By Edward Lengel
Just over two hundred years ago, British soldiers burned down the White House. Everything went up in flames—everything, that is, except the most valuable item of all: Gilbert Stuart’s life-size painting of George Washington.
Visitors can still see the portrait today–hanging in the East Room. Anyone who gets a chance to view this priceless painting should thank Dolley Madison, one of the most remarkable women in American history. She not only rescued the Washington portrait from ruin, but she made her mark as a powerful woman in the center of American political life.
The story begins on August 24, 1814, a brutally hot and dusty late summer day. The United States was embroiled in what became known as the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and things were not progressing well; an invading British army had defeated an American force at the Battle of Bladensburg. Now, the redcoats were marching on Washington, D.C. Nobody thought the capital could fall to the enemy, and few people knew what to do, except run away. Thousands of refugees took to the roads on foot or horseback, carrying their most important personal possessions as they tried to flee.
President James Madison had already escaped, along with most of the government; the one hundred soldiers guarding the White House, had retreated too. First Lady Dolley Madison, however, refused to leave. Forty-six years old, with black hair and blue eyes, and taller than most women, she was in many ways the complete opposite of her slightly built, shy, intellectual husband. Guests might have had trouble finding the unimposing president, or getting him to say what he thought, but not the First Lady. She was outgoing and loved to talk. A popular hostess, she amazed guests with her elaborate costumes—including a large turban decorated with exotic bird feathers—and served delicious ice cream. And, when she wanted things done, people listened.
That was the case on this sweltering late summer night in 1814. When the guards departed, Dolley Madison roamed the White House halls, trying to figure out if there was anything she could save. Her eyes fixed on the portrait of George Washington, which had been hanging there since the building was constructed. A small group of men appeared beside her, and asked the First Lady what they could do.
“Save that picture if possible,” she ordered. “Under no circumstances allow it to fall into the hands of the British!” Some of the men immediately set to work on taking the portrait down, but it was huge, and its heavy wooden frame was screwed tightly into the wall. Desperate to act quickly, the First Lady told them to crack open the frame. A steward named French John used his penknife to cut the edges of the canvas so that it could be removed. The portrait was rolled up, placed in a wagon, and carried to safety outside the city. Only then did Dolley Madison depart.
The British troops came hard on her heels that night. After eating the remains of a meal that had been set for the president and his family, they piled up the White House furniture and torched it. Within minutes the entire building erupted in flames. By the time the British departed in the morning, nothing remained of the president’s mansion but its scorched walls.
The government would return, and so would Dolley Madison. After the war ended, President Madison and his successor, James Monroe, worked to restore the White House to its original glory. By the time it reopened in 1818, Mrs. Madison and her husband had moved back to their home in Montpelier, Virginia.
After James Madison died in 1836, Dolley Madison returned to Washington, and her rightful role at the center of city society.
Over the next thirteen years– she died in 1849–Dolley Madison visited the White House regularly and was quite in demand at parties. She was even elected an honorary member of Congress, and attended debates. More important, Dolley advised other First Ladies on how to carry themselves with elegance.
Sources: several articles published on the White House Historical Association website, some of which originally appeared in White House History: