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Runty James Madison Lost Battle, Fled Washington: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "James Madison" by Richard Brookhiser. Source: Basic Books via Bloomberg

Nov. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. had been at war with Britain for two years when on Aug. 17, 1814 the enemy landed 4,500 seasoned troops in Maryland. Hearing that Washington was about to be attacked, President James Madison rode to battle.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

The 63-year-old Madison was just over 5 feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. He’d always been sickly and studious, more of a thinker than a warrior.

Now, Madison leapt into action, borrowing a set of pistols and a horse, and with his attorney general, Richard Rush, riding to Maryland. He reviewed the troops, sending his wife, Dolley, a note about their good spirits, before returning to the White House.

That was the high point. After soundly defeating the U.S. troops at a battle that came to be lampooned as the “Bladensburg Races,” British forces marched into Washington on Aug. 24, torching the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings.

By that time Madison had fled to Virginia, with Dolley and a few servants packing up valuables, including a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

I spoke with Richard Brookhiser, author of “James Madison,” on the following topics:

1. Religious Freedom

2. Constitution

3. Federalist Papers

4. Freedom of the Press

5. U.S. Politics

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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