On this day in 1814, Dolley Madison wrote a letter to her sister Lucy Todd from the White House describing her preparations to flee Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. In said letter, she claimed that the man assigned to drive her away from the mansion “is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secure, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall.”
Dolley saving George is a story that has made the rounds over the years, and is even the subject of a picture book, appropriately titled Dolley Madison Saves George Washington (2007), by Don Brown. That lovely image above comes from Mr. Brown’s book and suggests what is the conventional wisdom on the subject: that Dolley, and no one else, worried about George.
Now enter Paul Jennings, the enslaved footman to Dolley’s husband, President James Madison. Years later, Jennings wrote A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, and his version of the Dolley-George affair is somewhat different from hers. According to Jennings, when word came that the British were approaching, Dolley “caught up what silver she could … and then jumped into the chariot with her servant girl Sukey.” Jennings notes that stories of Madison cutting down the painting are “totally false,” instead reporting that he held a ladder while two other men retrieved the portrait.
Dolley’s various and often vigorous defenses of her account were well publicized; as such it seems unlikely that it was accidental that, in his account, Jennings downplayed her role in saving the painting. Another twist to this story comes from the fact that the original manuscript of the letter Dolley Madison wrote back on August 23, 1814, has been lost. All we have is a transcript of it that she sent to her biographer, Margaret Bayard Smith, in 1836. Is it possible that Dolley manipulated it in some way to serve her own public-relations interests?
One thing Madison writes in her original letter: the process of unscrewing George from the wall was “too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out.” As it happens, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, in her new biography of Jennings, writes, “Modern conservation studies proved that the portrait was never cut out by anyone; rather, the frame was broken and the picture carted away as a stretched canvass.”
So there you go. A truth more exact than that will have to wait. But in the meantime, expect our entry on Jennings in just a few weeks.
IMAGE: From Dolley Madison Saves George Washington by Don Brown (2007)