Dolley to the Rescue: Part One
Dolley Madison captured the events of her last few hours at the White
House in a letter addressed to her sister and dated August 23-24, 1814.
1. Read the
letter and complete the following: Why is James Madison not present
at the White House? What has the president asked Mrs. Madison to do
while she is there? What has she been doing while she waits? Who else
is with her at the White House during this time? At what point does
Dolley Madison decide she needs to leave the White House?
Make a list of the most significant information the letter provides.Why
was saving the portrait of George Washington so important? Characterize
the tone of the letter (i.e., emotional, candid, desperate, calm). Although
the letter is written to her sister, to whom might this letter also
be written? Explain your answer. Imagine being placed in Mrs. Madison's
position. How do you think you would react under similar circumstances?
2. Five months after the White House was burned, Dolley Madison wrote
a letter to Mrs. Benjamin Latrobe, wife of the architect with whom Dolley
had worked so closely on the White House's decoration. She described
the events of August 1814. Read
this letter and compare its contents to the one addressed to her
sister: What additional information do you learn about Dolley Madison
and the White House in this letter? Which letter is more "emotional"?
"Personal"? Explain your answers.
Dolley to the Rescue: Part Two
Dolley Madison's letter to her sister is as suspenseful and tense as
any drama. Using the letter as background information and additional
research as needed, complete one or both of the following activities:
Create a theatrical scenario using the events that Dolley Madison described
as the basis of your script and then use your imagination to complete
the scene. Include the following: major characters, setting, and dialogue.
Put on a performance for your classmates!
Pretend you are Dolley Madison and write a journal entry describing
the events of August 23-24, 1814, as if no one would ever read the entry.
Consider both the letter to her sister and the letter to Mrs. Latrobe.
Putting Historical Documents to Work: The Long Life
of Dolley Madison's Letter
The extract of the letter Dolley Madison wrote to her sister describing
the events leading up to her White House escape is dated August 23 and
24, 1814. Because the richly detailed letter is unique as a record of
these critical events and was written by one of the few White House
witnesses present, historians have used the contents of the letter over
and over again in their histories of the period and in biographies of
Recent research by historian David Mattern, who is also an editor of
James Madison's papers, revealed some interesting findings. He explains
that the original letter does not exist. What historians use is a transcript
or extracts of the letter that Dolley Madison copied from a book, The
National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, published in Philadelphia,
1837-1846. Twenty years after the White House burned, Mrs. Madison was
asked to select some letters from the past to be published in this book.
The letter to her sister was the only one selected to be printed. At
some point in time, Mrs. Madison then copied it out of the book in her
own handwriting. This transcription is the only record of the letter
in her handwriting.
Although the letter begins with, "Dear Sister," there
is no indication which sister she meant: Lucy Todd Washington or Anna
Cutts. It was customary to make a handwritten copy of a letter for the
record before you mailed the original; in her haste, Mrs. Madison probably
did not. Therefore, she would have had to retrieve the letter from her
sister in order to send it to the publisher. Because sister Anna lived
near Dolley, and it would be convenient to retrieve the letter, it is
thought that Anna was the recipient. (It was not at all unusual to keep
letters for long periods).
While Mrs. Madison regularly corresponded with friends and family, this
particular letter differs in its tone and formality. She provides details
that do not seem to be necessary to add, if she were simply writing
to her sister. Did she re-write it later, for a broader audience? What
is not in question, however, is the accuracy of the information. Another
Madison letter written to Mary Latrobe, December 3, 1814, does not contradict
Dolley Madison's letter to her sister.
to the bibliography
of this lesson. Look at the sources marked with an *. The letter
appears in these sources in some way.
a library. Using the bibliography, or other publications related to
this event, find at least three sources that refer to the letter.
Describe the context in which the letter is used and how it is cited
in footnotes and bibliographies. Use
the worksheet as a guide. Analyze your results and compare them
with the findings of your classmates.
the content and veracity of the letter are not in dispute, does it
make a difference if the existing document is a copy of a letter
written at an earlier date? Explain your answer.
what ways do you consider this document "valuable"? How
would the "value" of the document change if the original
letter written on August 23-24, 1814 were discovered?
eyewitnesses wrote about the burning of the city of Washington. What
makes Dolley Madison's letter so "valuable"?
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