Free «Dolley Madison» Essay Sample

The primary document to be analyzed in this essay is a letter by Dolley Madison, the then first lady of America, to her sister Anna. The letter was written on the penultimate day of the burning of Washington, D. C. by the British forces during the war of 1812. In the letter, Mrs. Madison has described how the White House is abandoned. She also describes her famous action of saving Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. Mrs. Madison later flees the destruction and meets with her husband. From a safe distance, they watch Washington burn (Brooks 15).

Dolley Madison

Dolley Payne Todd Madison was born on May 20, 1768, at GuilfordCounty in North Carolina. She was of Irish, Scottish, French, and English origin, and the fourth of eight children (four brothers and six sisters). Madison was first married in 1790 to a lawyer called John Todd, who died from yellow fever in 1793. Madison later married James Madison who was then a U.S. Congressman (Virginia).

Dolley Madison is among the most respected and best-loved women in America today (Pitch 20). Her personal strength, bravery, radiant charm, integrity, beauty and diplomatic tact made her one of the most admired female personalities in America. After James Madison had become Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Dolley doubled up as the president’s hostess, given Jefferson was a widower. In 1809, James Madison succeeded President Jefferson, and as a result, Dolly officially became First Lady. During her time as First Lady, she was credited with overseeing decorations of the White House and entertaining guests in weekly parties until war stepped into her doorstep (Mattern 7).



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The War

Mrs. Madison’s letter to her sister is written during the war of 1812 between the United States of America and Great Britain. The name ‘Burning of Washington’ refers to the armed conflict that occurred during this period (August 24, 1814) in which British forces, under General Robert Ross, occupied WashingtonD.C. The forces burnt many public buildings, the White House being one of them. Many other facilities were also destroyed during this foreign occupation. It is noted that this is the only time that the United States’ capital was captured by a foreign power since the Revolutionary War (Roosevelt 54).

Women and War

As the letter indicates, Mrs. Madison was left in the White House while the President went to join in the fighting. This act can be taken to exhibit the long held notion that war is for men, and women should stay at home while men do the fighting. Even today in the American society, this tendency is present. When the US Army is dispatched to war, male officers always fight on the frontline in battle. The presence of female officers is rarely seen in battles involving the United States.

The letter further exposes the stature of women at that time. It is reported that the President had inquired about the First Lady’s courage and firmness to remain alone in the White House. He only leaves her after assurances that she would take care of herself until he returns. This could be taken to show that women were seen as weaker beings whose safety depended solely on men. Men were charged with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of their wives, and it is no wonder that we see the President dispatching two letters to her wife in a period of one day, enquiring about her safety (Mattern 7).

Patriotism of the American people is exhibited in the letter in various forms. First, the First Lady says that she feared only for the President, and that she believed in the success of the Army. In addition, the President’s act of leaving the comfort of the White House to join his fighters is a rare exhibition of patriotism on his part. We also note that though the President admits that the enemy is stronger than it was reported earlier, he goes on with the fight.

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The President cares a lot about the safety of the country’s documents. He specifically asks his wife to ensure the safety of both the public and private cabinet papers. The First Lady does not wish to go against these orders, and she puts many cabinet papers in trunks in order to be carried away whenever possible. On a similar note, the First Lady chooses to save the government documents and sacrifice private property. Only a true patriot could make such a decision.

Loyalty to the President is also seen when the First Lady intends not to flee until she is assured of the safety of the President. In addition, a servant called French John displays loyalty and faithfulness by staying in the White House intending to protect it to the end. Although other ‘friends and acquaintances’ are gone, there is still someone who is willing to stay the course. This is despite the signs that the battle is long lost.  

Saving George Washington’s Portrait

The letter indicates that Mrs. Madison is determined to stay in the White House until the priceless portrait of George Washington is put away in a safe place. Despite the approaching British army, she risks her life saving this portrait. This is an extraordinary show of courage and patriotism. Saving of this portrait was crucial to upholding the national pride of the United States of America. Though the British destroyed the White House to send a political message of defeat, this message was altered by the gesture that the portrait of the founding father was sacred indeed. It could not be touched. Thus, the portrait served as a symbol of hope to the war-torn America (Latimer 18).

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Dolley’s letter is about courage and defiance. The letter indicates the courage and defiance of a young nation trying to maintain its independence. Dolley’s resolve not to leave the White House until she saves the portrait of George Washington (among other valuable things) is an exhibition of these courage and defiance.


It has been indicated that Mrs. Madison most likely rewrote the letter after the war. Experts have concluded that Mrs. Madison did not write this document on August 23-23, 1814, as assumed earlier. It has been suggested that the letter was likely to have been written about 20 years later. This poses intriguing questions about what should make a document ‘original’. This is because, while facts and other primary elements may not be disputed in the letter, it is suggested that the tone could have changed considerably. This could have had the effect of changing the original message of the letter.

The Letter as an Invaluable Historical Document

The letter effectively paraphrases the events that lead to the torching of the White House. The saving of the portrait of George Washington by Dolley Madison is one of the most celebrated actions during the war. The letter that was written by Mrs. Madison before her hasty escape is a detailed explanation of how the portrait and other national valuables escaped destruction. The words of a witness are a valuable source of history, and thus this letter is crucial in understanding the history of a war that destroyed the White House.

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The burning of the White House was a physical, emotional and symbolic activity. Before the destruction, there had been rumblings of moving America’s capital to a safer location. After the destruction, there emerged the will to retain the government in Washington (in temporary quarters) awaiting the restoration and rebuilding of damaged public buildings. In 1817, the Madisons retired to their Virginia home. James Monroe, the new President, moved back to the White House. This restored the place of the White House in history (Latimer 18).

In conclusion, it can be argued that Mrs. Madison’s intentions of making the letter public was to make Americans realize what patriotism is, and the importance of courage to defend the American nation. The letter acts as a remainder of the sacrifices made by America’s heroes to grant us the freedom we enjoy today. The current generation should be guided by these extraordinary actions of Dolley Madison, which are effectively captured in the letter to her sister. 


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