Never underestimate the significance of a national symbol or the risks that must be taken at times to preserve it. There was once an American woman, the First Lady no less, who understood what the loss of an American symbol could mean for the country’s morale. To prevent such a catastrophe, she willingly risked her life to safeguard that symbol. For that action, she deserves the eternal thanks of a grateful nation. She was First Lady Dolley Madison. This is the tale of her selfless rescue of President George Washington’s portrait from the hordes of British invaders during the War of 1812.
As the oldest daughter of a Quaker Virginia planter, Dolley Madison grew up on her family’s plantation in northern Virginia, where she learned the social etiquette that was required of young ladies of the day and which served her well as First Lady. At age fifteen, she moved with her family to the temporary American capitol of Philadelphia. There she grew into womanhood, married her first husband, and bore two children before losing her husband and youngest child to disease. As she struggled in the aftermath of her husband’s death, she found a new life with her second husband, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.”
James Madison later became the fourth President of the United States, and the two moved to the new, unfinished capitol of Washington, D.C. Their home, the Executive Mansion, was simply known as the President’s House in those days. Dolley shined as the First Lady, but it was her actions in August of 1814, two years after America went to war a second time with Britain that cemented her reputation as a true American heroine.
After two long years of fighting the strongest military in the world, the new capitol of the young United States was under direct attack. On August 23, 1814, President James Madison dashed out into the countryside to inspect the defensive fortifications around Washington. That same day the few remaining soldiers guarding the President’s House also departed. With only the household staff remaining, Dolley feared for James’ safety but resolved to wait for his return so they could flee together. As she waited, she fulfilled his parting wish by loading the most critical government documents into enough trunks to fill her carriage. She also packed a wagon full of the Executive Mansion’s valuables. The wagon would travel into the nearby countryside. The work continued into the next morning, August 24th. As they were working, word arrived that the British Army had routed the American Army and was only miles away from the city itself. Dolley ignored the approaching danger and continued her efforts to save items of critical importance. Suddenly, she realized that there was one precious national treasure still at risk.
Hanging on the wall of what is today the State Dining Room was a large canvas portrait of President George Washington by the artist Gilbert Stuart. It depicted Washington not as a military leader but as an American citizen whose ultimate desire was to serve and preserve his country. To Dolley Madison, and to the nation, that portrait not only represented the “Father of Our Country” but also served as one of the symbols of the new republic.
Dolley implicitly understood that if the British soldiers took the President’s House they would undoubtedly deface the painting in order to humiliate the United States. She resolved to not give the British the opportunity to demolish such a symbol. She ordered the household staff to haul the painting down, but they found it had been screwed into the wall. As the feverish evacuation continued, Charles Carroll, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, arrived to help with the removal of the government documents and to escort Dolley out of the city. He was stunned to find her standing in the hall. Despite his arguments, Dolley refused to leave until the painting was safely removed and protected.
Knowing their window of opportunity for escape was closing, one of the staffers climbed on top of a ladder and used his pocketknife to deftly cut the painting out of its gilded frame; then he quickly rolled up the canvas. The painting was carried outside and placed in a waiting wagon driven by two New Yorkers. Dolley monitored the loading before she too climbed into her private carriage filled with the trunks of government documents. Dolley then gave orders for the portrait to be hidden in the countryside until after the British left Washington. Understanding the symbolic value and showing her fierce dedication to the end however, Dolley insisted that the painting be destroyed if it appeared in jeopardy of being captured.
All possible precautions now taken, Dolley and Charles Carroll hurriedly drove the carriage out of town. A short time later, the vanguard of the British Army entered the main part of the city. Soldiers ran riot as they looted the homes of America’s political leaders. British officers established their headquarters in the President’s House and enjoyed a lavish meal that Dolley had previously prepared. Then they set fire to both the Executive Mansion and the Capitol Building in a display that was seen for miles. Much of the city was burned and with it many of the symbols of the new republic. But not everything. The famous portrait of our greatest President was saved from the destruction.
Like the building that housed Washington’s painting, the United States ultimately survived the British invasion. Dolley and James Madison returned to the Executive Mansion to find a burned out shell in its place. They immediately began to restore the building. To hide the fire damage, the mansion was given a new white exterior, thereby providing the home with a new name, the White House. George Washington’s painting also returned to those hallowed halls and now hangs in the East Room. Thanks to the fearless spirit and dogged determination of a patriot named Dolley Madison, one of our country’s truly inspirational symbols continues to look down through the ages to inspire Americans even today.