Lesson Plan

Saving History:  The White House, Dolley Madison and the War of 1812

Dolley Madison and the Portrait of George Washington
Dolley Madison directs the saving of the portrait of George Washington as the British troops near Washington DC in August of 1814.

NPS/Gerry Embleton

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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade-Eleventh Grade
African American History and Culture, Art, Education, Historic Preservation, Military and Wartime History, U.S. First Ladies, War of 1812, Women's History
1-2 Class periods
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)
National/State Standards:
For a list of National Standards please see complete lesson plan.
war of 1812, Star Fort, Star-Spangled Banner, Star-Spangled Banner Flag, first lady, Chesapeake Campaign, Chesapeake Bay, James Madision, Dolley Madison, Burning of the White House, George Washington portrait, Primary Source


The events leading up to the burning of the White House during the War of 1812 have been well chronicled. Among the most celebrated events of the war was the saving of George Washington’s portrait by Dolley Madison before the White House was torched. Thanks to a letter written by Mrs. Madison prior to her escape this event is recounted.  Recently, however, an expert concluded that perhaps the write the letter was written later - perhaps 20 years later. From the White House Historical Associati


After reading letters written by First Lady Dolley Madison and completing the activities, students will be able to:
1. Describe the activity and action at the White House on August 23 and 24, 1814.
2. Characterize the tone that Mrs. Madison used in describing the events. 
3. Describe the importance of saving the George Washington portrait as a national icon. 
4. Reflect on the value of records left by public figures who participate in major events.
5. Discuss the importance of letters as historical documents and discuss ways that they be altered over time. 
6. Discuss the destruction of the White House as a symbolic gesture by the British. 
7. List the pros and cons of the contemplated removal of the seat of government from Washington following the destruction of the Capitol, White House, and Treasury building. 
8. Describe the role of first lady and characterize the evolution of that "job." 


For further information on Dolley Madision in the White House and much more visit the White House Historical Association.



Should the Federal Government Stay in Washington?
Student can participate in a debate about the location of the Federal Government historically and today.
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. What should President Madison decide?

Additional Resources

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 History, Journal Article IV: "The Burning of Washington," Anthony Pitch.
Virginia Center for Digital History, The Dolley Madison Project 

Last updated: June 5, 2018