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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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Paul Jennings: “required a ladder to get it down”

In sorting out the various stories of how George Washington’s portrait was removed from the White House before the arrival of British troops in 1814, lately scholars have been paying special attention to the 1865 memoir of Paul Jennings, enslaved in the White House at the time.

Jennings (shown here, courtesy of the Library of America blog) was born in 1799, so he was still in his mid-teens as the foreign enemy approached. Over fifty years later he stated:
It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.
“John Susé” was obviously Jean Pierre Sioussat, whom Dolley Madison called “French John.” “Magraw, the President’s gardener,” was called an “Irish gardener, Thomas M’Gaw,” in Charles J. Ingersoll’s 1849 history of the war.

Some later authors said that Jennings held the ladder for Sioussat as he lifted the portrait off the wall, but Jennings made no such statement. In fact, he claimed no personal role in saving the portrait. I suspect that those later authors read that slaves had been involved, knew that Jennings was a slave in the White House, and made the leap to rendering him one of those slaves. But there were several other slaves on the scene as well, and he took no credit for saving the picture.

Furthermore, while Jennings refuted authors who stated that Dolley Madison cut the painting from its frame, he didn’t contradict Madison herself because she made no such claim. In her letters she wrote that she “insisted” on and “ordered” and “directed” the work. First Ladies with servants don’t lift heavy objects or break wooden furniture themselves. After all, that’s what servants are for.

All the accounts—from Madison, Jacob Barker, Sioussat, and Jennings—are easy to reconcile when we consider the:
  • confusion and distress of the evacuation of Washington.
  • large number of servants and other helpers who were probably rushing around, trying to save valuables, necessities, and lives.
  • decades between the event and when people set down their recollections.
Madison gave the orders. Sioussat probably took charge of carrying them out. Sioussat, McGraw, and some anonymous black servants, free or enslaved, did much of the actual heavy lifting. (Jennings was privy to that work but not greatly involved; as a young footman who belonged to the Madisons, he might have been busy with their personal effects.) Barker, Robert DePeyster, and their anonymous slaves drove the painting away to safety.

The steps of the process appear to have been:
  • deciding that the portrait must be saved.
  • getting it down off the wall.
  • breaking it out of its big decorative frame (leaving the canvas uncut and still stretched on its inner frame).
  • loading the canvas into a wagon to be moved.
In 1849 Sioussat told Ingersoll that Dolley Madison was gone before all these steps were complete, and Jennings hints the same. However, she must have stayed long enough to ask Barker and DePeyster to drive it away, and by that time it was down from the wall. Again, she made the arrangements, though the servants did the work.

1 comment:

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