Sunday, August 17, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 240: Dolley Madison, “Dear sister, I must leave this house” (#240)

Dolley Madison, “Dear sister, I must leave this house” (1814) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

Today's entry is a letter from Dolley Madison to her sister before (and about) the British occupation of Washington during the War of 1812. It's interesting to read her letter next to the headnote that comments on how different versions of this story get told, another reminder that eyewitness accounts of history ain't always all their cracked up to be. (You'd think a private correspondence written soon after the fact might be trustworthy; but who knows Dolley's relationship with her sister? Do you tell your family the total truth? And let's add that this letter isn't even the original copy.)

The basic story is that the Americans didn't expect the British to take Washington. So Dolley Madison took some care to prepare for an evacuation--though it's clear that some of the evacuation was also done at last minute, when it was clear that the British were, ahem, coming. In her letter, she notes that she took papers of government, the valuables of the house (not her own private property), and a picture of George Washington (this famous one--which also has a weird story behind it). In the letter, they try to take the picture down, but end up having to break up the frame; in a later version, Dolley herself climbs up to cut the picture out of the frame; in a version written by a slave of theirs, Paul Jennings, Dolley only had time to take away the silver.

For me, there's a certain inevitability to the whole historical issue, something we've seen over and over: will we ever know what happened? Probably not. So what really interests me here is how Dolley represents her own feelings at the time. At one moment, she's declaring that she won't leave without her husband; at another, she's noting that a letter from him--in pencil!--gives her great anxiety about this war; and at another moment, she notes that a faithful servant called French John has a plan to blow up the White House and she can't make him understand why they can't take advantage of all the opportunities. Which seems the most interesting to me. Who is this French John? Why couldn't he understand? Is it because he's French (which I doubt) or because he's a black slave (which I strongly infer)? Is he, in fact, the same slave who later wrote his memoirs about his time in the White House?

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