Dolley Madison Saves Famous Washington Portrait  

U.S. #707 pictures another Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington known as The Athenaeum.

On August 24, 1814, as British troops approached the American capital, First Lady Dolley Madison insisted on saving important historical relics, including a portrait of our first president.

Two years into the War of 1812, British troops were closing in on Washington, D.C. They began landing in Maryland on August 17, and were headed for the American capitol. President Madison had left the White House to meet with his generals, but instructed his wife to gather important state papers and wait for his return. Dolley and the White House staff waited anxiously, staring through spyglasses for either President Madison or the British Army.

U.S. #809 – White House stamp from the Presidential Series.

Finally, they saw an army approaching in the distance – the British. Most of the city’s resident’s had fled, but Dolley remained at the White House packing a carriage with important items she didn’t want the British to find or destroy. As they drew closer, she pointed to the full-length portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart, and asked her staff to save the picture if possible, and if not to destroy it. “Under no circumstances all it to fall into the hands of the British.” The painting, known as the Lansdowne portrait, was a copy of one gifted to William Petty, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne in 1796. You can view the painting in detail here.

U.S. #1822 was issued on Dolley’s 212th birthday.

First the staffers tried to removed the whole frame from the wall. But it was screwed in and time was running out. They eventually broke the frame and removed the canvas. It was rolled up and stored away at a farmhouse outside the city for safekeeping. Dolley left the White House before the British arrived and met her husband at their established meeting point.

Shortly after, British troops made their way to Capitol Hill. The troops entered the capitol deviously waving the flag of truce, but were attacked by a small group of partisans. The British burned their house and flew the Union Flag over the capitol.

U.S. #992 was issued for the 150th anniversary of the capitol building.

The British troops set fire to the buildings that housed the Senate and House of Representatives, completely destroying the interiors. They then turned their sights on the building that produced the National Intelligencer – an anti-British newspaper. Neighborhood women convinced them not to burn the building for fear it would destroy their houses as well, so Admiral George Cockburn directed his men to tear the building apart brick by brick.

U.S. #1935 pictures the White House and its designer James Hoban. He oversaw its rebuilding following the British attack.

The troops then marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. After eating all of the food they could find and gathering some “souvenirs,” they set the White House on fire. Additional fuel was added to the fires to ensure the destruction of America’s capitol. It had been reported that the flames were visible from as far away as Baltimore.

Within a day, a violent hurricane tore through the city. The storm increased the damage, but extinguished the fires, and saved the exteriors of many of the buildings. After 25 hours, the British fled the capitol to their ships, which had been badly damaged by the storm.

U.S. #2561 pictures Washington, D.C. as it looked in 1903.

The Madisons returned a few days later, but were never able to live in the White House again. Repairs weren’t completed until 1817. But Dolley had successfully saved the historic portrait that to this day hangs in the White House.

Click here to view last year’s discussion about This Day in History.

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  1. Next year consider doing a write up on Edison’s patent on a motion picture camera submitted Aug 24, 1891.

  2. Dolley Madison, What a lady! I understand that the British burned Washington in return for our burning York in Canada. On a visit to a pub in Canada with friends, the owner was still upset that the Americans had burned down the original building in the War of 1812. We had an extra round and apologized.

  3. I love these daily forays into stamp collection and history, but this particular one would have been clearer with some copy editing. The “Capitol” (“O-L”) is the legislative building in Washington, DC, which place is the “capital” (“A-L”) of the United States. In the above, wonderful history lesson, these two importantly different entities get mixed us, and that mixes the reader up in understanding what happened to what and when. Thanks all the same for another great lesson.

  4. Great write up. I love the links you provide. As I was reading the article, I was trying to remember the portrait and lo and behold, there was the link. Outstanding job Mystic.

  5. That time in history we had a violent hurricane as a national hero who saved the capital and disabled the invading British fleet. We have to give that storm credit where credit was due!

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