Guest Viewpoints

When the Mighty are Humbled, and the Humble Host the Mighty

August 11, 2019

An ominous wind rattled the Quaker hamlet of Brookeville, Md., on the night of August 26, 1814. Viewed through the lens of power and privilege, that fact is astounding, considering the one desperate for food and lodging was President James Madison himself, the Father of the Constitution, and his band of weary aides. But there were no vacancies.

At last, the party found solace at the home of Caleb Bentley, the burg’s postmaster, appointed by Thomas Jefferson. Bentley also served as a silversmith and clockmaker in the village 20 miles north of Washington.

This was part of the narrative that unfurled as the British army sailed up the Patuxent River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay, and pummeled the American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg. The Redcoats then torched the Capitol and the White House.

Madison, the fourth chief executive and one of the men who helped craft the Federalist Papers, found himself on the run. His aides hustled him out on horseback and into the verdant Virginia countryside. Through a line of fierce tornadoes, they eluded the enemy. At last, Madison reunited with his bride, Dolley. Their plan was to cross the Potomac into Maryland and keep riding in search of a sanctuary. But the raging waters delayed their passage on a ferry.

When the waters calmed, Madison and his party crossed into Maryland. “On the way, they encountered a whole company of American dragoons,” noted Sandra Heiler, who bought Caleb Bentley’s Federal-style mansion for $850,000.

The house on Market Street – one of only two paved roads – she said, “is extraordinarily well preserved. We have all of the original windows and all the original cabinets,” boasted Heiler, 80, a Boston native. The heart pine floor, too, is original. “The Quakers never wanted to be ostentatious. The only place where they got a little crazy was when they painted the baseboards maroon.”

Brookeville is today a congested commuter route that extends into Pennsylvania. Many drivers whiz past the historical marker, rarely pausing to pull over and reflect on the town’s significance as the nation’s capital for a day. The fact that “President Madison stayed there is a draw,” Heiler said.

Through all the tumult, thought, she acknowledged she isn’t completely certain why the distinguished Madison chose such a quiet, low-key locale in which he could ride out the aftermath of the British onslaught. “He certainly knew Brookeville and several people who lived there,” she said. “And he knew that it was on the way to both Baltimore where he was planning to go, and Washington, where he ended up going.”

Madison’s odyssey to Brookeville followed a harrowing path, Heiler said. During the journey, Madison “was fired on. It was the worst thing that could happen to a president.” The president found his way back to the White House, “but there were rumors everywhere that the British were sending agents to kill him or kidnap him and take him back to England.”

Once the four-hour horseback ride from the Maryland shore to Brookeville was complete, the good-humored, diminutive Madison announced that he had been in the saddle for thirty hours and that he hadn’t eaten. “We know they ate a lot of ham because there was a smokehouse next door. There was a lot of corn. In fact, corn pudding was very popular. “They almost certainly served spirits to the soldiers. I’m sure they needed it.”

Heiler said, once in Bentley’s House, Madison inquired about his library, whether it was lost in the White House inferno. “Your Excellency,” one of his underlings replied, “they burned your whole palace.”

While rumors have long persisted about ghostly sightings at historic spots like Brookeville, Heiler vigorously dismissed the idea. “That’s pure baloney!” she cried. “People say that all the time. I’m not a believer in ghosts. We hear owls all the time.”

Pivotal events show that freedom is delicate. It is crucial that we give honor to our Greek forbearers settling in America, who, like Madison, found a home. Indeed, St. Paul’s exhortation to “fight the good fight and finish the race,” remains forever fresh.


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