Saving Washington: Dolley Madison 200 years ago #TBT #StarSpangledSpectacular
Dolley Madison portrait and charred remains of the U.S. Capitol painting, Library of Congress. 
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The White House and U.S. Capitol went up in flames 200 years ago. 

On August 24, 1814, after defeating 3,500 Americans in a battle in Bladensburg , Maryland , a British military force marched six miles and burned these two architectural beauties, our capital city’s only national monuments at the time.

London newspapers soon bragged: “Washington (DC) is no more” and “the reign of [President James] Madison may be considered as at an end.”

One shining moment, however, stood out on this otherwise dark day. Dolley Madison, the president’s wife, had been waiting for President Madison’s return from Bladensburg. By three in the afternoon, she learned of the battle’s disastrous outcome. Though several people encouraged her to evacuate, she wouldn’t leave the White House until one treasure was safe.

Dolley explained her reasoning in a letter to her sister: “Because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall.”

Congress had bought this painting of George Washington by artist Gilbert Stuart to celebrate the White House’s opening in 1800. Dolley feared the worst. If British marines captured the painting, they would parade it through London as a symbol of defeating America .

Removing this full-length portrait from the State Dining Room’s wall required more than a quick tug, as Dolley explained. “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.”

Years later, curators concluded that the canvas showed no sign of being cut. Dolley’s servants likely removed it from the wall without taking a knife to it.

When some friends brought her a wagon, she was ready. “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 you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!”

Leaving her wardrobe and belongings behind but removing the state papers, Dolley said goodbye to the White House.

A few hours later, the British military arrived. They raided and took trinkets, including a miniature painting of Dolley. They ate dinner at her table and drank her red wine. They mocked President Madison by wearing his clean shirts.

“I accordingly doffed my inner garment, and thrust my unworthy person into a shirt belonging to no less a personage than the chief magistrate of the United States ,” one British lieutenant later bragged.

After piling the furniture into mounds and soaking linens with lamp oil, British marines and sailors stood outside, held lit torches, and surrounded the mansion. When a commander gave the order, they hurled their fiery sticks through the windows in unison, igniting an instant blaze. Blackened walls quickly replaced the once grand White House.

The scene was epic, cinematic for a movie today. And like a good film, all was not lost after all. The burning’s aftermath led to a renewal of patriotism.

“The immediate and enthusiastic effect of the fall of Washington was electrical revival of national spirit and universal energy,” a congressman of the time observed.

Three weeks later, 15,000 Americans defeated the British military in Baltimore . A Maryland attorney, Francis Scott Key, was so inspired that he wrote lyrics to a new song, The Star-Spangled Banner, which later became our national anthem.

Washington DC residents also rallied, pooling resources to convince Congress to rebuild the U.S. Capitol and White House in Washington rather than relocate the nation’s capital to Pennsylvania .

Though initially and understandably depressed, Dolley emerged with renewed determination. Twice relocating to other houses in Washington , including the Octagon, President and Mrs. Madison opened their doors to guests and showed America ’s resiliency. On New Year’s Day in 1816, two years after the war ended, they also welcomed a new English diplomat at a reception, evidence of the restored U.S.-British relationship.

 Mrs. Madison wore a gown described by a female guest as “yellow satin embroidered all over with sprigs of butterflies . . . a little cape, long sleeves, and a white bonnet with feathers.” This description is similar to Dolley’s satin ivory dress, owned by the Smithsonian today, which features embroidered butterflies and, fittingly, phoenixes, the ancient mythical fire bird that rose from the ashes to new heights.

The new British diplomat said that Dolley “looked every inch a queen” that night. Indeed this woman had become a first lady, a queen of hearts who’d been a source of inspiration for a nation rising like a phoenix from the ashes of loss.  

Today, a painting of Dolley hangs above the doorway of the White House’s Red Room. When all of the adjoining doors are open, this painting is in direct view of the painting that she saved of George Washington, which now hangs in the East Room. In this way Dolley still keeps her eye on Washington .

Aren’t we glad she did? Both paintings, as well as the rebuilt White House and U.S. Capitol, are symbols of the resilient American spirit, which is something to smile about today, 200 years later.