Last evening on American Masters, PBS screened a fascinating documentary on Dolley Payne Todd Madison, wife of our 4th President, James Madison. Although I had known something about her life from history books describing her time as First Lady, what happened before and after her time in the White House proved to be just as interesting. Mrs. Madison had a life often tinged with sorrow and disappointment, yet she had an innate ability to put her own problems aside in the interest of attending to others’ needs. Should you get the opportunity to see the documentary re-broadcast, dear reader, you will not be disappointed.
The event which forever established Mrs. Madison’s fame in the eyes of Americans down to the present day took place when the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812. Alone in the White House with only a few servants on August 24, 1814, while her husband was at the battlefront in Bladensburg, Mrs. Madison learned of the defeat of the Federal forces and the impending arrival of British troops intent on sacking the capital city. With the help of the staff and some supporters, she had the presence of mind to gather up as many documents as she could, along with the Presidential silver and some other items, and load them into a cart to be taken to the Bank of Maryland for safekeeping.
At the last moment, Mrs. Madison decided to save the enormous portrait of George Washington by American artist Gilbert Stuart, a piece which now hangs in the East Room of the White House. She described what happened in a letter written in haste to her sister before she fled the Executive Mansion; it is a passage from her many letters well-known to all American schoolchildren from our history books:
Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humour with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen from New York, for safekeeping.
And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!
What many may not know, and of interest to both my fellow Catholics and fellow Georgetown residents, is that the Mr. Carroll referred to in this famous letter is either Charles Carroll, the owner of what remains to this day one of Georgetown’s most prominent homes, or Daniel Carroll, Charles’ brother, who took Mrs. Madison and the portrait away from the White House to Georgetown. From Colonial times up through the Revolution and subsequently, the Carrolls were the most prominent Catholic family in America. Members of the Carroll family had, inter alia, signed the Declaration of Independence, founded Georgetown University, and served in Congress. At the time of the British invasion, Charles Carroll owned an enormous estate which in Mrs. Madison’s time was (appropriately) called Belle Vue, but today is better-known as Dumbarton House. It was here that Mrs. Madison stayed until arrangements could be made to take her further out of the city.
As one of the historians commented in the documentary, had Mrs. Madison done nothing else but save the Stuart portrait, she would have secured her fame for future generations. She recognized not only its historic importance for a very young country, but also why it could not be left for the invading forces to tear down and parade down the streets of London as a war trophy. It was pointed out in the film that this act by a woman of the early 19th century strikes us as a remarkable, almost modern understanding of the psychological value of preserving the picture from enemy hands. For me, it was also pleasing to discover that America’s most illustrious Catholic family, at a time when Catholics were very often despised and discriminated against, had a hand not only in saving Mrs. Madison’s life, but also in this important, symbolic event in our nation’s history.