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As the British neared the White House, Dolley Madison directed that a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed. (The Montpelier Foundation)

How Dolley Madison Saved the Day

As invading British troops approached in August 1814, the first lady coolly took command of the White House

The Madisons’ worries were by no means over. After the Massachusetts legislature called for a conference of the five New England states to meet in Hartford, Connecticut, in December 1814, rumors swept the nation that the Yankees were going to secede or, at the very least, demand a semi-independence that could spell the end of the Union. A delegate leaked a “scoop” to the press: President Madison would resign.

Meanwhile, 8,000 British forces had landed in New Orleans and clashed with General Jackson’s troops. If they captured the city, they would control the Mississippi River Valley. In Hartford, the disunion convention dispatched delegates to Washington to confront the president. On the other side of the Atlantic, the British were making outrageous demands of American envoys, headed by Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, aimed at reducing the United States to subservience. “The prospect of peace appears to get darker and darker,” Dolley wrote to Gallatin’s wife, Hannah, on December 26.

On January 14, 1815, a profoundly worried Dolley wrote again to Hannah: “The fate of N Orleans will be known today—on which so much depends.” She was wrong. The rest of January trickled away with no news from New Orleans. Meanwhile, the delegates from the Hartford Convention reached Washington. They were no longer proposing secession, but they wanted amendments to the Constitution restricting the president’s power, and they vowed to call another convention in June if the war continued. There was little doubt that this second session would recommend secession.

Federalists and others predicted New Orleans would be lost; there were calls for Madison’s impeachment. On Saturday, February 4, a messenger reached Washington with a letter from General Jackson reporting that he and his men had routed the British veterans, killing and wounding about 2,100 of them with a loss of only 7. New Orleans—and the Mississippi River—would remain in American hands! As night fell and the news swept through the nation’s capital, thousands of cheering celebrants marched along the streets carrying candles and torches. Dolley placed candles in every window of Octagon House. In the tumult, the Hartford Convention delegates stole out of town, never to be heard from again.

Ten days later, on February 14, came even more astonishing news: Henry Carroll, secretary to the American peace delegation, had returned from Ghent, Belgium. A buoyant Dolley urged her friends to attend a reception that evening. When they arrived, they were told that Carroll had brought a draft of a peace treaty; the president was upstairs in his study, discussing it with his cabinet.

The house was jammed with representatives and senators from both parties. A reporter from The National Intelligencer marveled at the way these political adversaries were congratulating each other, thanks to the warmth of Dolley’s smile and rising hopes that the war was over. “No one... who beheld the radiance of joy which lighted up her countenance,” the reporter wrote, could doubt “that all uncertainty was at an end.” This was a good deal less than true. In fact, the president had been less than thrilled by Carroll’s document, which offered little more than an end to the fighting and dying. But he decided that accepting it on the heels of the news from New Orleans would make Americans feel they had won a second war of independence.

Dolley had shrewdly stationed her cousin, Sally Coles, outside the room where the president was making up his mind. When the door opened and Sally saw smiles on every face, she rushed to the head of the stairs and cried: “Peace, Peace.” Octagon House exploded with joy. People rushed to embrace and congratulate Dolley. The butler began filling every wineglass in sight. Even the servants were invited to drink, and according to one account, would take two days to recover from the celebration.

Overnight, James Madison had gone from being a potentially impeachable president to a national hero, thanks to Gen. Andrew Jackson’s—and Dolley Madison’s—resolve. Demobilized soldiers were soon marching past Octagon House. Dolley stood on the steps beside her husband, accepting their salutes.

Adapted from The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming. Copyright © 2009. With the permission of the publisher, Smithsonian Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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