Dolley Madison's Role in Saving the Washington Portrait
Thea Marshall wonders: did she or didn't she -- "she" being Dolley Madison, the long-thought rescuer of the great Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington.
The great Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington has been called a national treasure. The fact that this huge painting of our first President still exists is a bit of a miracle. Actually, a disputed miracle, with Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison, as the disputed miracle maker. Did she or didn't she save this great painting when, during the second year of the War of 1812, British troops were just a few hours from the President's mansion and part of their mission--burn it down. James was with the troops; Dolly was at the mansion with her servants and slaves, one of whom was a most rare man, indeed.
His name, Paul Jennings, born a slave on President Madison's estate in Montpelier, Virginia. He's become known as the first person to have left us a memoir about life in the White House. It's short--about sixteen pages, but, long enough to dispute, or perhaps, correct a few so-called historical facts, including Dolly Madison's claim as portrait rescue-esse. Here's a bit of her letter to sister Anna. "I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured. The canvas is out, it's done and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York for safe keeping."
Well, Paul Jennings vehemently disagreed; quote: "This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. All she carried off was the silver in her redicule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off and were expected every moment. The doorkeeper and the President's gardner took it down and sent if off on a wagon with some large silver urns." Well, Paul Jennings was as close as a slave could be to a master--Madison's valet, his barber; and, finally, Paul Jennings was at Madison's bedside when he lay dying.
This, too, is from Paul Jennings' memoir. "I was present when he died. He could not swallow. His niece said, 'What is the matter, Uncle James?' 'Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.' His head instantly dropped and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out." James Madison's will instructed that Paul be freed upon Madison's death. Mrs. Madison did not honor the request. It was Senator Daniel Webster who took the initiative and came to Paul Jennings' rescue. This was from Webster's papers. "I have paid $120 for the freedom of Paul Jennings. His freedom papers I gave to him."
As a widow, Dolly was becoming penniless, mostly due to debts incurred by her son. And, both Senator Webster and Paul Jennings came to her rescue. This from the memoir: "While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, I occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket."
Well, there's much more to learn about Paul Jennings and I guess, much to learn from him. This is Thea Marshall.