Dolley Madison and the British Assault on the White House, 1814

An engraving of Dolley Madison saving an important document.

On August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison rescued several important state documents and a now-famous oil portrait of George Washington from the White House as Washington, D.C., was being burned by invading British forces.

Born Dolley Payne in 1768 in Guilford County, the future First Lady met her would-be husband through mutual acquaintance Aaron Burr in Philadelphia 1794. The couple married less than a year later. While James Madison served as Secretary of State for the widowed Thomas Jefferson, Dolley became the unofficial “first lady,” hosting events for politicians and international guests. The 1809 inauguration of her husband, therefore, made for an easy transition to the role of the president’s wife.

As Washington came under siege from the British as part of the War of 1812, President James Madison asked his wife to stay behind in the White House and gather important documents so that the building could be abandoned quickly if needed. As the invading force drew near, the First Lady decided to abandon the Pennsylvania Avenue mansion.

Though popular legend tends to tell the story in such a way that Madison herself ripped the portrait out a frame and hand-carried it and other important documents out of the White House, contemporary historians revisiting the subject argue that household slaves most likely did the heavy lifting under her orders.

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