The best books in their own words from the War of 1812

Jane Hampton Cook Author Of The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812
By Jane Hampton Cook

Who am I?

As a writer of ten mostly historical nonfiction books, I tried to rely on the original writings of the people that I wrote about rather than third-hand accounts. What I love about reading people's own words is that letters allow you to see a person's humanity and their emotional reactions to their circumstances. I also love the cinematic qualities of the story of the burning of the White House. Both Dolley and James Madison went through an authentic, organic character change in the aftermath, much like characters in a movie. I also loved the revival of patriotism that took place in the aftermath, which is similar to the aftermath of  9/11.


I wrote...

The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812

By Jane Hampton Cook,

Book cover of The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812

What is my book about?

It's unimaginable today, even for a generation that saw the Twin Towers fall and the Pentagon attacked. It's unimaginable because in 1814 enemies didn't fly overhead, they marched through the streets; and for 26 hours in August, the British enemy marched through Washington, D.C., and set fire to government buildings, including the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

Relying on first-hand accounts, historian Jane Hampton Cook weaves together several different narratives to create a vivid, multidimensional account of the burning of Washington, including the escalation that led to it and the immediate aftermath. From James and Dolley Madison to the British admiral who ordered the White House set aflame, historical figures are brought to life through their experience of this unprecedented attack. The Burning of the White House is the story of a city invaded, a presidential family displaced, a nation humbled, and an American spirit that somehow remained unbroken.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison

By Dolley Madison,

Book cover of The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison

Why this book?

Because Dolley Madison didn't keep a diary, her letters are the best examples that we have of her personality. This social butterfly shows us how she slyly tried to set up a young woman to be romantically involved with her son. 

Yet for all of her Southern charm and pretension, Dolley had a steely side. After her first husband died, she wrote to her brother-in-law demanding the inheritance owed to her. After all, women couldn't easily get a job to support themselves. Her letters also show her pride in her parents for emancipating their slaves. Her most famous letter about saving George Washington's painting before the British military burned the White House reveals the chaos of this historic moment and the character of this woman who became known as the first, first lady.


James Madison

By James Madison,

Book cover of James Madison: Writings (Loa #109)

Why this book?

Though this collection spans Madison's career, his letters during the War of 1812 show a cinematic transformation in his leadership style and views on his power as president. 

Because of his pivotal role in securing the U.S. Constitution, President Madison often deferred to Congress as a co-equal branch of government. He was overly trusting with his cabinet members. But the burning of the White House and the U.S. Capitol lit a fire of urgency in him and changed him, like the hero of a movie. After the burning of the White House on August 24, 1814, Madison carefully documented his conversation with his war secretary, General John Armstrong. Madison skillfully confronted Armstrong for disobeying his orders and failing to defend Washington. It's a throw-down in the most gentlemanly way.


A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison

By Paul Jennings,

Book cover of A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison

Why this book?

Paul Jennings' memoirs are a vital voice to understanding this historical epoch. On August 24, 1814, he was present when Dolley Madison ordered the painting of George Washington to be taken off the wall before evacuating the White House. Jennings was also the last person out of the White House before the British military arrived. Were it not for Jennings, we would not know that an innkeeper cursed Dolley Madison and kicked her out of her hotel because she was angry that her husband had been fighting prior to the burning of the White House. His reminiscences of life as a slave and a free person show his character, honor, and determination.


The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King; Comprising His Letters, Private and Official, His Public Documents, and His Speeches Volume 5

By Rufus King,

Book cover of The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King; Comprising His Letters, Private and Official, His Public Documents, and His Speeches Volume 5

Why this book?

Senator Rufus King played the role of disrupter on Capitol Hill during James Madison's presidency. Once united in the public relations campaign to convince the states to ratify the U.S. Constitution, King and Madison became rivals when King ran as the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket against President Madison in the 1808 presidential campaign. That rivalry took a conspiratorial turn in 1813 and 1814. Thanks to King's letters, we now know that General Armstrong was speaking covertly to Senator King against President Madison while serving in Madison's cabinet. Both New Yorkers with their eye on the presidency, their mutual ambition was to ensure that no Virginian, especially Secretary of State James Monroe, won the presidency in 1816. Their failure shows why most Americans do not know the name of Rufus King.


Historical Sketch of the Second war Between the United States of America and Great Britain

By Charles Jared Ingersoll,

Book cover of Historical Sketch of the Second war Between the United States of America and Great Britain

Why this book?

A congressman during the War of 1812, Charles Ingersoll took on the role of journalist and historian in the years that followed. He interviewed key players during the lead-up and aftermath of the burning of the White House. Though his sketch is dense, he provides some of the most important details not covered in other accounts from the era. Ingersoll also provides some of the most inspirational, cinematic quotes coming out of the burning of the U.S. Capitol. 

"The smoldering fires of the Capitol were spices of the phoenix bed, from which a rose offspring more vigorous, beautiful and long-lived," Ingersoll wrote. "The immediate and enthusiastic effect of the fall of Washington was electric revival of national spirit and universal energy."