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This Week in History
August 17-23, 2014

August 24, 1814
A Day of Infamy

by William Jones

In our second (but far from final) war with Great Britain, the War of 1812, the former colonial master of this recently constituted United States of America, we were totally unprepared. The rustic zero-growth notions of the Jefferson-Madison years had practically dismantled the defense capabilities developed during the American Revolution. So when it came to another conflict with the British, who had insisted, in their wars on the continent, with stopping U.S. ships at sea and arbitrarily impressing American seamen, claiming they were British subjects, into their navy, we were ill-prepared to respond. This British affront was, however, too great an insult to U.S. national dignity and sovereignty that even President Madison could not fail but to declare war. While there were some unusual and interesting successes in the naval battles on the Great Lakes, such as the Battle of Lake Erie, the U.S. Army in those days was no match for the British forces.

U.S. Capitol after the British burned it.

When the British landed in Maryland in August 1814, and began their march to the new nation’s capital in Washington, D.C, a city built to house the capital, there was little that could stop them. Even the heroic efforts of U.S. Navy Commodore Joshua Barney and his small band of Marines, who rallied to stop the headlong flight of the poorly led American militiamen at the Battle of Bladensberg just outside the city, could not halt the British advance.

The troops of British General Robert Ross and Admiral Alexander Cockburn moved toward the still unfinished U.S. Capitol building. By this time, President Madison and all the officials were fleeing the British troops into various parts of western Virginia and Maryland. Sailors under the command of U.S. Navy Commandant Thomas Tingey torched the munitions depot at the Washington Navy Yard lest they fall into British hands.

British troops broke into the Capitol, and went room to room, looting wherever they went. They then built several fires in the building in order to destroy it. Both wings were quickly ablaze and the temporary wooden structure connecting the wings was totally destroyed. But the buildings were solidly built, and remained standing. The blaze spread to other houses, including two houses which had been built under the direction of George Washington on North Capitol Street.

A British force then descended along Pennsylvania Avenue to the President’s House (as the White House was then called). After imbibing on the vintage wine and consuming the meal which had been prepared for the President and his party prior to their hasty departure in the face of the rapid British advance, they set it ablaze as well. The White House, also sturdily constructed from the same materials as the Capital, continued to stand although, with the appearance of a burned-out hulk. Even General Ross’ aide, William Smith, was flabbergasted at the wanton destruction, noting that the British “burnt its Capitol and other buildings with the ruthless firebrand of the Red Savages of the woods.”

While the revisionist pretext for the burning had it that this was simply in retaliation for the U.S. burning of Port Dover in York, Canada at the beginning of operations in the War of 1812, Smith indicates a more sinister motive. Cockburn, he said, wanted to burn everything, but Ross would only consent to the burning of the public buildings. But the aim was clearly political. “Neither our Admirals nor the Government at home were satisfied that we had not allowed the work of destruction to progress, as it was considered the total annihilation of Washington [sic!] and would have removed the seat of government to New York, and the Northern and Federal States were adverse to the war with England.” Splitting the northern and southern states was already a goal, which would be pushed even further when Britain gave its support to the Confederacy fifty years later.

The nation’s Capital remained intact, however, as well as those public buildings which still serve as the seat of government. That night there were torrential rains and hurricane force winds which Washington rarely experiences. This helped put out the fires. It was as if a “higher power” was intervening to save the seat of government. But if we are to save it today, that power has to come from an enraged citizenry, which remembers its true history, as well as the true history of that “special relationship” we have had with that country which has done us most harm. We must mobilize the people to drive out the Wall Street-London “money-changers” from that “temple” which this Republic was meant to become, as well as their hand-picked lackeys, such as the Queen’s own Barack Obama, and return this nation to the economic principles on which Alexander Hamilton grounded it through an immediate restoration of the 1933 Glass-Steagall legislation now introduced in both houses of Congress.