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

Should the Federal Government Stay in Washington?

In addition to the White House, the fire in Washington severely damaged many buildings including the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Department. Almost immediately after the fire, calls went out for the government to move to another location, ostensibly, until the city could be rebuilt. Both the cities of Philadelphia and New York made attractive offers. Fearing that a temporary move might ultimately result in a permanent relocation of the government, representatives of the southern states objected. Prominent local residents and businessmen also objected to moving the government, fearing that they would lose their investments. President James Madison, determined to keep the government functioning in Washington, rejected any move at all. He also planned to rebuild the White House according to its original design.

Relocating the government to a new city made sense to certain individuals, particularly members of Congress from New York and Pennsylvania. To others with roots in Washington or southward, a move further north was considered disastrous.

  1. Make a list of the reasons for and against keeping the federal government in Washington after the fire destroyed so many buildings and livelihoods. You may need to do additional research to learn more about the debate.

  2. After creating the list, characterize the reasons as political, economic, psychological, and/or symbolic.

  3. Consider what might have happened to the nation had the capital moved to another city, such as New York or Philadelphia. Extra credit: Hold a classroom debate. Select an equal number of students to represent each side of the debate: stay or go? After holding the debate, allow the rest of the class to vote on the question of relocation.

Lady of the House: The Role of First Ladies

Dolley Madison was an extraordinary woman of her time. As first lady she set a precedent for the role of presidential spouse. She partnered with her husband in a very public way. Her outgoing nature and prominence on the social scene contrasted with the quiet personality of predecessor Martha Washington, who first filled the role. Mrs. Madison's weekly White House receptions were fashionable but not too formal. She also visited Washington neighborhoods and called upon prominent local families.

Because Dolley Madison understood the value of cultivating both the political and social communities of Washington, she brought the two together whenever possible. The first couple appeared together at local events and Dolley supported charities that were important to her friends. She supported the work of Marcia Burnes Van Ness, who organized the Washington Female Orphan Asylum. The first lady's participation, including a financial contribution, generated publicity and support for the cause.

After the city burned, Mrs. Madison continued her active social life. She enthusiastically and staunchly supported the rebuilding of Washington and the White House. The weekly parties resumed after the Madisons settled in their replacement homes, first at Octagon House and later at what was known as "Seven Buildings."

Behind all of the socializing, the parties, and the decorating lay Dolley Madison's primary responsibilities, her devotion to her husband and country. Her goal was to provide an atmosphere in which James Madison could be a successful president and thus the country would flourish.
  1. Modern first ladies have called Mrs. Madison a role model. Choose at least two other first ladies, one contemporary and one historical, and examine how they viewed their role as first lady. Using the worksheet as a guide, compare their activities to those of Dolley Madison. You will find brief biographies on this site's First Ladies Timeline.

  2. A first lady's work is exciting and challenging, yet the president's wife is not elected to the post nor is she paid for her efforts. Based on what you know about the achievements of first ladies, today and in the past, write a job description for the "position." Go further and describe the desirable qualifications for a first lady.

Bibliography and Links


Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

*Anthony, Katherine. Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1949.

*Jensen, Amy. The White House and Its Thirty-Five Families. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1958.

*Leish, Kenneth W. The White House: A History of the Presidents. New York: Newsweek, 1972.

*Phelan, Mary Kay. The Burning of Washington: August 1814. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.

*Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

*Seale, William. The President's House, Volume I. Washington, D. C.: White House Historical Association, 1986.

*Seale, William. The White House: The History of An American Idea. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute of Architects, 1992.

The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison. Edited by David B. Mattern and Holly C. Shulman. The University of Virginia Press.

* (Book includes reference to Dolley Madison's letter of August 23-24, 1814)


Bushong, William. "Ruin and Regeneration," White House History. Fall, 1998. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 24-32.

*Mattern, David. "The Famous Letter: Dolley Madison Has the Last Word," White House History. Fall, 1998. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 38-43.

Pitch, Anthony S. "The Burning of Washington," White House History. Fall, 1998. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 6-17.


White House Historical Association. White House History, Journal Article I: "Reminiscence of Madison," by Paul Jennings. (This article is a complete reprint of the 1865 memoir of Jennings, a slave who worked in the White House during Madison’s presidency.)

White House Historical Association. White House History, Journal Article IV: "The Burning of Washington," Anthony Pitch.

Transcript of: A British Account of the Burning of Washington by George Robert Gleig

First Ladies Library

Virginia Center for Digital History, The Dolley Madison Project

The Dolley Madison Digital Edition by Holly C. Shulman

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