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Posts Tagged ‘Dolley Madison’

As June of 1812 started, President James Madison had asked Congress for a declaration of war against the British.  We’ve discussed the reasons before, so we won’t spend a ton of time on them.  The British were arming Native Americans, who then used that hardware to kill Americans.  The British were capturing U.S. ships and forcing their captives to fight on British ships.  The British were blockading France, preventing U.S. trade with an important ally.

Some (or all) of these things had been going on for years, and for years the U.S. government had been negotiating with the British.  But the last set of concessions, sent from London in June of 1811, were deemed by Madison (and most everyone else) as dishonorable at best and, in the worst case, totally humiliating.  War was all but inevitable.

The mid-term elections, held in November of 1811, had seen a “War Hawk” Congress elected by the people.  But the military structure to fight a war was almost completely non-existent.  Long gone from the scene was the “strong government” influence of men like Alexander Hamilton.  As we recall, he had pushed hard for a solid military, particularly a navy.  But this was not popular with President Jefferson, nor his successor, President Madison, who feared a government with too much power.  So the military languished.  Furthermore, Hamilton’s Bank of the U.S., with its 20-year charter, had been allowed to expire, so even raising money to build a navy or hire soldiers was nearly impossible.

But the British affronts could not be overlooked.  Madison’s request for war was approved by the House just three days after it was submitted.  The Senate, on the other hand, deliberated for nearly two weeks.  Sir Augustus John Foster, a friend of the President from years past and the British Foreign Minister, fully expected the Senate to knuckle under and vote against war.  In fact, he did his part for his country by having an aide keep Virginia’s Senator Brent (who apparently had a penchant for alcohol he couldn’t hold) too drunk to vote.  But each day, Brent staggered into the chamber to vote for war.

Debate raged back and forth, and it was a near thing on numerous occasions.  On June 17, 1812, the Senate finally voted 19-13 for a declaration of war.  Though confident his country would win the war, Foster knew he’d lost his battle.  Coincidentally, the 17th fell on a Wednesday, and that afternoon Foster found himself, as was often the case, at Dolley Madison’s Drawing Rooms social.  He bowed to the President and exchanged some chit-chat, while finding Madison looking extremely pale, weighed down by the course he would now have to take.

President Madison was criticized for his desire to avoid war.  The War Hawk Congress, and many citizens that voted them into office, believed the President dragged his feet way longer than was necessary.  But such was not the case.  Madison wanted as much time as possible to prepare the country for the rigors of a war it, ultimately, barely won, and build as much consensus as possible.

Ralph Ketcham offers a wonderful summation in his biography of Madison.  He writes, “Madison’s course during the year preceding the war declaration…appears straight and consistent, if not always wise and well executed.  He thought throughout that his goal, a genuine, republican independence for the United States, found its worst menace in the commercial and maritime arrogance and power of Great Britain.  To have submitted to her unilateral decrees, her discriminatory trade regulations, or her naval outrages would have restored the colonial dependence Madison had fought for half a century.  It would, moreover, have ratified unjust principles in international law and emboldened antirepublican forces in Britain and the United States, thus threatening, in Madison’s opinion, the survival of free government anywhere in the world.

I have to continue with just a couple more sentences.  “But so corrosive was war to republican principles that only the direst emergency could condone it.  Thus Madison tried every conceivable and even some inconceivable ways of peaceful resistance, until many…thought him hopelessly irresolute…

The next day, the United States, led by a deeply saddened Madison, declared war on the British.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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When President Washington took the oath of office for the first time, political parties didn’t really exist.  Well, they sort of did, in the sense that groups of people (and therefore, groups of politicians) held different views of how this infant governmental experiment should work.

By the time John Adams had taken office, there were two pretty well-defined parties, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  What’s rather humorous is that members of each party still believed there was only one party…their own.  The other party was considered to a break-away faction, a group of naughty boys that needed a good spanking to be brought back in line.

When Jefferson’s tenure as President ended, members of the two parties pretty much wouldn’t talk to each other about their differences.  The divide was growing more pronounced.  These days, Republicans and Democrats in Congress squawk at each other from the relative safety of the microphone and dais.  In Jefferson’s day, opposing politicians occasionally fought each other with fists, and “pistols at 20 paces” wasn’t out of the question.

Against this backdrop, James Madison took office as the fourth President.

The First Lady, Dolley, wasn’t much into the whole fighting thing.  In fact, she wasn’t a fan of conflict at all.  But she liked to entertain and, apparently, she liked to decorate as well.  And both of these came together quite nicely on this day in history.  When the Madisons moved into the White House, it was entering its second decade of service to the First Family.  They decided the place could use some sprucing up.

The process of redecorating began and, as the end of May approached, enough progress had been achieved for Dolley to plan something of a party.  On May 31, 1809 (which happened to be a Wednesday), guests were treated to the first White House “drawing rooms” gathering.

In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketcham described the occasion.  “Congressmen and their wives, socially prominent Washingtonians, visiting belles, and foreign emissaries crowded the White House rooms for a glimpse of the new furnishings and the new presidential pair.  Military music filled the house, and the guests helped themselves from buffets loaded with punch, cookies, ice cream, and fruit.

Here, members of opposing political viewpoints actually put their differences aside to engage in pleasant conversation while listening to music and eating their favorite goodies.  It helped to build a bit of camaraderie between highly volatile factions.  In her biography of the fourth First Lady, Catherine Allgor goes so far as to say, “If for no other reason than this, the drawing room contributed to the construction of a workable government.”  That may be a bit of an overstatement, but clearly, men were more civilized in their dealings with each other.

The event was a tremendous success, and Dolley was roundly praised for her elegance and hospitality.  The Wednesday “drawing rooms” became a regular occurrence.  A single room came to be the State Dining room and the attached parlor (today’s Red Room) along with another room.  Over time, attendance mushroomed to several hundred guests and a new, possibly more appropriate name – “Wednesday Squeezes” – came into being.

The Wednesday event continued until the White House was burned by the British…on a Wednesday.  The story goes that Dolley was awaiting the arrival of guests when word came that the list be dominated by a gaggle of British soldiers.  She grabbed what she could, left the dinner on the table, and got out.

Recommended Reading:  A Perfect Union:  Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

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The War of 1812, fought between the still-youthful United States and Great Britain, is probably best known for the events that occurred on August 24, 1814, when British troops entered the city of Washington, D.C. and set it afire.

The British felt justified in their actions because of what had happened more than a year before, when American forces had seized the port of York, Upper Canada from the British.  After the victory, soldiers of the Stars and Stripes burned the Parliament buildings and looted the public library (as well as numerous homes).  So the British probably saw the largely undefended U.S. capital as their chance for a little reciprocity.

The British did show a little discipline and adherence to the idea of “military targets”, leaving most civilian residences and buildings untouched.  But the House and Senate buildings were torched, and the Libary of Congress (in the Capital Building) went up in flames, as did the Treasury Building.  As the British headed for the White House, it was mostly vacant as all government officials had fled, including President James Madison.  But his wife, Dolley, stayed and gathered as many artifacts as possible before fleeing herself.

British forces entered the White House and found a meal still on the table (which they proceeded to eat).  They then filched items of value they could find and put it to the flame.  By morning little but the White House’s outer walls remained.

At that point, however, there were other concerns for the British.  The weather turned foul as a hurricane arrived, and torrential rains squelched the fires and sent the British scrambling back to their damaged ships, at which point the government returned to the capital.  But the burned buildings would remain in ruins until construction could begin the following year, and work would not be completed until the 1860’s.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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