The President this week made an inflammatory statement to Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau in a phone conversation regarding trade between the two nations, citing a retaliatory reason as “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” The reference is from 1814 when the British stormed (foreshadowing, as we shall see) Washington in revenge for America attacking and burning govermental buildings in York, Ontario, Canada earlier in the War of 1812.
The burning of the White House has popular legend to it, as Dolly Madison famously grabbed the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington and threw it in the back of a wagon as they sped out of town as the British came upon the White House grounds. The Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating long-form essay on the days surrounding this from the First Lady’s point of view.
When the British entered the Executive Mansion (as it was called in its day), they found the table set for a dinner party. What happened next reads right from President Trump’s narrative for impudent, boorish behavior, with the actions by the British right out of Reality TV stuff. Consider the memory of a British officer who was part of the partaking:
“When the detachment, sent out to destroy Mr. Madison’s house, entered his dining parlor, they found a dinner-table spread, and covers laid for forty guests… They sat down to it, therefore, not indeed in the more orderly manner, but with countenances which would not have disgraced a party of aldermen at a civic feast; and having satisfied their appetites with fewer complaints than would have probably escaped their rival gourmands, and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.” – George Robert Gleig, 1814
What burned that day were more than the White House, as first the Capitol had been torched, and after the White House the Treasury Building, The War Department and the Navy Yard were all set afire.
But of these fires, the decision to torch the symbols of democratic America was determined… by a vote of His Majesty’s loyal subjects (although officers). British General Cockburn (yes, let that name sink in), led the vote in Congress as it were, “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All for it will say ‘Aye.’”
The terror of the citizenry that day was exacerbated by an Executive Decision made by President Madison in his capacity as Commander in Chief. After leading his troops out of DC (one has a hard time imagining a modern president actually commanding troops), he ordered the destruction of the one bridge crossing the Potomac. The people of DC were trapped in town with the incendiary British.
But what happened the next day after that tragic August day could be seen as fate or a Shakespearean tragedy… maybe both. White most of these iconic buildings are framed in stone, their utter destruction by the fires would have been certain had mother nature not intervened. A tremendous storm literally shook before a day could pass, the deluge dousing the remnants of the flames the British set. But this was no ordinary summer storm, as a today viewing the record of the witnesses it is believe it was a tornado that tore through town, doing far greater damage to homes that were spared the torch.
“Of the prodigious force of the wind it is impossible for you to form any conception… The darkness was as great as if the sun had long set and the last remains of twilight had come on, occasionally relieved by flashes of vivid lightning streaming through it; which, together with the noise of the wind and the thunder, the crash of falling buildings, and the tearing of roofs as they were stript from the walls, produced the most appalling effect I ever have, and probably ever shall, witness. This lasted for nearly two hours without intermission, during which time many of the houses spared by us were blown down and thirty of our men, besides several of the inhabitants, buried beneath their ruins. Our column was as completely dispersed as if it had received a total defeat, some of the men flying for shelter behind walls and buildings and others falling flat upon the ground to prevent themselves from being carried away by the tempest.” – George Robert Gleig, 1814
But it’s what happens next that has a very different ending than where America is today in 2018. The British withdraw from Washington, in the face of thousands of American reinforcements angling for a counter-attack on the city. They move on instead to Baltimore, and famously fail to take Ft. McHenry and ultimately abandon attempts to capture that city. An Anthem is born from it. The war will end without a real victor, with one more legendary battle happening at New Orleans after the fact (news of the peace treaty traveled too slow), where Andrew Jackson will reap glory with a rag-tag bunch of soldiers in combat that, according to his official report, saw 2,100 British fall within a span of a half hour and only 13 Americans fell. Jackson will ride this into the Presidency in 1828, after failing to win the Electoral College in 1824 despite winning the popular vote.
While the War of 1812 ended with no clear cut international victor, the real winner may have been the American people, who rallied together in outrage that the British had burned the nation’s capital. The new sense of patriotism created a brief era of unity,
“…[t]he war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and characters which the Revolution had given. The people . . . are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.” – Albert Gallatin, former Secretary of the Treasury and Ghent Treaty participant
President Trump finished the week ruffling the feathers of the Canadians and other allies at the G7 summit in Canada, and it appears that no American unity is anywhere on the horizon. The storm of American politics rages on.