Book Review: The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison And The War of 1812 by Jane Hampton Cook


Despite being a huge history nerd, I did not watch a single episode of Showtime’s recent miniseries, The First Lady.  That’s largely because I think Showtime made a mistake with the three first ladies that they chose to profile.

Eleanor Roosevelt?  Everyone knows that Alice was far more interesting.

Betty Ford?  Look, I think Gerald Ford was a great and underrated President and I think the country would have been better off if he had defeated Jimmy Carter in 1976.  But we all know that Alice Roosevelt is the Republican First Lady who deserves a miniseries.

Michelle Obama?  It’s going to be another few years or so before we can even begin to seriously discuss whether or not the Obamas were successful in the White House.  Meanwhile, the legacy of Alice Roosevelt is right there.

Personally, assuming that there wasn’t a show about Alice Roosevelt airing at the time, I would rather watch a miniseries about Dolley Madison, who served as America’s First Lady from 1809 to 1817.  Madison was the fourth First Lady but she was the first to play an important role in her husband’s success.  Indeed, James Madison was said to be such an introvert that it’s doubtful he would have ever been nominated for or elected President if not for Dolley’s outgoing personality.  Along with furnishing The White House and making it into a proper residence for the head of the executive branch, Dolley also started the tradition of White House receptions and by inviting not only Madison’s allies but also his rivals, it can truly be said that Dolley Madison was the first person to promote bipartisanship in Washington.  Dolley was even the first American to ever receive a telegraph message and then send a response.  Apparently, before Dolley showed up, people would just read their messages and then toss them to the side.

James Madison was also President during the War of 1812.  Now technically, The War of 1812 was not America’s finest moment.  While the British were hardly innocent when it came to the diplomatic tensions between the two countries, the war largely escalated due to the fact that certain Americans had convinced themselves that Canada was eager to both be liberated from British rule and to become a part of the United States.  Indeed, the long tradition of the U.S. invading other countries for their own good began with the 1813 invasion of Canada.  In 1814, the British responded by sacking Washington D.C. and burning down the White House.  It was Dolley who made sure that the famous portrait of George Washington was removed from the White House wall before the building was set on fire.

That Dolley survived the burning of the White House served as a rallyingcry for the U.S. forces and what should have been a blow to morale instead only inspired the Americans to fight harder.  And while one can argue that the war was largely America’s fault, one can also acknowledge that the world was ultimately better off as a result of America’s victory in the War of the 1812.  The British gave up any hopes of reclaiming America and America was finally forced to accept that Canada didn’t necessarily want to be a part of the United States.

In fact, if anyone deserves to have a film made about her, it’s Dolley Madison.  Kate Winslet would be brilliant as Dolley Madison.  Get Sofia Coppola to direct it.  It’ll be great!

And I would suggest basing the film on a book called The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.  Well-researched, well-written, and well-paced, this book was written by Jane Hampton Cook and it works as not just a history of the War of 1812 but also as a tribute to the legacy of Dolley Madison.  If you’re into history like I am, this is definitely a book that you should be reading.  It’s so informative and engaging that you really don’t need a movie to appreciate Dolley and James.

Still, someone really should make that movie….

One response to “Book Review: The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison And The War of 1812 by Jane Hampton Cook

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 7/4/22 — 7/10/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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