August 23: First Lady Day

Today is the anniversary of a letter sent by First Lady Dolley Madison (1768-1849) to her sister on August 23, 1814, the eve of the burning of the White House by invading British troops during the War of 1812. The letter is of particular interest to historians as it details First Lady Madison’s efforts to save important presidential papers and a full-length portrait of George Washington, by artist Gilbert Stuart.

Some historians doubt the authenticity of the letter’s date, saying is was probably written 20 years later; nevertheless, they do not dispute the facts of the letter, particularly First Lady Madison’s intrepid efforts to save Washington’s portrait:

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. 

No original of the letter exists; however, the full text of the letter can be read at the web site of The White House Historical Association.

Dolley Madison first came to Washington, D.C., when her husband was appointed Secretary of State under President Jefferson. She gained a reputation as a charming hostess, frequently entertaining large gatherings at the White House. In fact, the night she left the White House, the dinner table was set for 40 guests.

The expansion of hostilities in the War of 1812 made it necessary for Dolley to finally flee the White House. The U.S. had declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. The first years of the war were confined to Canada, the Great Lakes, and the high seas, but after Great Britain’s victory over Napoleon in April 1814, the British focused more of their forces against the U.S. After defeating the Americans at Bladensburg, Maryland, the British advanced toward Washington.

The night after Madison had penned the letter to her sister and fled the White House to safety, the British arrived. After consuming the meal that had been prepared for American military and cabinet officers, the British soldiers looted and set fire to the White House.

The war continued for a few months until February 17, 1815 when the United States declared victory and ratified the Treaty of Ghent. President James Madison and his wife never lived in the White House again, but they did dedicate themselves to its reconstruction and the reconstruction of other governmental buildings destroyed in the war. in 1817 President James Monroe moved into a restored White House.

Today’s Challenge: All the Presidents’ Wives
Dolley Madison is not the only First Lady of note. Below are ten quotes by the wives of U.S. Presidents. See if you can identify the speaker of each quote.

1. Just say no to drugs!

2. I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.

3. I may be the only mother in America who knows exactly what their child is up to all the time.

4. The power of a book lies in its power to turn a solitary act into a shared vision. As long as we have books, we are not alone.

5. The First Lady is an unpaid public servant elected by one person – her husband.

6. I have sacrificed everything in my life that I consider precious to advance the political career of my husband.

7. I’m not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man.

8. If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.

Quote of the Day: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. –Eleanor Roosevelt

Answers: 1. Nancy Reagan 2. Eleanor Roosevelt 3. Barbara Bush 4. Laura Bush 5. Lady Bird Johnson 6. Pat Nixon 7. Hillary Clinton 8. Jackie Kennedy

1 – The White House Historical Association – Classroom