Usually, there’s not much chance of official Washington missing an opportunity for speeches, ceremonies or, best of all, an extra work holiday. But one anniversary passed without a lot of celebration, for good reason: 200 years ago, the British burned Washington.
If that event is remembered by most Americans, it is because of the story of Dolley Madison, the first lady who insisted that the famous portrait of George Washington be saved before fleeing the advancing redcoats.
And for many years it has been thought the burning of the capital’s official buildings was retaliation for American forces doing the same thing in York — now Toronto — in British Canada.
New research by historians suggests that the British commander, Robert Ross, was not motivated by such animus. Instead, the highly regarded general from Wellington’s army in Spain was affronted by attacks on his troops as they marched into town; not only federal officials but the city’s mayor had fled, so there was no one to surrender the city and help to restore order, as would have happened in a European war. Ross himself was later killed in the campaign.
It was not the first time, and would not be the last, that Americans failed to live up to English standards of propriety, in peace and war.
The White House is thought to have been painted white to cover the scorches from the British expedition.
Whatever the truth, the fact that the capital was burned was not a highlight of the war from the American side. The defense of Baltimore, and the inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner” during it, helped to restore American spirits.
And, of course, it was the Battle of New Orleans that Americans really cheered. That 200th anniversary is obviously higher on the radar screen here in Louisiana. No matter that it was won after the war was over, because it took so long for word of a peace treaty to get across the ocean.
A new hero, Andrew Jackson, was launched on his path toward the presidency, and Americans at the time saw the battle as a vindication of the country’s independence, having taken on Wellington’s veterans and the mighty Royal Navy.
One of the lessons of this bicentennial year is also the willingness of Americans to forgive their politicians’ failures. President James Madison left office more popular than ever in 1817, despite the distinction of the British burning of Washington during his watch.
So despite the August events of 200 years ago, we can rightly celebrate Jackson’s victory in New Orleans.