Episode 30: The White House, Part I

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Originally built in the 1790s largely with slave labor, from the very beginning the White House was an eerie mirror of American society, including its original sin of slavery. But the house as it was originally constructed stood for only a few years. During the War of 1812, a British strike team sailed up the Potomac and burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House to the ground. This might have been the end of the house’s illustrious history, but it wasn’t. Reconstructed from the ashes under the supervision of two Presidents, Madison and Monroe, the executive mansion again stood proudly at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, which in the 1810s was a muddy pathway full of ruts and stumps. What was it really like to live in the White House in this era? This episode, first of two parts, will show you.

In this installment of Second Decade, historian Sean Munger will take you into the hallways and bedrooms of the President’s house, in war and peace, both before and after its destruction by the British. You’ll join James and Dolley Madison on one of their Wednesday night soirees; you’ll learn why the famous story of how Dolley saved the portrait of George Washington from the British isn’t exactly as you may have heard it; and you’ll shiver along with workmen toiling in the drafty unfinished rooms of the mansion in the winter of 1816-17, hoping to rebuild the place as a symbol of American resilience. This is a story you don’t often hear about America’s most famous address, but it lies at the heart of the history that resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Part II of this miniseries on the White House continues in a Second Decade Off Topic episode.

Additional Materials About This Episode

Paul Jennings, a slave, was Madison’s manservant in the White House. Jennings’s recollections are really the first White House memoir. Here is a link to his manuscript on Archive.org.

No depictions of the interior of the White House from the 1810s survive (at least I’m not aware of them). However, this painting was made showing a ball at Washington, D.C.’s Tomlinson’s Hotel that occurred in December 1812, celebrating a minor U.S. victory.

[Above] It gives you a sense of the costumes and appearance of Washington society at that time. Painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe.

[Above] The famous “unfinished portrait” of George Washington. It was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796.

[Above] Admiral George Cockburn, who masterminded the burning of the White House. Just so you get the message, Washington is depicted in flames at his feet. Subtle.

[Above] James Monroe. Is this what “raw-boned” looks like?

All images are believed in to be in the public domain.
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