There have been moments throughout the nation’s history when individuals have acted to protect the ideals, symbols, and objects of democracy. The reports of young congressional aides carrying cases of electoral votes out of the chambers as they evacuated on January 6, 2021, under threat from insurrectionists, recalled a time during the War of 1812—indeed, the only other time when Washington, D.C. was so threatened. As the Center for Women’s History’s 2017 exhibition Saving Washington recounted, First Lady Dolley Madison, alongside White House staff and enslaved servant Paul Jennings, removed the famed Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, along with her husband President James Madison’s papers, from the White House before the British entered the city, ransacking both the White House and the Capitol building.
The First Lady acted with the understanding that symbols matter. If she were to have left behind the portrait of the nation’s first president—the symbolic father of the country—as well as the Madison presidential papers, it might have potentially unnerved and unmoored the fragile new republic. Over 200 years later, as we have seen, the ransacking of symbolic icons of American democracy still carries the power to shock both the country and the world.
A Portrait and a Nation in Peril
As a woman, Dolley Madison could neither vote, nor hold office. Yet she was a vital part of her husband’s administration, creating and maintaining a social network that could bridge the bitter partisan divides of the era. As James Madison grappled with foreign policy crises, economic turbulence, a fractious Congress, and an ineffective Cabinet, in the office of First Lady, his wife provided the couple with unofficial social channels through which to conduct political business. From the first Inaugural Ball to her weekly Wednesday night receptions, Dolley proved a popular and formidable asset to the president, even as the War of 1812 threatened the Madison administration—and the country—with invasion, disunion, and disaster.
As the new United States struggled for recognition on the world stage, a growing crisis escalated with Great Britain over neutral trade rights in the Atlantic. Despite a lack of American military and financial strength, James Madison secured a declaration of war in June 1812.
The American defense was poorly equipped, badly trained, and thoroughly distracted by the fear of slave uprisings. As the British advanced, the militia put up a weak and disorganized defense at Bladensburg, Maryland. After a short skirmish, they broke and “ran like sheep chased by dogs,” according to Charles Ball, a formerly enslaved man who fought with an integrated force of seamen and marines. On August 24, 1814, with the road to Washington wide open, the British marched in. With Madison and his cabinet in Maryland, Dolley kept vigil until she was forced to abandon the White House. The British troops arrived a few hours after her escape. After helping themselves to a dinner intended for the Madisons, they burned the mansion, both houses of Congress, and many other government buildings of the fledgling capital city.
Although Washington City had little strategic importance, its destruction struck at American morale. British Admiral George Cockburn had even threatened to capture and parade Dolley through the streets of London as a prisoner of war.
Despite the serious threat to her safety and her impending evacuation, Dolley was keenly aware of the symbolic power of the American president’s house and the site of the nation’s capital. Indeed, by saving the portrait of Washington, she also was saving the aspirational ideals of Washington, D.C. Her heroic act and her tireless work to preserve the city and all that it represented—both politically and physically—provided Dolley with a level of visibility that persisted long after the war ended in December 1814.
In 1796, George Washington surprised many in the United States and Europe when he announced he would voluntarily give up the nation’s highest office, setting the stage for the nation’s first peaceful transfer of power. In his farewell address, Washington noted “Let me now … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party….”, outlining the danger of partisan politics before declaring “let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” As we prepare to inaugurate a new president and welcome the first female vice president, the peaceful transfer of power has been shaken for the first time, and the Capitol breached for the second time in its history. We are reminded that although only elected officials pledge an oath to the constitution, the work of democracy belongs to all of us.
Written by the Center for Women’s History