When Dolley Madison Took Command of the White House

It is thanks to the first lady that the famous Stuart painting of George Washington survived the British army’s invasion of D.C. in August 1814

As the British neared the White House, Dolley Madison directed that a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed. (The Montpelier Foundation)
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In the years leading up to America’s second war with Britain, President James Madison had been unable to stop his penny-pinching secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, from blocking Congressional resolutions to expand the country’s armed forces. The United States had begun the conflict on June 18, 1812, with no Army worth mentioning and a Navy consisting of a handful of frigates and a fleet of gunboats, most armed with a single cannon. In 1811, Congress had voted to abolish Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, making it nearly impossible for the government to raise money. Worst of all, the British and their European allies had engaged (and would ultimately defeat) Napoleon’s France in battles across Europe in 1812 and 1813, which meant the United States would have to fight the world’s most formidable army and navy alone.

In March 1813, Gallatin told the president, “We have hardly money enough to last till the end of the month.” Along the Canadian border, American armies stumbled into ruinous defeats. A huge British naval squadron blockaded the American coast. In Congress, New Englanders sneered at “Mr. Madison’s War,” and the governor of Massachusetts refused to allow any of the state’s militiamen to join the campaign in Canada. Madison fell ill with malaria and the aged vice president, Elbridge Gerry, grew so feeble that Congress began arguing about who would become president if both men died. The only good news came from victories over lone British warships by the tiny American Navy.

Dolley Madison’s White House was one of the few places in the nation where hope and determination continued to flourish. Although she was born a Quaker, Dolley saw herself as a fighter. “I have always been an advocate for fighting when assailed,” she wrote to her cousin, Edward Coles, in a May 1813 letter discussing the possibility of a British attack on the city. Spirits had risen when news of an American victory over the British frigate Macedonian, off the Canary Islands, reached the capital during a ball given in December 1812 to celebrate Congress’ decision to enlarge the Navy at last. When a young lieutenant arrived at the ball carrying the flag of the defeated ship, senior naval officers paraded it around the floor, then laid it at Dolley’s feet.

At social events, Dolley strived, in the words of one observer, “to destroy rancorous feelings, then so bitter between Federalists and Republicans.” Members of Congress, weary of flinging curses at each other during the day, seemed to relax in her presence and were even willing to discuss compromise and conciliation. Almost all their wives and daughters were Dolley’s allies. By day Dolley was a tireless visitor, leaving her calling cards all over the city. Before the war, most of her parties attracted about 300 people. Now attendance climbed to 500, and young people began calling them “squeezes.”

Dolley undoubtedly felt the stress of presiding over these crowded rooms. “My head is dizzy!” she confessed to a friend. But she maintained what an observer called her “remorseless equanimity,” even when news was bad, as it often was. Critics heaped scorn on the president, calling him “Little Jemmy” and reviving the smear that he was impotent, underscoring the battlefield defeats over which he had presided. But Dolley seemed immune to such slander. And if the president looked as if he had one foot in the grave, Dolley bloomed. More and more people began bestowing a new title on her: first lady, the first wife of a U.S. president to be so designated. Dolley had created a semipublic office as well as a unique role for herself and those who would follow her in the White House.

She had long since moved beyond the diffidence with which she had broached politics in her letters to her husband nearly a decade before, and both had jettisoned any idea that a woman should not think about so thorny a subject. In the first summer of his presidency in 1809, Madison had been forced to rush back to Washington from a vacation at Montpelier, his Virginia estate, leaving Dolley behind. In a note he wrote to her after returning to the White House, he said he intended to bring her up to date on intelligence just received from France. And he sent her the morning newspaper, which had a story on the subject. In a letter two days later, he discussed a recent speech by the British prime minister; clearly, Dolley had become the president’s political partner.

The British had been relentless in their determination to reduce Americans to obedient colonists once more. Checked by an American naval victory on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, and the defeat of their Indian allies in the West, almost a month later, the British concentrated their assault on the coastline from Florida to Delaware Bay. Again and again their landing parties swarmed ashore to pillage homes, rape women, and burn public and private property. The commander of these operations was Sir George Cockburn, a strutting, red-faced rear admiral, widely considered to be as arrogant as he was ruthless.

Even as many Washington residents began packing up families and furniture, Dolley, in correspondence at the time, continued to insist that no British Army could get within 20 miles of the city. But the drumbeat of news about earlier landings—British troops had sacked Havre de Grace, Maryland, on May 4, 1813, and tried to take Craney Island, near Norfolk, Virginia, in June of that year—intensified criticism of the president. Some claimed that Dolley herself was planning to flee Washington; if Madison attempted to abandon the city as well, critics threatened, the president and the city would “fall” together. Dolley wrote in a letter to a friend: “I am not the least alarmed at these things but entirely disgusted & determined to stay with him.”

On August 17, 1814, a large British fleet dropped anchor at the mouth of the Patuxent River, only 35 miles from the nation’s capital. Aboard were 4,000 veteran troops under the command of a tough professional soldier, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross. They soon came ashore in Maryland without a shot being fired and began a slow, cautious advance on Washington. There was not a single trained American soldier in the vicinity to oppose them. All President Madison could do was call out thousands of militia. The commander of these jittery amateurs was Brig. Gen. William Winder, whom Madison had appointed largely because his uncle, the governor of Maryland, had already raised a sizable state militia.

Winder’s incompetence became obvious, and more and more of Dolley’s friends urged her to flee the city. By now thousands of Washingtonians were crowding the roads. But Dolley, whose determination to stay with her husband was unwavering, remained. She welcomed Madison’s decision to station 100 militiamen under the command of a regular Army colonel on the White House lawn. Not only was it a gesture of protection on his part, it was also a declaration that he and Dolley intended to stand their ground. The president then decided to join the 6,000 militiamen who were marching to confront the British in Maryland. Dolley was sure his presence would stiffen their resolve.


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