James Madison's Montpelier We The People Fall 2014 - Page 10

We The People 10 Montpelier Commemorates the 200th Anniversary of the Burning of the White House Dolley Madison Directing the Rescue of George Washington's Portrait, August 24, 1814, by William Woodward, 2009. Who Really Saved the Portrait of George Washington? T hough overlooked by many, August 24, 2014 marked an important date in U.S. history—the 200th anniversary of the British invasion of Washington and burning of the White House during the War of 1812. Just 30 years after winning independence, America was once again at war with Great Britain, the world’s dominant imperial power. Not only were British troops fighting the U.S. at sea and on the Canadian border, they had taken control of the Chesapeake Bay and were on the verge of invading the nation’s capital. As British troops approached Washington, citizens fled. With President Madison on the front lines at the Battle of Bladensburg, First Lady Dolley Madison and a handful of servants, including the young slave Paul Jennings, were among the last to leave the city. Upon receiving President Madison’s hurried message to “clear out!,” Dolley issued her final order before fleeing—save the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Just what happened after that is the stuff of legends and up for debate among scholars. Montpelier’s curatorial staff has closely examined documentary research to better understand the actual events of this momentous day. “I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out ... the precious portrait [is] placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping.” — Dolley Madison to Lucy Todd, August 23-24, 1814 According to19th-century legends, Dolley herself cut the portrait from the frame. Her own personal account does not support this tale. In a letter to her sister on August 23-24, 1814, Dolley described waiting for the portrait to be “secured.” When it took too much time to unscrew the painting from the wall, she “ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out.” Later in life, Paul Jennings recounted the portrait’s rescue in his memoir, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, noting, “It has often been stated in print that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington…and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it.” Jennings went on to add that while Mrs. Madison instructed that the portrait be saved, she left the task to her French