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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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jacob Barker: “the portrait was taken by Mr. Depeyster and myself”

When Charles Carroll of Bellevue’s son claimed that his father had saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the White House in 1814, Dolley Madison wasn’t the only person who responded.

In 1847 Jacob Barker (1779-1871), a businessman in New Orleans, wrote a letter confirming that he and Robert DePeyster had carried the painting away from the presidential mansion at the First Lady’s behest. Barker also wrote: “Several persons assisted in taking down the portrait, and the most active was the venerable Mr. Carroll.”

That wasn’t good enough for the younger Carroll, who wrote a newspaper article niggling at Barker’s mistaken details. Barker then replied with a much longer account of the event, dated 8 Feb 1848. This extract picks up as Barker rushes back to the White House after the American defenses have broken:
As soon as our troops broke and retreated, the President sent his servant express to warn his good lady of her danger, with directions to leave immediately. . . . The messenger preceded me five or ten minutes, having passed me on the Pennsylvania avenue, and given the information, with a request that I would repair to the house and assist in their departure. . . .

Whether I found your father there, or whether he came in subsequently, I do not know; but I do know that he assisted in taking down the portrait of Washington and left the house with the President, leaving the portrait on the floor of the room in which it had been suspended to take care of itself, where it remained until the remnant of our army, reduced to about 4,000, passed by, taking the direction of Georgetown, when the portrait was taken by Mr. Depeyster and myself, assisted by two colored boys, from the said room; and with it we fell into the trail of the army and continued with it some miles. Overtaken by night, and greatly fatigued, we sought shelter in a farm house.

No other persons assisted in removing or preserving the picture. I acted at the special request of Mrs. Madison, and Mr. Depeyster co-operated with me in carrying her wishes into effect. I always supposed the praiseworthy solicitude originated with her; it would require very positive and clear proof to induce me to change that opinion. It certainly did not originate with me or with Mr. Depeyster; nor have I ever intimated that any other than Mrs. Madison was entitled to the least credit therefor.
The younger Carroll responded with more angry accusations, so in Barker’s next public letter, later in 1848, he cited Dolley Madison’s authority to assert that Charles Carroll deserved no credit at all, not even for helping to get the painting down from the wall. So there.

COMING UP: The servants speak.

(The photograph about shows Charles Carroll’s 1801 Bellevue mansion in Washington, D.C., now known as Dumbarton House and the headquarters of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.)

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