September 2014: The Montpelier Foundation Remembers the Burning of the White House, 1814

KatImhoffJust a few weeks ago we marked the 200th anniversary of the burning of the White House.

The dramatic event happened on Aug. 24, 1814, during the War of 1812. British troops marched into Washington, DC, and burned the White House in retaliation for the American attack two years earlier on the city of York in Ontario, Canada, explains Kat Imhoff (pictured right), who is president and CEO of The Montpelier Foundation.

“When the British arrived at the White House, they found that President James Madison and his first lady, Dolley, had already fled to safety in Maryland,” Imhoff says. “The soldiers reportedly sat down to eat a meal made of leftover food from the White House scullery using White House dishes and silver before ransacking the presidential mansion and setting it ablaze.”

In fact, that was just one of the momentous events of Madison’s presidency that Imhoff told my co-host Hope Katz Gibbs and me about during our interview with her for our latest episode of Scroll down to click on the link to watch this episode, and to read our Q&A.

6539Also in this issue: You’ll learn some fascinating facts about why First Lady Dolley Madison was so iconic, and about an exhibit on display at Montpelier this month. And, Tim Bailey, the 2009 National History Teacher of the Year, explains why learning about history is so important for kids, and adults.

We hope you enjoy this issue of the Grateful American™ Newsletter, and we look forward to sharing more fascinating facts with you next month. — David Bruce Smith, founder and chairman of the board, Grateful American™ Foundation

How did America’s president and first lady inspire the country in the early 1800s?

More than any other individual, James Madison is responsible for the creation and ratification of the US Constitution. In the years following the American Revolution, America had become fractious and weak under the Articles of Confederation, and the American experiment with self-government was on the verge of failure. The Constitution was the antidote.

Dolley Madison also had a huge impact. Known as “America’s Queen,” her diplomatic and social abilities are legendary. Click “play” to watch the Grateful American™ TV Show interview with The Montpelier Foundation President & CEO Kat Imhoff.

Grateful American™ Series

Big Lives and Big Ideas: Kat Imhoff on America's First Couple, James and Dolley Madison

The Montpelier Foundation President & CEO Kat Imhoff takes us inside the estate and private lives of James and Dolley Madison.

By David Bruce Smith, Founder, and Hope Katz GibbsExecutive Producer, Grateful American™ Foundation

After Madison’s presidency, the couple retired to Montpelier in 1817. In addition to its historical significance, Montpelier’s 2,650 acres feature miles of nature trails and wonderful picnic areas. It’s a marvelous place to visit—for adults and kids, says Kat Imhoff, who has been president and CEO of The Montpelier Foundation since January 2013. Imhoff was featured in the July episode of the Grateful American™ TV Show.

Grateful American™ Series: James Madison has been called “The Father of the Constitution,” but most people do not know his contributions to it.

Kat Imhoff: In the years following the American Revolution, America had become fractious and weak under the Articles of Confederation, and the American experiment with self-government was on the verge of failure.

Recognizing what was at stake, Madison, then 35, undertook a massive research project, studying hundreds of books before arriving at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. His ideas framed the debates, and they were the foundation of what ultimately became the US Constitution. Madison was also the primary architect of the Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the Constitution—which he fought tirelessly to pass as a member of the House of Representatives in the first Congress (1789).

Grateful American™ Series: Though his contributions are impressive, kids aren’t always enthralled by the facts. How can historians can make Madison more interesting to kids?

Kat Imhoff: We offer several different hands-on, interactive activities at Montpelier that allow kids to have fun while gaining a better understanding of James and Dolley Madison, the Constitution and citizenship, slavery, and what life was like during our country’s early years.

Kids can role-play the debates at the Convention, look at primary source materials and artifacts from our collections, and even “dig” for artifacts.

Grateful American™ Series: Talk a little about Dolley Madison, who, at 26, married 43-year-old James.

Kat Imhoff: When Dolley was 22, she married a young Quaker lawyer named John Todd, and they had two children. During a yellow fever epidemic, her husband, youngest child, and in-laws died.

Witty, charming, and attractive, Dolley married Virginia Congressman James Madison less than a year after she was widowed, and the two remained devoted to each other throughout their lives. There is no better illustration of their partnership than the remark made by Charles Pinckney, who lost the presidential election to Madison in 1808: “I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

While Madison was president, Dolley instituted regular and unprecedented access to the president through her Wednesday night drawing room gatherings—so popular they became known as “squeezes.” She also began the first ladies tradition of championing charitable causes by raising money for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and for the Washington Monument.

Grateful American™ Series: Dolley Madison was iconic even during her lifetime.

Kat Imhoff: Yes, and after James died in 1836, Dolley perpetuated his legacy by publishing his papers, which today stand as the most comprehensive report of the debates and the Constitution-building process. Montpelier has recently made Madison’s notes available online at ConText, Montpelier’s online library, which crowdsources commentary from historians, political theorists, educators, and the public to help interpret these important documents.

Grateful American™ Series: The Grateful American series is focused on restoring kids’ interest in American history. Why do you think kids don’t know much about history? 

Kat Imhoff: Let me tell you about a little girl named Ellie Pugh, a 3rd grader from Maryland. After learning that Madison read 400 books in six months in preparation for the Constitutional Convention, Ellie felt inspired to do the same, affirming my suspicion that kids are interested in history.

We feel that all Americans should understand their democratic DNA. What better place to learn this lesson than at the place where the Constitution was first imagined?

Schedule a visit to James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier at

For more interviews, visit

Here’s to restoring enthusiasm for American history in children—and adults, too!