Monday, August 24, 2009

Burning Down the House

On this day in 1814, the British captured Washington, D.C. and burned down the Capital building and the White House during the War of 1812. Due to its brevity and the fact that so much of American History is often forced into a single year of High School education, the War of 1812 almost always gets skipped over or abbreviated in the pursuit of other conflicts such as the American Civil War or World Wars I and II, respectively. However, while the war was concluded in the form of an exhausted truce in which neither side suffered any major territorial losses…the war is memorable for many reasons. First, it left the country feeling a surge of nationalism and ushered in an “Era of Good Feeling.” Americans felt as if they won a second war of independence solidifying the effects of the first. In the wake of strong feelings of nationalism, new heroes emerged from the experience of the War. Andrew Jackson emerged as a military hero after the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The battle was notable because it was fought after both countries signed a peace treaty effectively ending the war, at least on paper. A second hero in her own right to emerge from the narrative of the war of 1812 was Dolley Madison. Madison’s actions relate directly to today’s anniversary of the burning of the White House.

James Madison was president in 1814 when the British invaded Washington, D.C.. As troops approached the city, Madison retreated with the army while Dolley was supposed to remove to the safety of Virginia and stay with friends. Instead, Dolley stayed behind and oversaw the removal of priceless items from the White House for safekeeping, including a portrait of George Washington. Rumor has it that the British arrived at the White House to find a dinner served on the table that those inside had no time to eat. After sitting down to enjoy the meal meant for the Americans, the British set fire to the White House, Capital, Library of Congress and other government buildings. When Dolley returned to Washington after the British left the city, she was cheered in the streets by the people for her actions. She promised that the Capital and other buildings would be rebuilt, and they were….stocked in part with the precious items that Dolley managed to save.

While Dolley is often remembered for her trend setting fashion and societal graces, having served as White House hostess for Jefferson and Madison and unofficially for Van Buren, Polk and Tyler, I think it is also safe to say that Dolley appreciated the precious nature of American history in its early years. Dolley may have appreciated the fact that the citizens of such a young country would need relics from the time of its founding to help solidify its legitimacy. Americans who may not have understood the ideological underpinnings of our Declaration of Independence or Constitution may have relied on images of George Washington or other cultural objects to establish their agency to such lofty ideals. We all connect with history in different ways, whether through books, images or song (p.s. the “Star Spangled Banner” was composed by Francis Scott Key while witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in 1814). Through an incredible act of heroism, Dolley Madison insured that the survival of key artifacts of the nation’s founding for generations of American citizens to come.

Learn more about Dolley Madison on the White House’s official website here.

This is the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that Dolley managed to save before the White House was torched:

[Images via allposters, famouspeople, solarnavigator]

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