Dolley Madison, First Lady Extraordinaire
On August 24, 1814, First Lady Dolley Madison fled the President’s House as British troops advanced upon Washington, DC in the War of 1812. The British invaded only a few hours after Dolley left in the mid-afternoon. Before departing, however, Dolley made sure that Madison’s important papers and a few pieces of silver were secured, as well as one of our great national treasures—Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
The earliest description of the portrait’s removal from the President’s House was in Dolley’s August 23-24, 1814 letter to her sister, written before she fled the city. In it, Dolley described waiting to leave “until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured,” much to the “very bad humor” of friend Charles Carroll, who wanted “to hasten my departure.” When it took too much time to unscrew the painting from the wall, Dolley “ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out.” Dolley noted she had “pressed as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed.”
Dolley’s close friend and neighbor, Anna Maria Thornton, wrote in her diary on August 24 that she saw the Washington portrait and “a cart load of goods from the President’s House” when she met with troops leaving the city. Margaret Bayard Smith returned to the capital on August 28 and spoke to a “much depress’d Dolley, who reported that while in Georgetown on her way out of the city, she had “perceived some men before them carrying off the picture of Genl. Washington.” Dolley told Smith that only the portrait and the silver from the President’s House were saved.
The next month, former Secretary of War William Eustis wrote to Dolley’s brother in law, “My heart bled for the President and felt for you all…Mrs. Madison I hear with infinite pleasure behaved (as she always does) like an angel.”
Throughout the rest of Dolley’s life and today, her actions in August 1814 are seen as a grand gesture of patriotism. Though Washington City was defaced, Washington as the symbolic Father of His Country was saved.
Today, thanks to Dolley’s efforts, Washington’s portrait hangs in the East Room of the White House. Zoom in to see it through the Google Art Project.