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PRIMARY DOCUMENTS  |  Saving History: Dolley Madison, the White House and the War of 1812
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Activity I 

Dolley to the Rescue: Part One

Dolley Madison captured the events of her last few hours at the White House in a letter addressed to her sister and dated August 23-24, 1814.

  1. Read the letter and complete the following: Why is James Madison not present at the White House? What has the president asked Mrs. Madison to do while she is there? What has she been doing while she waits? Who else is with her at the White House during this time? At what point does Dolley Madison decide she needs to leave the White House?

    Make a list of the most significant information the letter provides.Why was saving the portrait of George Washington so important? Characterize the tone of the letter (i.e., emotional, candid, desperate, calm). Although the letter is written to her sister, to whom might this letter also be written? Explain your answer. Imagine being placed in Mrs. Madison's position. How do you think you would react under similar circumstances?

  2. Five months after the White House was burned, Dolley Madison wrote a letter to Mrs. Benjamin Latrobe, wife of the architect with whom Dolley had worked so closely on the White House's decoration. She described the events of August 1814. Read this letter and compare its contents to the one addressed to her sister: What additional information do you learn about Dolley Madison and the White House in this letter? Which letter is more "emotional"? "Personal"? Explain your answers.

Dolley to the Rescue: Part Two

Dolley Madison's letter to her sister is as suspenseful and tense as any drama. Using the letter as background information and additional research as needed, complete one or both of the following activities:
  • Create a theatrical scenario using the events that Dolley Madison described as the basis of your script and then use your imagination to complete the scene. Include the following: major characters, setting, and dialogue. Put on a performance for your classmates!

  • Pretend you are Dolley Madison and write a journal entry describing the events of August 23-24, 1814, as if no one would ever read the entry. Consider both the letter to her sister and the letter to Mrs. Latrobe.

Activity II

Putting Historical Documents to Work: The Long Life of Dolley Madison's Letter

The extract of the letter Dolley Madison wrote to her sister describing the events leading up to her White House escape is dated August 23 and 24, 1814. Because the richly detailed letter is unique as a record of these critical events and was written by one of the few White House witnesses present, historians have used the contents of the letter over and over again in their histories of the period and in biographies of Dolley Madison.

Recent research by historian David Mattern, who is also an editor of James Madison's papers, revealed some interesting findings. He explains that the original letter does not exist. What historians use is a transcript or extracts of the letter that Dolley Madison copied from a book, The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, published in Philadelphia, 1837-1846. Twenty years after the White House burned, Mrs. Madison was asked to select some letters from the past to be published in this book. The letter to her sister was the only one selected to be printed. At some point in time, Mrs. Madison then copied it out of the book in her own handwriting. This transcription is the only record of the letter in her handwriting.

Although the letter begins with, "Dear Sister," there is no indication which sister she meant: Lucy Todd Washington or Anna Cutts. It was customary to make a handwritten copy of a letter for the record before you mailed the original; in her haste, Mrs. Madison probably did not. Therefore, she would have had to retrieve the letter from her sister in order to send it to the publisher. Because sister Anna lived near Dolley, and it would be convenient to retrieve the letter, it is thought that Anna was the recipient. (It was not at all unusual to keep letters for long periods).

While Mrs. Madison regularly corresponded with friends and family, this particular letter differs in its tone and formality. She provides details that do not seem to be necessary to add, if she were simply writing to her sister. Did she re-write it later, for a broader audience? What is not in question, however, is the accuracy of the information. Another Madison letter written to Mary Latrobe, December 3, 1814, does not contradict the details.

  • Re-read Dolley Madison's letter to her sister.

  • Go to the bibliography of this lesson. Look at the sources marked with an *. The letter appears in these sources in some way.

  • Visit a library. Using the bibliography, or other publications related to this event, find at least three sources that refer to the letter. Describe the context in which the letter is used and how it is cited in footnotes and bibliographies. Use the worksheet as a guide. Analyze your results and compare them with the findings of your classmates.

  • Since the content and veracity of the letter are not in dispute, does it make a difference if the existing document is a copy of a letter written at an earlier date? Explain your answer.

  • In what ways do you consider this document "valuable"? How would the "value" of the document change if the original letter written on August 23-24, 1814 were discovered?

  • Other eyewitnesses wrote about the burning of the city of Washington. What makes Dolley Madison's letter so "valuable"?



Return to PRIMARY DOCUMENT LESSON: "Saving History"

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