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This Day in History: Dolley Madison saves Washington’s portrait

On this day in 1814, First Lady Dolley Madison saves a full-length portrait of George Washington from British troops. She also saved some other White House valuables and a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Her heroism occurred during the War of 1812 between Americans and the British—essentially our second fight for independence. President James Madison had left Dolley behind in D.C. while he went to meet with his generals. When Dolley heard reports that British troops were coming, she abandoned many of the Madisons’ personal belongings and instead chose to save the portrait.

Here’s what she didn’t know: The portrait was a copy of the original Gilbert Stuart painting. Even more interesting? If she had known to look for it, she would have been able to tell that it was only a copy: The word “United States” is deliberately misspelled “United Sates” for this very purpose. (See the books in the lower left hand corner of the painting? The misspelling occurs on one of the book bindings.)

Saving the portrait was harder than it might sound! Dolley explained in a letter to her sister: “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. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out;—it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping.”

As she was preparing to leave, Dolley’s letter to her sister concluded: “And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!”

The British arrived not too long after Dolley left. They feasted in the White House that night, using the presidential silverware and china. The British subsequently burned the White House and abandoned the city. The Madisons returned to D.C. a few days later; however, no president was able to inhabit the White House again until its restoration was completed in 1817.

P.S. Historians have long used Dolley’s letter as evidence for what happened at the White House on this day 202 years ago, but recent evidence suggests that the letter was not written in the midst of the escape, as originally thought. Dolley may have reconstructed events many years later. The White House Historical Association draws the following conclusion: “While the primary elements and facts of the letter are not disputed, the tone may have changed considerably, and it does pose interesting questions for students of history about what makes a document an original.”

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