The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canada didn’t burn the White House. And Dolley Madison needs a fact check, too.

An 1804 portrait of first lady Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart. (AP)
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We established this week that the Canadians did not burn down the White House, despite President Trump’s assertions to the contrary during a tense conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Here’s another fact check needed on what happened in 1814 when the invading British set the White House ablaze: What role did first lady Dolley Madison really play in rescuing the iconic portrait of President George Washington?

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Dolley Madison wrote in a letter to her sister before she evacuated the White House that she had put her life in grave danger by insisting on remaining at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to rescue the eight-foot-tall Gilbert Stuart painting as the British approached.

“Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall,” according to an account at Mount Vernon. “This process was found to be too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out … and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York for safe keeping.”

The result? “Newspapers circulated a report that Dolley Madison had personally saved Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, a story that revived patriotism and support for the war,” the White House Historical Association writes. “The tale, lauding the First Lady’s quick thinking in a moment of crisis, eventually found its way into American folklore through schoolbooks, monographs, and artwork. She repeated the story frequently for the rest of her life, reminding listeners of her bravery and love of country.”

But years later, conflicting accounts of who really saved the portrait emerged.

“One of the ‘gentlemen of New York,’ Robert dePeyster, asked Dolley to vouch that he had carried the portrait away,” according to an account at Montpelier, the Madisons’ Virginia mansion. “Dolley agreed, but reminded him that she was the one who gave the order to save the portrait, ‘not that I felt a desire to gain laurels — but should there be a merit in remaining an hour in danger of life or liberty to save the likeness of anything, the merit in this case belongs to me.”

Then, in 1865, another account was published by Paul Jennings, the former slave who worked at the White House as a manservant to President James Madison.

“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 (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false,” Jennings wrote in his book, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison,” which historians say is the first White House memoir.

“She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Suse (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.”

The Jennings account, Montpelier says, reveals “how the racial and gender hierarchies of the time complicate the way we understand roles in historic events.”

For a black man in 1865 to dispute Dolley Madison’s account was quite extraordinary.

Jennings was born in 1799 at Montpelier. His mother was of African and Native American descent, and his father was an Englishman. Jennings worked as a “house slave” at Montpelier, where he learned to read, write and play the violin, according to Montpelier.

After James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, was elected the country’s fourth president in 1808, Jennings moved with the family to Washington.

Jennings was only 10 years old when he arrived in the city, which he would later describe as dreary.

“When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into the White House; the east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved, but was always in an awful condition form either mud or dust,” Jennings wrote in his memoir.

While at the White House, Jennings had a front-row seat to history. Scholars say Jennings wrote one of the most vivid and dramatic witness accounts of what happened inside the White House as the British were approaching Washington.

“After the war had been going on for a couple of years, the people of Washington began to be alarmed for the safety of the city, as the British held Chesapeake Bay with a powerful fleet and army,” Jennings wrote. “Every thing seemed to be left to General [John] Armstrong, then Secretary of War, who ridiculed the idea that there was any danger.”

But in August 1814, as the British marched closer, Jennings wrote, the attitude in the capital shifted.

“Great alarm existed, and some feeble preparations for defence were made,” Jennings wrote. “Com. Barney’s flotilla was stripped of men, who were placed in battery, at Bladensburg, where they fought splendidly. A large part of his men were tall, strapping negroes, mixed with white sailors and marines. Mr. Madison reviewed them just before the fight, and asked Com. Barney if his ‘negroes would not run on the approach of the British?’ ‘No sir,’ said Barney, ‘they don’t know how to run; they will die by their guns first.”

On Aug. 24, as the British made their way from Bladensburg, Md., to Washington, Jennings recalled that the president’s adviser — Gen. John Armstrong — assured Madison that he was in no danger. Madison rode to Bladensburg to see what was happening, Jennings wrote.

Back at the White House, Dolley Madison prepared for dinner.

“Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as usual,” Jennings wrote. “I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers, as all the Cabinet and several military gentlemen and strangers were expected.”

At about 3 that afternoon, James Smith, a free black man who had gone with Madison to Bladensburg, raced to the White House, waving his hat and yelling at them to leave immediately.

” ‘Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!’ ” Jennings wrote. “All then was confusion.”

Dolley Madison ordered her carriage to be bought around and raced through the dining room of the White House. The first lady, “caught up what silver she could crowd into her old-fashioned reticule, and then jumped into the chariot with her servant girl Sukey, and Daniel Carroll, who took charge of them,” Jennings wrote.

“The British were expected in a few minutes,” recalled Jennings, who said he was sent to the stable to fetch the carriage of Madison’s brother-in-law, Richard Cutts.

“People were running in every direction,” Jennings wrote. “John Freeman (the colored butler) drove off in the coachee with his wife, child, and servant; also a feather bed lashed on behind the coachee, which was all the furniture saved, except part of the silver and the portrait of Washington (of which I will tell you by-and-by).”

Even though the British were expected to arrive at the White House any minute, Jennings wrote, it took them several hours.

“In the meantime, a rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over the White House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on,” Jennings wrote.

By sundown, the British had still not made it to the White House. Jennings said he walked to the Georgetown ferry, where James Madison and his bodyguard waited for a boat.

“Just then we came up with Mr. Madison and his friends, who had been wandering about for some hours, consulting what to do,” Jennings recalled. “I walked on to a Methodist minister’s, and in the evening, while he was at prayer, I heard a tremendous explosion, and, rushing out, saw that the public buildings, navy yard, ropewalks, &c., were on fire.”

The British had arrived, capturing the undefended city and burning the U.S. Capitol, setting a blaze so intense that it melted the skylights and many stone sculptures, including the marble statue of Liberty by Giuseppe Franzoni.

Then the British marched to the White House.

“When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President’s party,” Jennings wrote.

Then the British burned the White House. When they departed Washington the next day, they left behind a swath of destruction.

Jennings remained with James Madison until the former president’s death in 1836 at Montpelier. In 1849, according to the White House Historical Association, Dolley Madison sold Jennings for $200 to Pollard Webb, an insurance agent. A few months later, Daniel Webster, a senator from Massachusetts, bought Jennings for $120, with the arrangement that Jennings would be able to buy his own freedom for $8 a month.

Jennings did quite well for himself as a free black man living in Washington.

“Jennings firmly established himself and his family in Washington’s free black community, which was at that time three times as large as its enslaved community,” Montpelier’s account says. “He began working at the Pension Office as a ‘laborer’ (a term that encompassed many clerk-like duties).”

In 1853, he bought a house on L Street, where he lived with his third wife, Amelia Dorsey.

In the meantime, Dolley Madison fell into dire poverty. It was Jennings, who died in 1874 at the age of 75, who would help her out financially.

“In the last years of her life, before Congress purchased her husband’s papers, she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessaries of life,” Jennings wrote. “While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought my freedom of her.”

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