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Descendants of James and Dolley Madison's slave to get special view of White House where he lived, worked and rescued George Washington's portrait from British troops

 In William Woodward's mural, Paul Jennings brings a ladder as first lady Dolley Madison directs the rescue of George Washington's portrait at the White House on Aug. 24, 1814.
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Date published: 8/23/2009


A rider galloped up to the White House with a message for the first lady from her husband, President James Madison.

"Clear out, clear out!" he advised. British troops were on Washington's doorstep, breaking through the city's defenses at Bladensburg, Md., in the War of 1812.

Dolley Madison, who had been overseeing removal of Cabinet documents while also hopefully preparing dinner for guests, gave the order: Break the frame around George Washington's full-length portrait and remove the canvas, lest the enemy make a prize of it.

Paul Jennings, one of the Madisons' slaves, was among the staff who accomplished that task and spirited the Gilbert Stuart painting to safety in a Virginia farmhouse.

Tomorrow, his descendants will return to the president's house for a private tour and a rendezvous with history.

Curator William G. Allman will lead Jennings' kin into the East Room and show them the portrait, considered the White House's most valuable historical object. It's the only item on display that was present when the residence--built with slave labor--opened in 1800.

Margaret Hayes Jordan, Jennings' great-great-great-granddaughter, looks forward to the visit.

"It's a very profound feeling to know that your great-great-great-grandfather was a slave in the White House and that we now have an African-American president and first family living in that same home," she said yesterday.

The Obamas will be settling in on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., this afternoon for their vacation. Tomorrow will be the 195th anniversary, to the day, of the moment in 1814 when Mrs. Madison, Jennings and a few others saved Stuart's imposing portrait of the Father of Our Country from disgrace. That night, British troops feasted on the Madisons' dinner before torching the White House. They reportedly looted a portrait of Dolley, showing it off back in London and bragging about their exploits.

One reason that historians know a good bit about the events of that day--a favorite story of White House guides and visitors--is that Jennings left the first insider's account of life at the White House.


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