On this day in 1849 (160 years ago) Dolley Madison passed away. She was the spouse of James Madison (4th President of the United States) and was First Lady from 1809 to 1817. She also occasionally acted as First Lady during the administration of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), since Jefferson was a widower. What's the significance of her death? To answer that question, you have to go back to 1796 and trace the thread of history.
Dolley Madison (20 May 1768 – 12 July 1849)
In April 1796, Senator William Bingham of Pennsylvania-one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. at the time-and his wife, Anne commissioned American artist Gilbert Stuart to produce a large (8 by 5 feet) painting of George Washington. Sen Bingham wanted to give the painting as a gift to William Petty (aka the second Earl of Shelburne, the first Marquess of Lansdowne and briefly, the Prime Minister of Great Britain). Although Petty was British, he was an American sympathizer who supported independence of the colonies in Parliament. The painting was completed in the fall of that year and became known as "The Lansdowne Portrait".
The Second Earl of Shelburne, The First Marquess of Lansdowne and briefly, the Prime Minister of Great Britain
It shows Washington (then at 64 years old) renouncing a third term as President, thereby firmly supporting the progression of democracy and elected officials-not the rule of a King or popular leader/dictator.
The Lansdowne Portrait
While the original was presented to Lord Lansdowne (who displayed it at his home until his death in 1805. After his death, the painting went into private hands until recently--more about that in a moment), several copies were made (by the artist), one of which was presented to the President and hung in the East Room of the White House.
Stuart's painting is full of symbolism. You can find a full analysis of the symbolic painting here.
Shortly after gaining independence, America found herself back at war with the British. We won't go into the reasons here, but the War of 1812 was a significant time for the new nation. One of the lowest moments occurred on 24 August 1814, when the British invaded, occupied, and burned much of Washington, DC. Many federal buildings were destroyed, including the Senate and House buildings, the Treasury building and the Library of Congress. The British then turned north down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. First Lady Dolley Madison had chosen to stay after many of the government officials - and her own bodyguard - had already fled. She gathered valuables, documents and other items of importance, most notably the copy of the Lansdowne Portrait hanging in the East Room. She was finally persuaded to leave moments before invading soldiers entered the building. Once inside, the soldiers found the dining table set for a dinner party-after eating all the food, they looted the White House and set the building on fire, causing extensive damage. Only the exterior walls remained, and they had to be torn down and mostly reconstructed due to weakening from the fire and subsequent exposure to the elements. (Urban myth has it that white paint was applied to mask the burn damage it had suffered, giving the building its namesake hue. Untrue-the building had been painted white since its construction in 1798). Of the many spoils taken from the White House, only two have been recovered, including a jewelry box returned to FDR in 1939 by an old man who said his grandfather had taken it from Washington.
The Burning of the White House, 24 Aug 1814
You can see the Landsdowne Portrait (the real one) for yourself at the National Portrait Gallery. In 2001, it was purchased for $30 million from an anonymous owner and a permanent home for it was established at the Portrait Gallery.
And thanks for Dolley Madison's courage and quick thinking, if you are ever in the East Room of the White House, you can see the copy of the Landsdowne Portrait that was saved from the British.
A rare photograph of an elderly Dolley Madison
By the way, Alexander Hamilton, the 1st US Secretary of the Treasury, was shot and killed in a duel with the sitting Vice President Aaron Burr on this day in 1795! (Incidentally, Dolley Madison was close friends with Aaron Burr, who introduced her to James Madison. In a totally unrelated fact, Madison was 43 when he married the 26 year-old Dolley.)
The duel of Hamilton (left) & Burr (right)