J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Dolley Madison: “I have ordered the frame to be broken”

Among the most famous legends of Dolley Madison is that she saved Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from the White House as the British army approached the capital in 1814. Thomas Fleming’s Smithsonian article “How Dolley Madison Saved the Day” does a good job of retelling this story.

A major source for that episode is Madison’s own letter to her sister dated 23 Aug 1814, which says in part:
Our kind friend, Mr. [Charles] 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.
However, that letter exists only as a manuscript Madison created in the 1830s for a biographer. In a 1998 article “Dolley Madison Has the Last Word” (readable here), David Mattern notes that this text has a different tone from a letter she definitely wrote after fleeing Washington, more brave and less self-pitying. As a result, historians think that Madison might have composed that account from memory or reshaped an authentic contemporaneous letter to tell the story as she wished it made public.

In the mid-1840s Charles Carroll of Bellevue’s son began to assert publicly that his father had been responsible for saving the Washington painting. In 1848 Dolley Madison wrote that Carroll didn’t deserve such credit. She reiterated that saving the painting was her idea: “I directed my servants in what manner to remove it from the walls, remaining with them until it was done.” She also identified the two New York gentlemen who received the painting as Jacob Barker and Robert DePeyster—the latter being the father of the newspaper publisher to whom she wrote.

COMING UP: Other eyewitness statements.

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