Dolley Madison Risked Her Life for a Portrait of Washington—With a Typo

An American treasure saved during the War of 1812 misspells "the United States of America."
That book under the table by George Washington's feet calls America "the United Sates." (Wikimedia Commons)

You’ve seen it: the iconic portrait of the first President, one hand clutching a sword, the other arm outstretched over an ornate table that is artfully mussed. Below this table are a few books: General Orders, American Revolution, and The Constitution and Laws of the United Sates.

You read that right: The country is identified as the United Sates, not the United States.

Wikimedia Commons

This masterpiece hangs in the East Room, the luxurious White House salon that holds social events and ceremonies, where the President hosts dignitaries from other countries and honors Americans for their contributions to society. And yet, the country’s name is misspelled.

But that misspelling isn't an accident.

Two hundred years ago, the British set fire to America's fledgling capital during the second year of the War of 1812. Dolley Madison, the first lady at the time, “refused to be rushed" in evacuating the White House, says Anthony Pitch, a tour guide with Washington, D.C. Sightseeing who spoke Tuesday at a White House Historical Association lecture.

“She insisted on staying to save the $800 portrait of Washington,” Pitch said. Some historical accounts claim the first lady ordered workers to “save that picture!”

According to legend, she thought a slave was taking too long in rescuing the portrait, so Madison allegedly broke the wood and took the canvas herself—a tough task for the petite first lady, considering the painting's nearly 60-inch width. It was then smuggled out of the burning White House by two anonymous “gentlemen from New York.”

What Madison didn’t know was that the portrait was actually a copy of the original created by artist Gilbert Stuart in 1797. The misspelling of "United Sates" was done on purpose: That's what proves it's a copy.

The original, called the "Lansdowne Portrait," was named for the Marquise of Lansdowne, who, ironically, was the former British prime minister and the first owner of the portrait. The painting of the celebrity president was wildly popular, so Stuart painted several reproductions, one of which was bought by the U.S. government. Misspelling "the United States" was Stuart's way of differentiating the copies of the portrait, which today hang in locations like the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts MuseumYou can see the original Lansdowne Portrait—replete with a properly spelled "United States" on the book binding for the spelling-anxious—at the Smithsonian Museum’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

In retrospect, it seems fitting that Dolley Madison salvaged an imperfect copy of a portrait of George Washington. Somehow, it makes the first president of the United States—a man whose name graces the capital of the country and whose legendary character and patriotism define American values—seem more human.

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Tanya Basu is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic.

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