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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The next day, the British continued their depredations, burning the Treasury, the State and War departments and other public buildings. An arsenal on Greenleaf’s Point, about two miles south of the Capitol, exploded while the British were preparing to destroy it. Thirty men were killed and 45 were injured. Then a freak storm suddenly erupted, with high winds and violent thunder and lightning. The shaken British commanders soon retreated to their ships; the raid on the capital had ended.

Meanwhile, Dolley had received a note from Madison urging her to join him in Virginia. By the time they were finally reunited there on the night of August 25, the 63-year-old president had barely slept in several days. But he was determined to return to Washington as soon as possible. He insisted that Dolley remain in Virginia until the city was safe. By August 27, the president had re-entered Washington. In a note written hastily the next day, he told his wife: “You cannot return too soon.” The words seem to convey not only Madison’s need for her companionship but also his recognition that she was a potent symbol of his presidency.

On August 28, Dolley joined her husband in Washington. They stayed at the home of her sister Anna Payne Cutts, who had taken over the same house on F Street that the Madisons had occupied before moving to the White House. The sight of the ruined Capitol—and the charred, blackened shell of the White House—must have been almost unbearable for Dolley. For several days, according to friends, she was morose and tearful. A friend who saw President Madison at this time described him as “miserably shattered and woebegone. In short, he looks heartbroken.”

Madison also felt betrayed by General Winder—as well as by his Secretary of War, John Armstrong, who would resign within weeks—and by the ragtag army that had been routed. He blamed the retreat on low morale, the result of all the insults and denunciations of “Mr. Madison’s War,” as the citizens of New England, the center of opposition, labeled the conflict.

In the aftermath of the British rampage through the nation’s capital, many urged the president to move the government to a safer place. The Common Council of Philadelphia declared its readiness to provide housing and office space for both the president and Congress. Dolley fervently maintained that she and her husband—and Congress—should stay in Washington. The president agreed. He called for an emergency session of Congress to take place on September 19. Meanwhile, Dolley had persuaded the Federalist owner of a handsome brick dwelling on New York Avenue and 18th Street, known as the Octagon House, to let the Madisons use it as an official residence. She opened the social season there with a crowded reception on September 21.

Dolley soon found unexpected support elsewhere in the country. The White House had become a popular national symbol. People reacted with outrage when they heard that the British had burned the mansion. Next came a groundswell of admiration as newspapers reported Dolley’s refusal to retreat and her rescue of George Washington’s portrait and perhaps also a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

On September 1, President Madison issued a proclamation “exhorting all the good people” of the United States “to unite in their hearts and hands” in order “to chastise and expel the invader.” Madison’s former opponent for the presidency, DeWitt Clinton, said there was only one issue worth discussing now: Would the Americans fight back? On September 10, 1814, the Niles’ Weekly Register, a Baltimore paper with a national circulation, spoke for many. “The spirit of the nation is roused,” it editorialized.

The British fleet sailed into the port of Baltimore three days later, on September 13, determined to batter Fort McHenry into submission—which would allow the British to seize harbor ships and to loot waterfront warehouses—and force the city to pay a ransom. Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer who had gone aboard a British flagship at the request of President Madison to negotiate the release of a doctor seized by a British landing party, was all but certain that the fort would surrender to a nightlong bombardment by the British. When Key saw the American flag still flying at sunrise, he scribbled a poem that began, “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light?” Within a few days, the words, set to the music of a popular song, were being sung all over Baltimore.

Good news from more distant fronts also soon reached Washington. An American fleet on Lake Champlain won a surprise victory over a British armada on September 11, 1814. The discouraged British had fought a halfhearted battle there and retreated to Canada. In Florida, after a British fleet arrived in Pensacola Bay, an American Army commanded by Gen. Andrew Jackson seized Pensacola (under Spanish control since the late 1700s) in November 1814. Thus, the British were deprived of a place to disembark. President Madison cited these victories in a message to Congress.

But the House of Representatives remained unmoved; it voted 79-37 to consider abandoning Washington. Still, Madison resisted. Dolley summoned all her social resources to persuade the congressmen to change their minds. At Octagon House, she presided over several scaled-down versions of her White House galas. For the next four months, Dolley and her allies lobbied the legislators as they continued to debate the proposal. Finally, both houses of Congress voted not only to stay in Washington but also to rebuild the Capitol and White House.


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