On the morning of August 19, 1814, President James Madison received word that British forces had landed at the mouth of Patuxent River and were marching toward the White House. A few days later, he received a secret dispatch relaying the news that the British were approaching Washington. The next morning, he mounted his horse, Liberty, and rode out to join the American forces to witness the battle. When it became clear that the British were going to win the fight, and quite convincingly, Madison fled to avoid capture.
Most people know what happened next. On the evening of August 24, the British marched toward Washington, D.C. and burned the White House, the Capital, and all other government buildings (except the First U.S. Patent Building) to retaliate for the American burning of York (now Toronto) in 1812. Dolley Madison, expecting a dinner party that evening, had ordered an exquisite table set for the company. When messengers brought her news of the American defeat, she left the meal on the table and had Paul Jennings pull down the famous George Washington from the wall. She took the portrait with her as she fled to safety, earning her praise from the American public for the next two centuries.
But what happened after that? The British fire destroyed almost everything in the original White House. Rain started later that evening, which prevented the fire from spreading beyond the grounds of the house, but it didn’t save the shell of the home as originally reported. Instead, the hot temperatures combined with the water caused the stones to expand and contract quickly, producing many dangerous cracks. The White House was essentially rubble.
Many statesmen viewed the destruction of the White House as an opportunity. Washington, D.C. was not the bustling metropolis that it is today. Livestock still roamed freely, many streets were barely passable, and the small clusters of homes and businesses were separated by large swaths of forest and swamp. Reports filtered out of the capital that new arrivals sometimes got lost on their way from the White House to Congress. Many northerners were still bitter than the capital had moved from New York to Philadelphia and then from Philadelphia to D.C. They were eager to move the capital back up north. Similarly, many southerners were chomping at the bit to move it even farther south. Most preferred a more-established city that offered congressmen and other officials more diverse comforts and entertainment.
James Madison and his successor, James Monroe, were committed to keeping the capital in D.C. It was close to their homes and they had money invested in real estate in the city. If the capital moved, they would see no return on those investments. They recognized that the sentimental value and the precedent embodied in the White House was their best bet for keeping the seat of government in place. But that presented a problem. That symbolic figure was in ruins. They hired James Hoban, the original architect of the White House, to conduct an assessment of the damage and propose a plan to rebuild the building. Hoban discovered that extent of the damage, but they all agreed to keep that news secret. It didn’t help Madison and Monroe’s goals and Hoban could use the business.
In October, Congress voted to appropriate the funds to rebuild the White House. The legislation squeaked by with a slim majority and Monroe wasted no time starting construction. He and Hoban agreed that the exterior shell of the White House had to remain in place, lest Congress change its mind about the location. Over the next several years, Hoban and his crew of both free and enslaved laborers rebuilt the White House from the inside out. He kept the same floor plan, but added the North Portico to provide coverage for arriving visitors. In 1824, he added the South Portico at Monroe’s request. It was the last project he completed before he died the next year.
I’ve focused on presidential precedents in my work for a very long time—the cabinet is one big jumble of precedents and Washington set about a billion while in office. But I found the story of the rebuild of the White House to be really interesting because it challenges our notions of what precedents can be, who decides which ones are important, and when they are recognized. From a shockingly early date, presidents, and Americans more broadly appreciated the symbolic value of the White House. The history of the space, who had lived in it, and what had come before him were so important to Monroe that he saved the stones. They were really just a pile of rocks, but when put together and painted, they meant a whole lot more.