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Five years ago (yes, this blog has been going for that long and more) I blogged about visiting Montpelier, James Madison’s house in Virginia. Last weekend I finally got back to see the house in its restored glory. I was worried I wouldn’t like it as much as I did last time when it was a construction zone, down to lathe and plaster. I remember standing in the drawing room and feeling shivers down my spine when the docent said that Jefferson, Lafayette, and Madison had all been in this room together, and that analysis of nail holes gave them clues as to where Madison had hung his paintings. Now, with the room fully restored, and the paintings (or reproductions thereof) hung, it was the full reveal–beautifully done but lacking that leap of the imagination the room demanded in its unrestored state.

No pics allowed in the house, but I took a few of the outside. Here’s the view looking west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, barely visible on the horizon, the final frontier of the republic at that time.

When Lafayette visited he gave Madison a cedar seedling which grew into this magnificent tree, and one of Madison’s black walnuts survives next to it.

The garden created by the Dupont family, who were the last private owners of the house, is quite lovely, even when there’s not a whole lot in bloom. It’s full of bits and pieces they picked up in Europe (ah those were the days).

There’s a lot of interest now in the slaves who worked on Madison’s estate and excavations have revealed the buildings where they lived and worked. Here are the reconstructions of those buildings. One of their most famous slaves was Paul Jennings, who did the heavy lifting when Dolley Madison rescued the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington from the White House when the British invaded. He was also present at Madison’s death. His memoirs, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison are available on google.

The restoration is not yet complete. We saw a room full of odds and ends that may or may not have been owned by Madison. Madison didn’t mark his books, astonishingly, and when Dolley sold the house in 1844 to her son from an earlier marriage, he sold stuff right and left to pay off gambling debts. There was also a room where the original plaster/lathe was revealed and an exhibit of costumes worn by Eve Best as Dolley Madison in the PBS American Experience episode.

Tell me about your favorite historical sites or places you’d like to visit.

Last week, I went to a follow-up appointment with the surgeon, and one of the things I had to do was fill out a post-op questionnaire all about how I’m doing since I came home. One of the questions asked if the patient was suffering feelings of depression, and I realized something very important–I’ve actually been feeling very happy, eager to go out and have fun even. I guess a near-brush with disaster will do that, or maybe it’s a compensation for missing out on RWA, lol. But it led me to do something I always said I would never, ever do–sing karaoke. It was a friend’s birthday party Saturday, and well, one thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was singing “California Gurls.” Keep in mind that I have a terrible singing voice and am very sensitive about it, but when it was all over I realized it was actually kinda fun. Liberating.

So now I am on a “Make The Most Of Life” campaign. Every week I am going to try something new, just to help me remember life should be an adventure. I will post what I find to do (as long as it’s PG-rated…)

And when I was looking for topics for today’s post I found out that July 12 is an anniversary for one of my very favorite Bold Women in history–Dolley Madison, First Lady of the US from 1809 to 1817, who died on that day in 1849 after a long and very eventful life. She seemed appropriate to talk about today. I first “met” Dolley when we got an assignment to do a report on a figure in American history in the 5th grade. I found a book about her in the school library and loved her immediately! She was all the things I wished I could be.

She was born Dolley Payne into the Quaker Payne family on May 20, 1768, one of 8 children, and grew up in Virginia until 1783 when her family sold the family slaves and moved them to Philadelphia, where his business promptly failed and he died in 1792, leaving Dolley’s mother to run a boarding house to take care of the family. She married lawyer John Todd in 1790 and had two sons with him, but he and their younger child died in a yellow fever epidemic only 3 years later. In May 1794 she met James Madison, who had been admiring her from a distance, through their mutual friend Aaron Burr. At first glance they were a strange couple. James was 17 years her senior, a longtime bachelor, short and quiet, while Dolley was tall, buxom, and supremely outgoing, but they fell in love and were married in September of that year. She was then cast out of the Quaker church, which freed her to pursue her love of the latest fashions (especially elaborate hats and turbans!)

In 1797, James retired from the House of Representatives and took Dolley and her son to live at his home at Montpelier in Virginia, where they planned to live a quiet, private life. Fate intervened when Thomas Jefferson asked James to be his Secretary of State in 1801 and the family moved to the brand-new capital Washington DC. James became the 4th president in 1809, and Dolley really came into her own. She was a great First Lady, known for being very fashionable and giving fabulous parties. She redecorated the White House to reflect its stature, and was also very intelligent, shrewd, and charming, renowned for her ability to bring quarreling factions together and smooth quarrels at a very hotheaded time. (Too bad we don’t have her around now…)

Her most famous moment came during the War of 1812, as the British Army converged on DC and the populace fled. Alone at the White House, Dolley packed up vital papers and insisted on making sure the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington was saved before she left for safety herself. As she later wrote to her sister, “Our kind friend Mr. Carroll has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor 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. The 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 safe keeping. On handing the canvas to the gentlemen in question, Messrs. Barker and Depeyster, Mr. Sioussat cautioned them against rolling it up, saying that it would destroy the portrait. He was moved to this because Mr. Barker started to roll it up for greater convenience for carrying.”

And another account of her perilous journey, “The friends with Mrs. Madison hurried her away (her carriage being previously ready), and she, with many other families, retreated with the fleeing army. In Georgetown they perceived some men before them carrying off the picture of General Washington (the large one by Stewart), which with the plate was all that was saved out of the President’s house. Mrs. Madison lost all her own property. Mrs. Madison slept that night in the encampment, a guard being placed round her tent; the next day she crossed into Virginia, where she remained until Sunday, when she returned to meet her husband.”

She was a beloved figure for the rest of her husband’s presidency, and indeed for the rest of her life. James died in 1836 after 42 years of marriage, and even though Dolley was plagued by worries over her n’er-do-well son for the rest of her life, she lived in DC and entertained and enjoyed life until her own death in 1849.

Usually when I’m looking for something to blog about (if I’m not feeling in a particularly opinionated mood) I go to such sources as Chambers Book of Days (great for obscure saints and oddities) or History UK, from which I learned that yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth (the defeat of Richard III and the beginning of the Tudors) and today is the anniversary of the London blitz in World War II.

But this day in 1812 was the day most of the inhabitants of Washington DC fled the city. Why? The British were coming and tomorrow marks the anniversary of one of the most humiliating defeats in American history, the Battle of Bladensburg. Earlier that year America declared war on Britain, following Britain’s efforts to restrict trade with the French. Other grievances included the Brits’ high-handed press-ganging of Americans into the navy and British support for native Americans against American settlers. In August of 1812 the British landed at Baltimore and marched south toward Washington.

Dolley Madison, the first lady, was one of the panicked residents who fled the city, but she had the foresight to take with her several of the valuables from the White House, including the portrait above of George Washington.

And sure enough, the British did march on Washington after the battle the next day, meeting with very little resistance. After dining at the White House on the presidential silver and glassware, they set fire to it and to the rest of the city.

So my question to you is this: I hope you’ll never have to grab your possessions and flee your home, but if you did, what would you take with you?

How to instruct your servants on moving valuable possessions and stop them running from the enemy–just one of the informative topics covered in the Riskies newsletter. Subscribe at with NEWSLETTER in the subject line.

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