Home > History of Wine > The 200th Anniversary of the Burning of Washington and the Destruction of President James Madison’s Choice Wines

The 200th Anniversary of the Burning of Washington and the Destruction of President James Madison’s Choice Wines


This post stems from a larger research project into the history of Madeira.  Through this work I have generously received the help of Mannie Berk, Founder of the Rare Wine Co., Meg Kennedy, Director of Museum Programs at The Montpelier Foundation,  Anna Berkes, Research Librarian at The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and Dr. William Bushong, Vice President at the White House Historical Association.

The taking of the city of Washington in America. Smithfield, West. October 14, 1814. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The taking of the city of Washington in America. Smithfield, West. October 14, 1814. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

It was 200 years ago on August 24, 1814, that during the War of 1812 between the United States of America and Great Britain, British forces entered Washington, DC.  After setting fire to the Capitol they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House or President’s House as it was known then.[1]  The last guards of the President’s House fled just minutes before the British arrived.  The British entered the house without resistance to find the President’s dining room table set for a meal with a “large store of super-excellent Madeira and other costly wines” cooling on ice.[2]  It was evening and the men were surely tired and hungry.  One officer found that “never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods, than the crystal goblet of Madeira and water”.  After being satisfied by the wines the British forces set the President’s House on fire.  The house burned to a shell after several hours.[3]

President James Madison attended the fighting in nearby Maryland earlier that day.  Dolly Madison ordered that dinner was to be served at the usual time of 3pm.    Despite the fear for occupation, members of the Cabinet and military were still expected to dine that afternoon.  It was customary to serve wine with dinner.  Paul Jennings, the personal servant and slave of President James Madison, “brought up the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers”.[4]  That evening the British did not just consume the chilled wine in the dining room; by burning the President’s House they destroyed President James Madison’s treasured wines.  One account records that “about $80,000 worth of [wine]” was destroyed.[5]  This staggering amount surely exaggerates the financial loss given that Thomas Jefferson spent just over $16,500 during his two terms as President.  Still, the amount highlights the magnitude of the physical loss.

Capture of the City of Washington. de Rapin-Thoyras, Paul. August 1814. National Archives.

Capture of the City of Washington. de Rapin-Thoyras, Paul. August 1814. National Archives.

The wines for dinner would have retrieved from the wine cellar.  This cellar was created when Thomas Jefferson built the West Pavilion and incorporated the existing ice house into the structure.[6]  The ice house had two levels.  The bottom level was located underground and had stone walls to help keep the ice cool.  The wine cellar is believed to have been the top level which was separated from the ice by a wooden floor.  Here the wine would have been kept cool by the ice below.  Between consumption and the burning of the wine cellar[7] only one demijohn of “pure wine” is known to have survived that night.[8]  News of the loss reached James Leander Cathcart, an American consul in Madeira who shipped wine to James Madison.  Upon returning to Washington, DC, James Leander Cathcart brought a fresh supply of wine “upon a supposition that your stock was burn’t by the Goths”.

We do not know which specific wines the British drank.  James Madison did not keep any sort of cellar book so there is no record of the bottles Paul Jennings brought up.  Fortunately, there is a healthy set of correspondence detailing wine orders, shipping inventories, and bills of lading.  These documents detail James Madison’s taste for wine largely beginning in 1800, the year before he became Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson.  This correspondence has largely been ignored when it comes to the history of wine.  In fact, many of the documents are only presented online in abstracted form.  It is fortunate then that the digital images of the original papers are accessible through the Library of Congress.  Some of these papers contain important information never before placed in the context of the history of wine.

A view of the Presidents house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th August 1814. Strickland, William. 1814. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A view of the Presidents house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th August 1814. Strickland, William. 1814. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

James Madison surely discussed wine with Thomas Jefferson for not only did they work and socialize together, they also lived near each other.  It is their combined wine orders that highlight this connection.  One example is found in a letter from William Lee dated October 15, 1803. William Lee wrote that he had forwarded “some wine as also a quantity for the President both of which parcels I hope have arrived safe….I wish Sir you would have the goodness to mention to the President how mortified I am that his order has not been strictly complied with.”[9]  Another example occurs on December 14, 1804, when Chandler Price wrote James Madison noting that the casks of wine which were shipped were marked “PX is for the President” and “M for Yourself.”[10]

James Madison often ordered wines by himself and these orders show he had a palate distinct from Thomas Jefferson.  For example, Thomas Jefferson was particularly fond of Brazil Madeira, having ordered eight pipes of it, but James Madison preferred another Madeira over the Brazil kind.[11]  By all accounts Madeira was the favorite wine of James Madison.  Once Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy, blindly served James Madison a glass of Madeira.[12]  James Madison recognized it to be a particular vintage he too had purchased.  Though Paul Hamilton initially doubted James Madison, it turned out the identification was correct.  James Madison purchased a variety of Madeira from several merchants including Don Jao de Carvalhal.[13] Don Jao de Carvalhal was “the richest man on this Island & owns the best plantations”.  These wines must have been good because James Madison found them “unusually fine & well flavored.”[14]

James Madison. Vanderlyn, John. 1816. Google Art Project.

James Madison. Vanderlyn, John. 1816. Google Art Project.

James Madison not only had a taste for Madeira but he also had a preference for how to treat it.  He felt it should lie in cask for five to six years then bottled and stored in a warm location.[15]  When it was bottled the Madeira was best drawn clear from a stationary cask instead of adding ingredients to remove the dead yeast or lees.[16]  James Madison felt that further aging in bottle was important in “compleating its flavor.”[17]  Madeira connoisseurs commonly aged their precious bottled vintages in garrets to keep them warm.  James Madison made use of the pediment of the portico at Montpelier, his Virginia home.[18]  Perhaps he even did the same at the President’s House.

Madeira was not the only wine James Madison served at Montpelier and the President’s House.  He purchased casks and bottles of Burgundy, Champagne, Claret, Hock, Port, and even Spanish “Granache White Wine”.  He even tried to order a cask of Algerian wine but the shipping difficulties during the War of 1812 prevented its arrival.  A few of his Bordeaux wines include top growths and very old vintages.  These examples include 1798 Chateau Haut-Brion red,  “Haut Brion petit Sauterne”[19], “Old Chateaux Margaux” that had been in bottle for five years, and Chateau “Langon” that had been in bottle 25 or 30 years.[20]

The order of “Haut Brion petit Sauterne” is of particular importance.  The invoice for this wine is dated June 20, 1804, which falls during the period when Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord owned Chateau Haut-Brion.  Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a French diplomat who served under Napoléon Bonaparte, had a taste for sweet and soft wines.  While it was known that he produced a Haut-Brion white wine, it was unknown if it was a dry or sweet wine.  I forwarded the documentation to Alain Puginier, Historian at Domaine Clarance Dillon which owns Chateau Haut-Brion.  Alain Puginier now considers it as fact that the white wine was sweet.[21]  It is amazing to think that this detail was hidden in James Madison’s papers for 210 years!

Joel Barlow to James Madison, June 12, 1811. Account. Library of Congress.

Joel Barlow to James Madison, June 12, 1811. Account. Library of Congress.

Other interesting details may be found in James Madison’s correspondence.  Wine bottles were not labeled at the time so they were identified by other means.  When James Yard bottled pipes of Madeira belonging to James Monroe and James Madison, he identified the former bottles by tying a string around the neck.[22]  Several years later Stephen Cathalan Junior identified the 1802 “white Hermitage wine, Cortillon” by their yellow wax seals.[23]  The previously described bottles of “Old Chateau Margaux” were “marked with a wafer on the bottom of the bottle.”  This mysterious  mark could imply a small glass disc or wax disc was attached to the bottom.[24]  In the same invoice, the 73 bottles of Clos de Vougeot were “marked on the cork”.  This is of particular importance because it might be the earliest mention of marked corks in America.

We must turn to these invoices and bills of lading to guess which Madeira the British drank in President James Madison’s dining room.  President James Madison placed several orders for Madeira in the years leading up to the Burning of Washington.  These include the commonly available London Particular and London Market Madeira.  In taking the descriptions of “super excellent” and “nectar of the gods” as a guide than one particular order stands out.  This order was placed with James Leander Cathcart during 1809.  It includes such Madeira as the “very scarce” Sercial, “scarce” “Terita or Madeira Burgundy”, and Malmsey.  Further evidence to the rarity of these wines exists because they were shipped in quarter-casks instead of the larger hogsheads.

It is appropriate then that we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Burning of Washington with a glass of the finest and rarest Madeira. For the toast I suggest you repeat one given at the July 1779 celebration in Philadelphia of our independence from Great Britain, “The memories of those heroes who have nobly died in defending the rights to their country.” [25]


[1] Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Naval Institute Press. 1998.
[2] Scott, Captain James. Recollections of a Naval Life, Volume 3.  1834. URL: https://archive.org/details/recollectionsan01scotgoog
[3] Seale. William.  The President’s House, Volume 1. White House Historical Association. 2008.
[4] Jennings, Paul.  A Colored Mans Reminiscences of James Madison. 1865. URL: https://archive.org/details/coloredmansremin00jenn
[5] Ann Maury, Diary entry, June 16, 1831, Diary of Ann Maury [manuscript] 1827-1832 , MS 949, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, MRD-S 122.
[6] Philips-Schrock, Patrick.  The White House: An Illustrated Architectural History. 2013.
[7] Gaillard Hunt (editor) and Margaret Bayard Smith, Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 110, MRD-S 121.
[8] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Minerva Denison Rodgers, [September – December 1814], Rodgers Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. MRD-S 34874
[9] “To James Madison from William Lee, 25 October 1803,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-05-02-0582, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 5, 16 May–31 October 1803, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Ellen J. Barber, Anne Mandeville Colony, and Bradley J. Daigle. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 575–577.
[10] “To James Madison from Chandler Price, 14 December 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-08-02-0399, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 8, 1 September 1804 – 31 January 1805 and supplement 1776 – 23 June 1804, ed. Mary A. Hackett, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Wendy Ellen Perry. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007, p. 378.
[11] “From James Madison to Thomas Newton, Jr., 5 [August] 1803,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-05-02-0296, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 5, 16 May–31 October 1803, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Ellen J. Barber, Anne Mandeville Colony, and Bradley J. Daigle. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 280–281.
[12] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. MRD-S 23538
[13] “To James Madison from James Leander Cathcart, 13 August 1810 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-02-02-0594, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 October 1809–2 November 1810, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, p. 483.
[14] “From James Madison to James Leander Cathcart, 28 May 1811 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-03-02-0371, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 3, 3 November 1810–4 November 1811, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 320.
[15] “From James Madison to Isaac Hite, 15 December 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-08-02-0403, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 8, 1 September 1804 – 31 January 1805 and supplement 1776 – 23 June 1804, ed. Mary A. Hackett, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Wendy Ellen Perry. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007, p. 381.
[16] “From James Madison to Francis Corbin, 28 May 1817,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-01-02-0051, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1817 – 31 January 1820, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009, pp. 52–53.
[17] “From James Madison to Francis Corbin, 28 May 1817,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-01-02-0051, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1817 – 31 January 1820, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009, pp. 52–53.
[18] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. MRD-S 23538
[19] “To James Madison from William Lee, 20 June 1804 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-07-02-0356, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 7, 2 April–31 August 1804, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Ellen J. Barber, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, and Jeanne Kerr Cross. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005, pp. 344–345.
[20] “Account with Joel Barlow, 12 June 1811 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-03-02-0395, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 3, 3 November 1810–4 November 1811, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 340.
[21] Per email correspondence March 31, 2014.
[22] “To James Madison from James Yard, 28 October 1800,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-17-02-0277, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 17, 31 March 1797–3 March 1801 and supplement 22 January 1778–9 August 1795, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne K. Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991, pp. 429–430.
[23] “To James Madison from Stephen Cathalan, Jr., 5 November 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-1043, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[24] Thanks to Elizabeth Gabay MW for pointing out the connection between wafer and a red wax seal.
[25] Philadelphia, July 9. Date: Friday, July 9, 1779 Paper: Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia, PA) Volume: V Issue: 613 Page: 178. Genealogy Bank.

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