The Burning of Washington, 1814
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Two hundred years ago, on August 24, 1814, the British Army occupied Washington, D.C., and set fire to the White House and the Capitol the day after the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg. The Brits, who had been preoccupied with Napoleon since the War of 1812 started, were suddenly able to focus on their wayward colonies once Bonaparte was safely ensconced in Elba.
Due to strategic errors of epic proportions, the Battle of Bladensburg has been termed "the most humiliating episode in American history." Indeed, President James Madison and most of the more prominent D.C. luminaries who had been observing the battle just barely escaped being captured.
Meanwhile, down at the White House (or the President's House, as it was called then) Dolley Madison prudently worried about her husband's safety in Bladensburg as she gathered up items of importance in preparation for the possibility of a hasty departure.
Dolley Dandridge Payne Todd Madison col. White House Historical Association
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In those days, the President's House was furnished with the personal items the newly elected leader and family brought from their own homestead. But Dolley couldn't pack up her generous supply of party dresses or other personal effects, nor could she save the fruits of her extensive labors with Benjamin Latrobe in fully redecorating and beautifying the White House.
And sure enough, the next day, she received instructions to exit the premises posthaste, as the Brits were hightailing it to DC.
She grabbed the precious silver and any other small valuables she could manage and, as she later wrote to Latrobe's wife, hastily tore down the newly installed red velvet drapes -- most likely to wrap around the breakables.
A savvy gal, she refused to leave Gilbert Stuart's life-size portrait of George Washington behind. She knew that the Brits could have a picnic with the iconic image, damaging it in ways that could bring public humiliation and a sense of defeat to the new nation.
Dolley Madison Directing the Rescue of George Washington's Portrait, August 24, 1814
(Image by by William Woodward for The Montpelier Foundation, 2009) Details DMCA
Clearly Dolley Madison understood the power of symbols in the political story. Perhaps it's more than coincidence that she had the keen promotional sense of a Madison Avenue media shark!
In fact, Dolley was so politically astute that South Carolina statesman Charles Pinckney, her husband's rival in the 1808 presidential election, quipped: "I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison ... I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone."
A spunky woman, she had been widowed at age 21 when her first husband and infant son died from yellow fever on the same day. Dolley learned wisdom and endurance at an early age.
She was full of charisma and glamour, an early American combo of Jackie Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey. And she was a perfect counterpoint to the quiet, "Great Little Madison," who was 17 years her senior and several inches shorter. Dolley's friend Martha Washington was a bit of a matchmaker, and rumors persist that she had a hand in setting up that romance. No doubt, motherly Martha was eager to see the young single mom and the nearly terminal bachelor find happiness together.
A few years after their short courtship and marriage, James became Secretary of State, and the couple left Montpelier for Washington. Dolley became hostess of the White House for the widowed President Jefferson for eight years, followed by another eight years after her husband was elected.
Dolley was renowned for throwing the best parties in Washington. An invitation to her weekly "squeeze," so-called due to the event's sardine-packed nature, was a coveted commodity. Her effervescent charm and gaiety engaged her guests, and offered balance to James' natural introspective nature. With her signature dramatic turban accentuating her height and crowning her as queen of Washington, she "worked the room" with panache.
Since polite society demanded that menfolk keep their tempers in check in the presence of a lady, she often corralled political enemies and engaged them in genteel conversation about an offending issue, a clever form of mediation which led to many resolutions that benefited her husband's career as well as the country.
James wisely considered her to be an equal and indispensable political partner.
Statue of James and Dolley Madison at Montpelier, Orange VA
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Much later, for Dolley's funeral in 1849, the entire city of Washington closed down, record crowds attended the event, and a persistent legend allows that incumbent president Zachary Taylor eulogized her as the "First Lady" of the fledgling country. This is thought to be the first known use of the title to describe a president's wife, and the moniker stuck.
But on that fateful day after the Bladenberg defeat, while directing her servants to secure and pack what valuables she could, Dolley quickly found a few moments to dash off a letter to her sister:
Dolley's letter in her own hand (Dolley's copy of her original)
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Three o'clock. -- Will you believe it, my sister? we have had a battle, or skirmish, near Bladensburg, and here I am still, within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us! Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but here I mean to wait for him...
At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging to the house. Whether it will reach its destination, the "Bank of Maryland," or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine.
Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping.
And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!
The Lansdowne portrait is an iconic oil-on-canvas portrait of George Washington
(Image by by Gilbert Stuart (public domain)) Details DMCA
Dolley escaped, it is said, as the clouds of dust from the British advancement could be seen billowing in the distance. When the Brits got to the White House, they availed themselves of the hospitality of the grand home, using the best serving dishes and enjoying the delicious delicacies and drinks for which Mrs. Madison was so renowned.
By morning, only the shell remained.
The President's House (burned shell) , 1814-1815. Public domain.
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The White House was ultimately repaired, of course, although Dolley and James finished their term while living at the Octagon House, and later retired to Montpelier.
After James died, Dolley returned to Washington, but slipped into poverty, a result of her only surviving son's debauchery and drain on the family finances. Longtime Washington DC friends and admirers made sure she did not go without food and other necessities. And she continued to support her husband's work by tirelessly editing his papers until she joined him in death thirteen years later.
And long after our first, First Lady had departed, the death of her favorite niece eventually resulted in the dispersal of several of Dolley's most treasured personal possessions which had been carefully preserved those many years. Among them was a lovely but quite unusual dress which Dolley had held on to until she died. It was made of a curious crimson velvet -- not a dress-weight textile, but a much heavier fabric which would have been more suitable for upholstery than for a party dress.
Dolley Madison's red velvet dress
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Did Dolley's red velvet dress live a previous life as the draperies in the White House, snatched down in a rush to preserve the fragile contents of a getaway wagon? And then, in less abundant times, was it stitched -- Scarlett O'Hara style -- into a party frock?
If only threads could talk ...
Public domain image, Dolley Madison's red velvet dress
(Image by by the Nat'l Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, dress col. of the Greensboro Historical Museum) Details DMCA
Dolley Madison's red velvet dress is in the collection of the Greensboro Historical Museum, 130 Summit Ave, Greensboro, NC 27401. Telephone: 336.373.2043. Hours: Tues - Sat 10 - 5, Sun 2 - 5.
The Madison's Montpelier, where James Madison envisioned the Constitution, is located on Route 20 in Orange, Virginia, 25 minutes north of Charlottesville, and 2 hours south of Washington, D.C. The historical complex includes the new Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier, America's Premier Constitutional Training Center.
A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor (Holt, 2007)
A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation
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