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.
of Dolley Madison
- White House Collection
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,
After reading letters written by First Lady Dolley Madison
and completing the activities, students will be able to:
the activity and action at the White House on August
23 and 24, 1814.
the tone that Mrs. Madison used in describing the
the importance of saving the George Washington portrait
as a national icon.
on the value of records left by public figures who
participate in major events.
the importance of letters as historical documents
and discuss ways that they be altered over time.
the destruction of the White House as a symbolic gesture
by the British.
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.
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
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
A view of the White House after the burning -
Library of Congress
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.
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.