Spooked Horse or Spooked President? John Gilpin, James Madison, and “The Bladensburg Races”

This article is a part of our “Revolutionary Animals” series, which examines the roles of animals in revolution, representations of revolutionary animals, and the intersections between representation and the lived experiences of animals.

By Emily Sneff

August 24, 1814, the day the British burned Washington, D.C., is typically remembered for a heroic act: Dolley Madison rescuing the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington as she fled the White House. At the time, however, a cowardly act—American militiamen retreating from Bladensburg, Maryland—caught the attention of the press. Newspaper editor Hezekiah Niles lambasted the militiamen who “generally fled without firing a gun, and threw off every incumbrance of their speed!”[1] An anonymous ballad called “The Bladensburg Races” satirizes this blunder, casting President James Madison as the retreater-in-chief whose horse, Griffin, carries him well past Bladensburg.[1] But the content, characterizations, and many of the stanzas in “The Bladensburg Races” originated in 1782, when The Public Advertiser in London printed a ballad by William Cowper, “The entertaining and facetious History of John Gilpin, shewing how he went farther than he intended, and came home safe at last.”[3] Gilpin’s follies—and his stubborn and easily-spooked horse—became Madison’s liabilities as Commander-in-Chief.

In Cowper’s ballad, John Gilpin’s unnamed wife urges her husband to take a break from his business in Cheapside, London to celebrate their anniversary in Edmonton. Gilpin borrows a horse from his friend “the Callender,” but the horse speeds off at such a pace that Gilpin’s wig and hat fly off, and the two zoom past Edmonton because the horse is used to traveling to its owner’s house in Ware. When the horse finally stops, the Callender assumes that Gilpin, disheveled and bare-headed, has raced to deliver some urgent news, but Gilpin retorts, “I came because your horse would come, / And if I well forbode, / My hat and wig will soon be here, / They are upon the road.” The Callender replaces Gilpin’s wig and hat with his own, which are too big for Gilpin’s head and immediately lost on the return trip. As before, the horse does not stop in Edmonton, and soon, Gilpin finds himself back in Cheapside where the journey began. 

Much like Gilpin’s borrowed horse, Cowper’s ballad went farther than he intended, finding popularity through cheap print and performances on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades after the American Revolution and inspiring “The Bladensburg Races,” where “John Gilpin,” linen draper from Cheapside, transforms into “Generalissimo” James Madison. Readers did not need to be familiar with “The Diverting History of John Gilpin” to understand “The Bladensburg Races,” but those who were would have found that the author adapted British farce into biting American political satire.

Both ballads begin with a nagging wife. Mrs. Gilpin has waited “These twice ten tedious Years” for a holiday, while Mrs. Madison has waited “These two last tedious weeks” for the enemy to reach the capital. Both couples plan for the wife and family to travel by coach, and the husband to follow behind on horse, but James suggests that he will ride as if to Bladensburg, and then rendezvous with Dolley further out of town. She agrees, noting that once news spreads that the President has fled, “Twill set the town on fire.” The Madisons did not actually premeditate their evacuation, but the ballad paints James Madison as a “gallant Little Man” who runs away from battle, while Secretary of State James Monroe becomes the Post Boy who Mrs. Gilpin sends after her husband.

In Cowper’s ballad, the frugal Mrs. Gilpin plans to bring bottles of wine for the anniversary dinner, but forgets to pack them. John Gilpin straps the wine to his belt, and the bottles break during the jolting ride: “Down ran the wine into the road / Most piteous to be seen, / Which made his horse’s flanks to smoke / As they had basted been.” In “The Bladensburg Races,” the wine bottles are substituted for swords, which Madison straps to his belt like Gilpin. The author’s implication is that the swords, which beat against Madison’s back as the horse gains speed, will do him as much good as Gilpin’s broken wine bottles.[4] As Madison tries to keep his grasp on the horse’s reins, “His little head full low, / His sword flew up against his hat, / And gave him such a blow, / Off went at once his chapeau-bras, / And fell into the road.” 

The peak comedic moment of Gilpin’s story—his hat and wig in mid-air as his wine-soaked horse speeds through Edmonton—was captured in contemporary engravings, and later in Randolph Caldecott’s illustrations. In fact, I came to know John Gilpin through the image, not the text. My grandmother had a broadside of the ballad hanging in her dining room, and because my great-grandmother’s maiden name was Gilpin, I grew up assuming that this befuddled man on horseback was some ancestor. But “The Bladensburg Races” evokes a different, darkly comedic image of the Commander-in-Chief with a far more meaningful hat, an essential piece of a military dress uniform, flying in the wind as he retreats from the advancing British forces.

Gilpin’s story is entertaining because, despite his character flaws, the episode is entirely the horse’s fault. Gilpin pries himself away from the routine of his business and marriage, but his borrowed horse remains committed to its own routine of carrying its rider to Ware and back. “The Bladensburg Races” twists this comedic dynamic into a commentary on Madison’s leadership during the War of 1812. The horses in both ballads are spooked—Gilpin’s by a braying donkey, and Madison’s by a British cannonade. But when James Madison reaches the place where he is supposed to meet Dolley, the author suggests that, unlike Gilpin, Madison is more than happy to keep riding past his waiting wife. A comparison of these stanzas shows how ambiguous the pronoun “he” is in “The Bladensburg Races”:

“But ah! his Horse was not a Whit 
Inclin’d to tarry there, 
For why? his Owner had a House 
Full ten Miles off at Ware. 
So like an Arrow swift he flew 
Shot by an Archer strong, 
So did he fly—which brings me to 
The Middle of my Song.” 

“But neither horse, nor James, a whit 
Inclin’d to tarry there;
For why?—the distant cannonade
Was rumbling in his rear.
So, like an arrow swift, he flew,
Shot from an archer’s bow;
So did he fly—so after him
As swift did fly Monroe

Was it the horse who flew swiftly away from the British, or did Madison drive their escape, abandoning his wife and country in the process? From the ballad’s opening conversation where James and Dolley agree that he should only feign as if he is riding into battle, to this revelation that experiencing the war first-hand was too much for Madison to take, the story of a runaway horse morphs into the story of a scaredy-cat President.

“The Bladensburg Races” concludes in the same way as “The Diverting History of John Gilpin,” substituting “long live the King” with “long live Madison the brave!” But instead of the hopeful final lines of Cowper’s ballad (“And when he next does ride abroad, / May I be there to see!”), the author adds two stanzas indicting American leadership during the war: “And when their Country’s Cause at stake / Against th’ invading foe: / But fly their posts—ere the first gun / Has echo’d o’er the wave, / Stop! Stop! POTOWMAC! stop thy course! / Nor pass MOUNT VERNON’S Grave!” While the original farce leaves readers longing to witness a ride as entertaining as Gilpin’s for themselves, this satire leaves readers longing for a time when the President was as competent and respected a military leader as George Washington. Recast as Mrs. Gilpin, Dolley Madison’s own evacuation and her decision to order Paul Jennings and other servants to save Washington’s portrait, are erased. For the author of “The Bladensburg Races,” the Battle of Bladensburg was a folly on equal footing with the Gilpins’ failed holiday.

Emily Sneff is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at William & Mary. She studies early American print and material culture, focusing on the founding era. Her dissertation explores the dissemination of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Before graduate school, she was the research manager of the Declaration Resources Project at Harvard University.

Title Image: Mural in United States Capitol Building showing the burning of the Capitol in 1814. By Allyn Cox, 1974. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

Further readings:

Nicole Eustace, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Edward Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (Louisville: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999).

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).


[1] “Capture of Washington City,” Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, MD), 27 August 1814, 443.

[2] The Bladensburg Races. Written Shortly After the Capture of Washington City, August 24, 1814 (Printed for the Purchaser, 1816). For quotes from “The Bladensburg Races,” see this edition.

[3] The Public Advertiser (London: Printed by H.S. Woodfall), 14 November 1782, 2. For quotes from “The Diverting History of John Gilpin,” see this edition. The ballad was first published anonymously.

[4] Gilpin is alerted to the forgotten wine bottles by “Betty,” perhaps a servant, but Madison is alerted by “Cuffee,” presumably a layered and racialized reference to Paul Cuffe.

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