Last week, we explored the legend of Dolley Madison saving the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington. We asked you investigate three historical accounts of the event and decide which one you thought was most accurate—thanks so much to all the History Detectives out there (hello, West Islip students!) who shared their opinion. Here are the results of our survey.
Most of you thought Dolley Madison’s own account was the most accurate. Are you curious to know what we think of these three sources? And what historians think about who saved the Lansdowne Portrait? Then here are a few things to consider.
First, any historian will tell you that it’s essential to rely on multiple sources to build a historical narrative, or account of the past. So let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses of each of the sources we provided, not which one tells The Whole Truth, because none of them do. Then we’ll tell you what historians think they can piece together about what happened to the Lansdowne Portrait on August 24, 1814.
Critical readers of the Lippincott Magazine excerpt will have noticed the two main issues that survey respondee Emma C did. She wrote “…the first source was not written the same year that the event took place and seemed a lot like a personal opinion.” Emma is right—the date and content of this article make it pretty unreliable. First, this source was written almost 100 years after the event, so the author was definitely not present for it. It is not a primary source. Since it is a comment on what another historian wrote, it’s not even a secondary source, but a tertiary source! That alone doesn’t mean the source is unreliable or inaccurate (secondary and tertiary sources are valuable parts of research!), but the distance between the author and the event should make the reader suspicious of any claims the author makes that aren’t back up with primary source evidence. Does this excerpt quote any primary sources? Nope! The author of this piece talks about having an “ineffaceable mental picture” of Mrs. Madison directing the removal of the painting. In easier language, the author is saying that it is irresistible to imagine Dolley Madison running the show, presumably due to the author’s overall idea of Madison’s character. Even if it seems like something she would do, no proof is offered. On its own, this excerpt is not very reliable, because the author is merely relaying what they believe, not what evidence shows.
How about Paul Jennings’ tale of the painting’s rescue? His account rejects the idea that Madison actually removed the painting from its frame herself and carried it off. This pervasive rumor dates to at least the 1830s. For example, in February 1831, a woman named Catherine M. Sedgwick wrote a letter about a visit to the White House. She stated:
We drove to the [White House], entered a large, cold saloon, and then a drawing-room, in which is a fine full-length picture of General Washington. When the British came here in the last war, the President was obliged to fly. His wife, Mrs. Madison, cut the picture from the frame and took it with her—the only article she took!
At the beginning of the Jennings excerpt, he directly states that this is the story he’s trying to discredit. Close readers of this source should notice that he doesn’t mention Dolley giving directions for the painting’s removal, but rather states that in her haste to escape she threw some silver in a bag and headed off. Can we trust what he says? Jennings was a witness and integral figure in Mrs. Madison’s escape, so we must consider his version of events carefully. In the previous post we noted that he was 15 in 1814. Did you notice that he wrote about this incident decades later?
His book was published in 1865. Perhaps Madison really didn’t say anything about the painting, and White House staff removed it on their own. Or maybe he did not remember Madison giving orders in the confusion of that day so many years earlier. Perhaps he did remember her giving orders, but felt it was too obvious that she was in command that day to write about. After all, why would anyone do anything to White House possessions without instructions, especially those who were enslaved like Jennings? Jennings’ point about the size of the painting is a strong piece of evidence that Madison did not disassemble and flee with it on her own. The painting is about 5 feet by 8 feet. It would be hard for any individual to get such a painting off a wall, rip it from its heavy frame in one piece, and carry it off. Jennings’ closeness to this event makes this source reliable, but the time between when the event happened and when Jennings recorded his memories of it should raise questions for a critical reader.
Interestingly, a time-lapse is also a strike against the reliability of the letter Madison wrote to her sister. Did you notice that the original version of this letter doesn’t exist, and all we have is a version Madison transcribed in 1836, 20 years after the incident occurred? By that time, the myth of her having personally carried off the portrait had taken hold. She may have known about and liked that tale being spread around! But a careful reader will note that she doesn’t claim to have ripped the canvas from its frame herself. She, similarly to Jennings’ account and the magazine account, credits her staff with doing the physical labor of removing the painting, while she gave orders. Critical readers should have noted that Dolley’s account was both reliable in that she was supposedly transcribing a letter from the very same day the event took place, and yet a bit suspect in that she had an opportunity to edit that letter 20 years later.
We hope our readers noticed that none of the sources we offered claimed that Dolley removed the portrait herself. We also hope that, like professional historians, readers actively questioned each source, instead of deciding that one was the true story. Certainly many of you who filled out our survey did just that! That said, we did ask you to choose which you felt was the most accurate. Those of you who chose either Madison’s or Jennings’s accounts had the strongest cases to make for your choice. Great job! Now let’s look more deeply at the those two sources in light of some issues our readers brought up when determining their accuracy.
For example, respndee Meghan H wrote this about Jennings’ account: “I think that the first hand account of Paul Jennings is the most accurate and reliable account…Although he was a slave of the Madisons, and may be biased to anything they claim, I feel that his account is the most believable.” But respondee Sebastian R disagrees, writing, “Due to the slave Paul Jennings not being given his freedom, he may have been upset, and tried to slander Dolly.”
Can Jennings, who was enslaved by the Madisons for most of his life, be trusted to write about them fairly? Can Madison be trusted to tell a truthful account of her actions 20 years after the portrait was saved?
If you further explored Jennings’ account of the Madisons in his book, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, you would have noticed that he largely praises them. Just after recounting the painting-saving incident, he wrote:
Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored. …In the last days of her life, before Congress purchased her husband’s papers, she was in a state of absolute poverty….While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought my freedom of her…
Were these Jennings’ true feelings? We can’t know. There is strong evidence that he helped a group of enslaved people attempt escape on a ship called the Pearl in 1848, two years after Jennings purchased his freedom from Daniel Webster. This courageous act shows a strong opposition to slavery. He may have written nice things about his former enslavers, the Madisons because that was the safe thing to do, or thing that would sell the most books. Or he had complicated feelings of loyalty towards a couple he knew his entire life. We can’t know his true feelings, but we can clearly see here that he would not air a significant grievance about them publicly. This makes his account all the more reliable, since he makes a point elsewhere of not showing a bias against the Madisons.
Now let’s take a bigger-picture look at Mrs. Madison’s letter. One respondee who trusted this source the most noted that it was a letter to her sister and “why would she lie to her sister about that.” Respondee Samatha B trusted this source because it was written by Madison herself. Samantha wrote, “Dolley herself is explaining what happened, so it nearly has to be true.”
First, this letter to her sister is hardly a private document. Not only is it a transcription Madison made for a book, but it’s likely that even when she wrote the original letter, Madison had in mind that someday it would be published and read by many more people than just her sister. After all, she was recording a significant historical event and she was the first lady! What makes Madison’s August 24th letter believable, even if she did change her language in a rewrite, is that another similar account from her survives that is very similar to this one. In a letter from December 3, 1814, Madison wrote to Mary Latrobe:
Two hours before the enemy entered the city, I left the house … and on that very day I sent out the silver (nearly all) and velvet curtains and General Washington’s picture, the Cabinet Papers, a few books, and the small clock – left everything else belonging to the public, our own valuable stores of every description, a part of my clothes, and all my servants’ clothes, etc., etc. In short, it would fatigue you to read the list of my losses, or an account of the general dismay or particular distresses of your acquaintance.
Note that she says she “sent out” the portrait. That supports the idea that she gave instructions for its removal. Since this letter was written before Madison could have known she would gain legendary praise for the portrait’s rescue, there is good reason to believe she is telling the truth. We cannot, however, trust that Madison is telling the truth just because she is writing about herself. People often lie to make themselves look better, so that alone does not make a source trustworthy.
So what do most historians think happened? All told, historians think there is good evidence that Madison gave orders for the portrait to be removed by her staff, probably the men named by Paul Jennings; but after all these years, and despite historians busting the myth of Madison’s one-woman portrait removal, the myth survives! One survey respondee articulated why this happens: “As history has stated several times in the past Dolley Madison saved the Washington portrait. Since history has stated this several times, there is no reason for it to be contradicted at the current time.”
That really is what happens to myths—they get repeated so many times people stop looking for proof and just accept them. Take for example a Smithsonian Magazine article from 2000 that states “Before setting it ablaze, the [British] officers sat down to a sumptuous dinner laid out for President and Mrs. James Madison, who had hastily departed, Dolly Madison clutching Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.” A children’s book from 2009 also perpetuates the myth, as the summary in this link indicates. History detectives like you now know better than to blindly trust these sources!
We hope you enjoyed this foray into historical thinking. If you would like to see more posts like this, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum
 Katharine Anthony. Dolley Madison: Her Life and Times, p. 230.