandstone walls. Dolley Madison was distraught when she first returned to view the destruction. Although the Madisons would never live in the White House again, they were committed to the reconstruction of the house and to the resurrection of it as a symbol of the republic.

A view of the White House after the burning - Library of Congress

The destruction of the White House was physical, emotional, and symbolic. There were rumblings that the nation's capital should be moved to a more secure location. But from the ruins the will emerged to keep the government in Washington, in temporary quarters, until the damaged public buildings could be restored and rebuilt. In 1817, after the Madisons had retired to their Virginia home, a new president, James Monroe, moved into the White House and restored its place in history. For more information on the burning of Washington during the War of 1812 go to White House History Journal on this site and select Article IV from the archives.