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The British Burn Washington, D.C., 200 Years Ago

The British Burn Washington, D.C., 200 Years Ago


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When the War of 1812 first broke out, the fighting centered on the border between the United States and Canada, then a British colony. Before long, however, other fronts had opened up, including the Chesapeake Bay, where a British squadron led by Rear Admiral George Cockburn spent much of 1813 terrorizing coastal communities. After spending the winter in Bermuda with his troops, the brash-talking Cockburn returned in February 1814 with his eyes set on Washington, D.C., telling a superior that the city “might be possessed without difficulty or opposition of any kind.”

In order to further along his scheme, Cockburn built a base on Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake and distributed a proclamation inviting all slaves to join with the British. Meanwhile, in April 1814, Napoleon abdicated the French throne, freeing up boatloads of battle-hardened British troops to cross the Atlantic Ocean. About 4,000 arrived in the Chesapeake in mid-August, along with numerous frigates, schooners, sloops and other warships, whereas an even bigger force went to Canada.

By that time, President Madison had established a new military district for the D.C. area for which he wanted at least 2,000 U.S. Army regulars, plus 10,000 to 12,000 militiamen ready in reserve. Yet only a fraction of this force was ever rounded up, in part because Secretary of War John Armstrong insisted until the last possible moment that the British would not attack the capital. Not even an anonymous letter detailing Cockburn’s invasion plans spurred the administration to action, nor did a plea from Washington’s mayor, who called the city “defenseless.”

While the Americans dawdled, the British got moving, with their main fleet setting sail for the Patuxent River on August 17. At the same time, diversionary forces headed for the Potomac River, a more direct route to Washington, and for the northern Chesapeake above Baltimore. Although the British initially struggled with adversarial tides and winds in the Patuxent, they soon began making reasonable progress. A few of the bigger warships dropped out as the river became narrower and shallower, but the majority made it to Benedict, Maryland, where approximately 4,500 troops disembarked.

The following day, August 20, a makeshift scouting party led by Secretary of State James Monroe reached the outskirts of Benedict but, having forgotten a spyglass, couldn’t gauge the size of the invading force. The British then marched north on a road running parallel to the Patuxent, with a fleet of small ships keeping pace. Over the next couple of days, the British briefly exchanged fire with a few Americans, including Monroe’s party, but overall faced virtually no resistance. They also managed to corner a flotilla commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney, forcing the Americans to blow up their own gunboats rather than hand them over to the enemy.

As the British drew closer, the panicked residents of Washington began to depart in mass, and clerks began whisking important papers out of town, such as the Declaration of Independence. Finally, on August 24, after a series of disorganized maneuvers, American forces hastily dug in outside of Bladensburg, Maryland, a crossroads town six miles northeast of the Capitol. Borrowing a pair of pistols from his treasury secretary, Madison rode out to witness the battle, as did most of his cabinet. In fact, the president nearly galloped right into the British lines until a scout stopped him and directed him to safety.

With about 6,000 troops, the Americans at Bladensburg outnumbered the British, and they also had a distinct advantage in terms of cavalry and artillery. Moreover, the British had just marched 15 miles through heat so stifling that several men fell victim to sunstroke. Yet when they charged over a bridge at the Americans, militiamen started fleeing almost immediately. Additional militiamen were sent up to restore the breach, but they too were scared off, due largely to the intimidating but notoriously inaccurate Congreve rockets being fired their way. “I could never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day,” Madison purportedly said.

The lone bright spot for the Americans came courtesy of Commodore Barney. Originally assigned elsewhere, he had rushed to the scene of the battle after personally pleading with Madison to let him go. But although he and his 520 seamen briefly put a halt to the British advance with artillery fire and a downhill charge, it proved too little too late. As the American militia retreated around them, Barney took a bullet to the thigh and was captured by the British, who, impressed by his bravery, paroled him right then and there. “They have given us the only fighting we have had,” Cockburn declared of the seamen. Madison, meanwhile, sent ahead a messenger to his wife, Dolley, who consented to leave the White House only after arranging for the safety of a full-length George Washington portrait.

On the heights overlooking D.C., the commander in charge of the city’s defense considered making a second stand. But with his troops scattered in all directions, he ultimately decided to leave Washington at the mercy of the British. They arrived around sunset, prompting a U.S. captain to order the Washington Navy Yard set ablaze, including two warships, much timber and a sawmill. Around the same time, the British burned down a private residence from which some Americans had just fired at them. For the most part, though, the British left private property alone, focusing their attention instead on the city’s government buildings.

Seeking revenge for the sacking of York (present-day Toronto), the British first stopped at the still-uncompleted Capitol, where they piled up furniture in both the House and Senate wings, mixed in rocket powder and applied the torch. Within minutes, flames were shooting out through the windows and roof, damaging not only the congressional chambers, but also the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court, which were located inside. Next, about 150 men marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, then better known as the President’s House. Upon consuming food and wine that had been set out for 40 people, they stole some souvenirs, like Madison’s medicine chest, and started a new inferno that left the structure a charred mess. The adjacent Treasury building was also burned, although much to their disappointment, the British found no money inside. As they camped that night on Capitol Hill, the glow from the fires could be seen as far away as Baltimore.

More destruction occurred the following day, when the British torched what remained of the Washington Navy Yard and the Treasury building, along with the brick home of the State, War and Navy departments. They also smashed the presses of a newspaper Cockburn disliked and desecrated a monument dedicated to veterans of the First Barbary War. Lastly, they headed to an arsenal two miles south of the Capitol. But as they were destroying the gunpowder there, an accidental explosion killed at least a dozen British soldiers and injured many more. That evening, right after a violent thunderstorm, the British withdrew from the city rather than face a potential counterattack, retracing their steps to the fleet at Benedict.

A few days later, the British diversionary force on the Potomac forced the surrender of Alexandria, Virginia (then part of Washington), and seized a large quantity of provisions there. Within a couple of weeks, however, the British had squandered their momentum, losing important battles at Lake Champlain and Baltimore. Their negotiators dropped a demand for a Native American buffer state between the United States and Canada, and on December 24, 1814, the two sides signed a peace treaty in which they agreed to return all conquered land to each other. With the British no longer a threat, reconstruction then began on the Capitol and White House.

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The Time That Washington Burned

Library of Congress

The White House burned. So did the U.S. Capitol, and most of the public buildings in Washington, D.C. Invading British troops burned the city in this most humiliating episode in American history 200 years ago today. Some are tempted to call the War of 1812 “the forgotten war,” but that is absurd. Out of it came the national anthem, a daring act of bravery to save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the most lopsided defeat of the British military in all of their conflicts.

The British struck at the nation’s capital to weaken the morale of their enemy, and as payback for American excesses in York — what we now call Toronto — where they had pillaged and burned public and private buildings. Admiral George Cockburn, the driving force behind the attack on Washington, had justified the fall of a capital as “always so great a blow to the government of a country.”

No one expected that the British infantry would march 50 miles inland to storm the capital. It was too far off, and they would have to slog through woods and dense thickets and brush to achieve their goal. No one even knew their target. There was speculation that they might swing toward Baltimore, Annapolis, or even sites further south.

The man most responsible for the catastrophe was none other than the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, of whom it was said, “Nature and habits forbid him to speak well of any man.” When a frantic head of the capital’s militia went to see him, the officious and stubborn secretary of war belittled the threat to the capital.

“They would not come with such a fleet without meaning to strike somewhere. But they certainly will not come here!” he said. “What the devil will they do here? Baltimore is the place.” Later he would become the most reviled man in the country and resigned from office.

As the British wilted in the hottest month of the year, pandemonium overtook Washington, where nine-tenths of the city’s population of 8,000 escaped to the woods, some going as far as neighboring states.

At the state department, treasury official Stephen Pleasonton gently put the originals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into linen bags, and fended off a reprimand from Armstrong by saying he thought it prudent to try to protect the documents of the revolutionary government. He carried the priceless trove to Leesburg, Virginia, where he locked them in an empty house.

The president’s wife, Dolley Madison, risked death or captivity by refusing to flee the White House to join her husband in Virginia until she had seen the full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart taken down from the dining room. The painting was then escorted to safety in the countryside by her friends, Jacob Barker and Robert dePeyster.

At the House of Representatives, a colleague managed to rescue some official papers in an impounded cart with four oxen, but the remainder burned, as did all 3,000 books of the Library of Congress. A clerk saw signs of “doubt, confusion, and dismay” in Washington before he and two assistants loaded an impounded wagon with the senate’s only copy of its quarter century of executive history and other writings, then escaped, with the retrieved records ending up in Brookeville, Maryland, a Quaker village, some 25 miles north of Washington.

The British troops, after defeating a numerically superior force of mostly green militiamen at Bladensburg, six miles northeast of Washington, marched up to Capitol Hill, where they saw the Senate on the north side and the House on the South, linked by a wooden walkway. They brushed past fluted columns, raced up grand staircases, under archways into vestibules with vaulted ceilings. The architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe had created a building to rival its weathered counterparts on the old continent of Europe. It was a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the young republic. The British used furniture and wood from doors and window frames to set fires, overriding objections from junior officers not to destroy works of art.

Only 100 soldiers and sailors marched down deserted Pennsylvania Avenue to burn the executive mansion. As they entered the White House, Admiral Cockburn hauled in a young American bookseller: Roger Chew Weightman, who would later become mayor of Washington. He would be humiliated as the unwilling representative of America and Cockburn taunted him with mischievous relish, while his compatriots drank pilfered wine and looted, even as others built a bonfire in the elegant oval room. Only roofless walls remained. A charred archway under the present front door is the most visible sign of the British fires from 1814. That night the British also burned the Treasury, and the following morning the State and War Departments, and the rope walks, which sent plumes of black smoke over the capital.

The next day they burned what had not been preemptively destroyed by the Americans at the navy yard. The British also ransacked the press and offices of the National Intelligencer, a newspaper considered a government mouthpiece. A violent storm on Thursday afternoon struck the city with ferocious winds, though eyewitnesses saw flames still burning days afterward. The vandals stayed only 26 hours, needlessly concerned that they would be attacked while returning to their ships.

Just three weeks later, humiliation turned to glory. The same British forces bombarded Fort McHenry with between 1500 and 1800 shells, but no one ran from his post, even though there was no cover. The noted Georgetown lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was an eyewitness, having secured the president’s permission to board the British ships to gain the release of a captive friend, but he himself became a hostage after being promised his freedom once Baltimore was taken.

At sunset he had seen a giant Star-Spangled Banner flying over the fort as an act of defiance.

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.

Unaware of the result, Key waited until dawn, when he clearly made out the Stars & Stripes.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light.

Never before had he looked with such reverence upon the symbol of his country. On the back of a letter, he wrote down anything that raced through his mind in the intensity of the moment. When the British skulked away three days later, unable to subdue the fort, Key’s poem became the lyrics for a national anthem, set to the tune of an old English drinking song.

Finally, A Treaty of Peace and Amity, signed in Belgium on Christmas Eve, ended the two-and-a-half year costly war between two exhausted nations, but before it could reach America the armies faced each other at New Orleans. Andrew Jackson had galvanized his force of frontiersmen, ruffians, pirates, and militiamen, but the well-trained British were impatient. They charged over a flat field of sugar cane stubble without any cover and were picked off by skilled sharpshooters.

When it was over there were more than 2,000 British casualties. There were only six American dead, and seven wounded. America had thrashed the finest army in the world.

The second War of Independence was over.

Anthony S. Pitch is the author of The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814, a selection of the History Book Club, with movie rights optioned by National Geographic, and according to the White House and the Associated Press, read by President Clinton.


Everything You Know About The Burning Of Washington Could Be Wrong

Waterfront fire, probably burning of the Washington Navy Yard, 1814, Anacostia River, Washington, D.C., via Library of Congress

Exactly two hundred years ago this weekend, on the afternoon of August 24, 1814, a British army of some 4,000 redcoats routed an American army of mostly 6,000 militia at Bladensburg in an affair often laughingly referred to as “The Bladensburg Races” because of the precipitous retreat of the largely poorly trained and panicked militia. That evening, the redcoats marched into and then proceeded to burn the public buildings of Washington, D.C. British Army commander Major General Robert Ross even had the temerity of enjoying wine and a meal laid out for the hoped-for American victors at the Executive Mansion, that we now refer to as “The White House” — allegedly painted white to hide the burn marks left by the British. Those are the facts that many people know, and, to this day, the scorch marks at the White House and at the U.S. Capitol are still there for the public to see as graphic proof of what happened. A definite low point in the life of Washington and of this nation.

The usual story is that the British set out deliberately to burn Washington in retaliation for the American forces burning the government buildings of York, the capital of Upper Canada (present-day Toronto) on April 27, 1813. The American capture of York was a rare success for the hard pressed Americans in the early part of this short war that was mostly fought on the frontier between present-day Canada and the United States, the easiest way for the Americans to “get at” the British given that the U.S. Navy was small beside the giant Royal Navy. The war, mostly fought because of maritime difficulties between Britain and the young United States that was mostly an outgrowth of the British war with Napoleonic France. The Royal Navy would impress American sailors to man their big ships of the line (ships rated, say, 74 guns and up) and also made neutral countries such as the United States call into Britain to pay duty rather being able to trade directly with continental Europe, which was under the control of Napoleon.

Certainly the burning of York was a disaster for British-held Canada but it also proved a tragedy for the Americans because a promising young American general and sometime explorer, Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, after whom Pike’s Peak and the slogan “Pike’s Peak or Bust!” derive, was killed when a powder magazine exploded. At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, one of the prize possessions is a Royal Ensign captured at York that was allegedly used as a pillow for the dying General Pike.

But is that the way the burning of Washington really occurred, as Britain’s payback for what happened at York, or is it instead the story that has been handed down and that seems true but is not quite the way it happened? A close study of the events of the time as well as British and American documents by this historian suggests that the commonly held belief is not exactly true, and that to an extent it is a myth and misreading of the way the history unfolded exactly two hundred years ago.

First, there is nothing in British documents of the time to show that they deliberately set out either to capture and burn Washington, D.C., and that they did it specifically to “get their own back” for the Americans’ nasty attack and burning of York sixteen months earlier. Rather, a letter sent by British commander in chief Sir Alexander Cochrane dated a week after the capture and burning of Washington names a number of abuses by Americans on the frontier, including the burning of Newark (present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) but does not say a thing about what had been done at York. So that suggests that in attacking Washington, the American actions at York was not in the minds of the British commanders let alone their prime reason for burning the public buildings of Washington. Rather the two separate events, in 1813 and 1814, appear logically to be linked but in reality they were not.

This modest drawing by an unknown hand depicts the west front of an incomplete U. S. Capitol as it appeared between 1811 and its burning by the British in August 1814. A low temporary structure is shown connecting the north (Senate) and south (House) wings. It was known as the “furnace” because of the high temperatures in reached in the summer months. For many years the drawing was incorrectly attributed to B. Henry Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol between 1806 and 1817. (Library of Congress)

Another point to bear in mind is that the rather bombastic but bumbling Admiral Cochrane had a tendency to talk large but to be uncertain and indecisive when it came to making decisions. Earlier in the summer, as memorably noted by the late popular historian Walter Lord, he had declared in a dispatch to his superiors in London that he would not only capture Washington but “hurl Jemmy Madison from his throne.” But that was when the command in London was talking about sending to the Chesapeake a grand army of some 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers, possibly under the command of General Sir Rowland Hill, one of Wellington’s top commanders. In the end, the expeditionary force was scaled back after a number of commanders including Hill backed away from the responsibility. The force that left southern France at the end of May 1814 would eventually number 4,000 troops in four regiments, under the command of an Irish-born commander, General Ross, one of Wellington’s capable brigade commanders but certainly not one of the top elite of British officers. The fact was most of the officer corps were tired after fighting Napoleon for years and wanted time at home while the deposed French emperor was sent to his first exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy.

Cochrane’s subordinate, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, had been operating around the Chesapeake since the spring of 1813, and had gained a piratical reputation. Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn by the British) had raided and pillaged small towns, including burning two-thirds of Havre de Grace at the head of the Bay on May 3, 1813, and doing the same to the twin towns of Fredericktown and Georgetown on the upper Eastern Shore of Maryland in the next several days. Thus the precedent that British raiding parties caused mayhem and destruction was well known and larger communities round the Bay, such as Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis, Alexandria, and Norfolk, were put on notice what could happen if the British attacked.

One reason for the British raids so close to the American seat of government was to persuade Secretary of War John Armstrong to move U.S. troops from up north and thus ease the burden on the British of defending their remaining major colony in North America, Canada.

With the arrival of the highly professional 48-year-old General Ross, policies of retaliation and burning for the sake of it changed. Ross, who had only recently recovered from a bad wound to his jaw and right neck suffered in February at the Battle of Orthez in southern France, was determined to spare private property and only burn military or government buildings and even then only if the Americans did not negotiate to spare them. One of the first things that Ross’s aide, deputy quartermaster general Lt. George de Lacy Evans did, was to devise a policy to be used in dealing with the Americans. On August 18, following Ross’s orders, Evans drew up a proclamation to reassure local inhabitants about the safety of their private property if they acted with neutrality. In other words, Ross ignored Cochrane’s recommendation to “visit retaliation” on the American civilian population for U.S. actions in Canada. There was to be no wonton burning of American homes.

This was the policy that later led to the arrest of Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro for detaining some British stragglers during the retreat from Washington. General Ross felt insulted by Beanes who earlier allowed his house to be used as British headquarters and had seemed to act in a friendly manner. Beanes, along with other town elders in Upper Marlboro had agreed not to act in a hostile manner to the British. And yet in arresting those British stragglers he appeared to breach the agreement. Ross’s order of Beanes’ arrest in turn would lead to the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key, sent on a mission of mercy to help free Beanes. The freed elderly physician, Key and Col. John S. Skinner, were forced to watch the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor on September 13–14, and realize in the words of the future U.S. National Anthem, that “our flag was still there” despite the relentless 25-hour British bombardment.

Print shows fire damage to the White House after burning by the British during the war of 1812. (Library of Congress)

In landing at Benedict on the Patuxent on August 19, the initial objective of the British army was to support a squadron of small Royal Navy vessels that went chasing up the Patuxent River after Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, of some twenty row barges and gunboats, which had been causing Cockburn headaches since it had set sail from Baltimore at the end of May with the intent of attacking a British fort on Tangier Island, Virginia in the lower Bay. Although Barney failed in that mission he held Cockburn and his forces at bay in two naval battles fought in June and July in St. Leonard’s Creek on the Patuxent (near present-day Jefferson Patterson Park, Calvert County) before, with the help of militia, U.S. Army regulars, and U.S. Marines, being able to escape further up the Patuxent toward Benedict. In the end, Barney himself, on the orders of Secretary of the Navy William Jones, instructed his men to blow up the Flotilla rather than allow it to be captured by the British at a place on the Patuxent near Mount Pleasant Landing northeast of Upper Marlboro.

Ross used Dr. Beanes’s house on Academy Hill in Upper Marlboro as his headquarters on the night of August 22. The next day, he and his men marched two miles west, further toward Washington, and camped at the Melwood estate. It was here in the outbuildings at Melwood on the night of August 23 where Ross was persuaded by Cockburn and his own aide Evans that they had come this far they might as well carry on and attack the American capital. The general did not have orders to do so. In fact his instructions from Cochrane told him to stay near the shipping. The persuaders though did their work well and the general sharply aware, as he later wrote to his wife, of “the consequences of failure” decided to make the bold move against Washington. Indeed, the ever shilly-shallying Cochrane, who had given Ross no orders to do what he did, would later sneakingly take credit for what was seen as a triumph of British arms. Back in London in coming weeks, Ross was recommended for a knighthood and perhaps he could even have been created the “Earl of Washington.” In the end, the insignia of knighthood sent to him had to be returned because he was killed in the attack on Baltimore three weeks later. The Prince Regent bestowed the title of “Ross of Bladensburg” on the male heirs of the General in 1815 to honor his achievement of capturing the capital of another sovereign nation.

Print shows British soldiers marching into Washington, D.C. and burning buildings during the War of 1812. (Library of Congress)

The major reason for the burning of the public buildings of Washington had to do with what Ross regarded as a similar American breach of honor and military etiquette not unlike what happened with Dr. Beanes. The British advance party including General Ross came into the city from the direction of Maryland Avenue, NE, under a white flag and with drums sounding the message that a parlay was requested. In other words, Ross expected that the Americans would negotiate a surrender of the capital, a presumption he would have been used to in terms of warfare as it was carried out in Europe. But there was no one left in the District of Columbia to surrender the city to him. Namely, the city government under Mayor Blake had vacated the city after Blake declared he had no intention of surrendering his city to the British, and the whole of the Federal government, including President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison, had vacated the town as well by the time the British arrived.

When shots rang out near the U.S. Capitol and the mansion belonging to American diplomat Albert Gallatin—now the Sewall-Belmont House at 144 Constitution Avenue, NE—the whole situation changed. This was not to be the “civilized” surrender of an enemy capital that Ross had anticipated. General Ross’s horse was shot out from under him, the second mount of the day that he lost, and several soldiers of the British 4th Regiment of Foot were killed as well. This incident was viewed as an act of treachery by the British. The untoward incident led to a search for whomever had fired the shots, presumed to have come from the Gallatin house or nearby, and the burning of that mansion. It is not known who fired the shots. An Irish barber named Dixon has been mentioned as a possibility or perhaps it was some of Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotillamen who had acted so courageously in battles with the British on the Patuxent and at Bladensburg. There was also a suspicion that shots might have been fired from the U.S. Capitol, and this is what led to the burning of that public building. The President’s mansion, the War and State Departments and other public buildings would be b urned later that night and in the morning. A late summer storm helped douse some of the flames which probably aided the later rebuilding of the White House and Capitol as well as the Gallatin mansion. General Ross was careful about not burning or destroying private property and except for some private buildings that caught fire from sparks from buildings already on fire, this policy was followed carefully by Ross’s soldiers. The major exception was the physical wrecking (although not burning by fire) of the Pennsylvania Avenue printing offices of the rampantly anti-British newspaper The National Intelligencer by Cockburn. A private building, for sure, although it could be argued that as a propaganda machine for the Madison administration the newspaper was hardly neutral in the matter of the war and from the British perspective perhaps deserved to be wrecked. The Rear Admiral took special relish in instructing his men to make sure to destroy the C’s among the lead type “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.”

Yet another reason to think the burning of Washington was not inevitable is that three days after the British army vacated Washington on the night of August 25 later a British naval squadron coming up the Potomac under Captain James Alexander Gordon forced the capitulation of Alexandria after Fort Washington (also known as Fort Warburton) was blown up by the frightened commander, U.S. Army Capt. Samuel T. Dyson, an act for which he was later court martialed. The squadron on August 28 under Gordon, originally meant to support the British Army, successfully negotiated the surrender of Alexandria after the city’s mayor and a delegation rowed out to meet the British squadron, and nary a building in the city was burned, damaged, or interfered with. Mind you, the British exacted a stiff tribute, including taking some prize vessels and hauling away tobacco, flour, and other goods, but the point was the city was spared. This historian would suggest that the same could have happened with Washington, if the Americans had acted in the courtly and accepted manner of military etiquette that had been anticipated by the victorious British two hundred years ago.

Christopher T. George is the author of Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay published by White Mane in 2001 and a 20-year student of America’s forgotten conflict. Chris has written a biography of British Major General Robert Ross in cooperation with Dr. John McCavitt of Rostrevor, Northern Ireland. It is anticipated that the book will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press in their “Campaigns and Commanders” series next year.


Footnotes & Resources

1. Booth to Thomas Tingey, September 10, 1814, RG45/350, National Archives.

3. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (Annapolis, Md,: Naval Institute Press, 1998).

4. Annals of Congress, 13 th Cong., 3 rd sess., 313.

5. Matthew Carey, The Olive Branch: Or, Faults on Both Sides, Federal and Democratic, 10 th ed., 1818 (repr., Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), Abstract, Returns to State Department.

6. Augustus John Foster to Mother, February 1, 1806, in Marilyn Kay Parr, “Augustus John Foster and the ‘Washington Wilderness’ Personal Letters of a British Diplomat,” Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1987, 183.

7. Annals of Congress, 12 th Cong., 1 st sess., 487.

8. Richard Rush to John Adams, September 5, 1814, Richard Rush Papers, Library of Congress.

9. Foster to Mother, June 2, 1805, in Parr, “Augustus John Foster,” 114.

10. Foster to Mother, December 30, 1804, ibid., 97.

11. Cochrane to Earl Bathurst, July 14, 1814, War Office 1: Secretary of War, Library of Congress.

12. John Van Ness statement, November 23, 1814, American State Papers, Mil. 16, 1: 581.

14. Lewis Machen to William Rives, September 12, 1836, Rives Papers, Library of Congress.

15. Capt. James Scott, Recollections of a Naval Life (London: Bentley, 1834), 3: 300.

16. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, letter to editor, National Intelligencer, November 30, 1807.

17. Charles J. Ingersoll, Historical Sketch of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849), 2: 146.

18. Martha Peter to Timothy Pickering, August 28, 1814, Pickering Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

19. Louisa to Eliza, August 31, 1814, Rodgers Family Papers (Naval Historical Foundation Collection).

20. Oral statement, Jacob Barker to Lossing, April 1861, in Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Fieldbook of the War of 1812 (1868 repr., Somersworth, N.H.: New Hampshire Publishing, 1976), 935 Robert DePeyster to Dolley Madison, February 3, 1848, Dolley Madison Papers, Library of Congress John H. McCormick, “The First Master of Ceremonies of the White House,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 7 (1904): 182, 183.

21. Oral statement, Barker to Lossing, in Lossing, Pictorial Fieldbook, 936. Few people are aware of the artist’s spelling mistake in the celebrated portrait. A close-up shows, under the table next to George Washington’s right leg, the titles of books shelved spine out. One of the books is titled Laws and Constitution of the United Sates.

22. Archibald Kains to Franklin Roosevelt, April 20, 1939, FDR Papers, PPF 5888, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y. How the chest came into the hands of Thomas Kains, paymaster of the bob vessel Devastation, is a mystery because the ship did not sail up the Patuxent River. It was one of a squadron of ships that came up the Potomac River and laid siege to Alexandria a few days after the British land army withdrew from Washington, back to their ships on the Patuxent.

23. William Gardner, letter to editor, Federal Republican, September 16, 1814.


The Burning of Washington, D.C.

A view of the Presidents house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th August 1814 / G. Munger del. W. Strickland sculp. Library of Congress Tecumseh saving prisoners Library of Congress

The burning of Washington, D.C., in 1814 was one of America’s darkest hours. The new republic that had been created by the Founding Fathers less than a half-century earlier was in peril. Culminating in a flurry of disastrous British-American interactions that resulted in war - the War of 1812 acted as a pseudo-Revolutionary War that further solidified the United States’ legitimacy as a new nation independent from the British Empire. Since the Revolutionary War, America and Britain were not on good terms. The British navy continually captured American sailors on the high seas, as well as assisted Native American tribes against American expansionist efforts. The most famous of these campaigns is Tecumseh’s War , in which Tecumseh, a Native American chief, led a war against American forces expanding into the region of the modern-day state of Indiana. The American forces, led by William Henry Harrison, won, however, congressmen back in Washington, D.C. blamed Britain for providing aid to Tecumseh and his multi-tribe confederacy. By 1812, Britain was slowly phasing out America from trade in favor of their colonies in Canada and the Caribbean. Americans feared losing Great Britain as a trade partner, as Britain was one of the two major world powers at the time.

The War of 1812 began when war-hawks (government officials who wanted to go to war) pushed for a war bill on June 12 th , 1812 in response to Britain’s actions against American interests. In 1812, with the assistance of Napoleon Bonaparte, the United States implemented a trade embargo against Britain in favor of French trade, in return the French would stop attacking American vessels.

The two years leading up to the burning of Washington DC were spent primarily in Canada with a stalemate between British and American forces. The British military in the War of 1812 was not the entirety of the British Army & Navy, rather it was a detachment from the main army that was currently fighting the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. America’s military, however, was not strong due to Congress’ unwillingness to dedicate much needed trained soldiers to fight in the war. Nor could politicians agree on the size of the American Army & Navy. The United States relied primarily on the use of citizen-led militia groups, who were not nearly as effective compared to trained regular soldiers. Both British and American forces were unable to make a dent in either’s armies. Neither side could hold and occupy territories for an extended period of time. It was not until the British began their campaign in the Chesapeake Bay when the British began implementing new strategies to try and win the war.

A later 19th century engraving of the capture of Washington by General Ross and Admiral Cockburn Library of Congress

In August of 1814, the British began raiding the eastern shores of the United States in an attempt to dampen morale and the will to fight in the states. In 1814, Britain and a coalition of nations had recently defeated Napoleon and his army, so Britain’s resources could be directed almost entirely towards the war in America. Britain wanted to invade the southern regions of the United States to move American forces away from Canadian territory. The British chose to assault two cities: Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. They chose Washington due to its lack of defenses and easy access from the Chesapeake Bay, and Baltimore due to its importance in ship manufacturing and trade in the Baltimore Harbor. On August 24 th , 1814, the Battle of Bladensburg took place outside of Washington, resulting in an embarrassing American defeat. The defeat at Bladensburg allowed for the British soldiers led by Major General Robert Ross to enter the nation’s capital.

Later that August 24 th evening, British soldiers moved on Washington holding bitter resentment for the American burning of the Canadian capital of York (present-day Toronto) in 1813. When entering Washington, the British and Canadian soldiers had unfettered access to the capital and began burning the city. Government officials were forced to flee the city. President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison both fled the White House. Before leaving, Dolley Madison had a portrait of President George Washington, and many other irreplaceable artifacts from the founding of the nation secured. Dolley had the artifacts taken for safe keeping from the flames. Washington’s naval yard was ordered to be set ablaze to prevent warships from being taken into British hands. British Admiral George Cockburn ordered his men to burn the White House, Capitol Building, the Library of Congress (located in the Capitol Building at the time), the Treasury, and other government buildings. However, Cockburn instructed his men to not destroy private residences, and they even spared the Patent Office due to the head administrator convincing the British that inside the building contained private property. The administrator argued that if the inventions within the Patent Office were burned that it would be a loss to humanity.

The following day on August 25 th , a storm rolled into Washington and put out the fires. Unfortunately, during the storm, a tornado erupted and tore through the city. While the British had spared the private residences, the tornado did not express such mercy to private residences and destroyed some in the city. After the burning of Washington, there was widespread looting throughout the city, and many of the looters were American citizens. Shortly after the British were finished with burning Washington, they left almost immediately towards Baltimore as the British did not intend to occupy Washington.

Francis Scott Key: Maryland lawyer and writer of the "The Star-Spangled Banner"

The burning of Washington did not achieve the effect that the British had hoped that it would cause. Instead of demoralizing Americans, it gave Americans a cause to rally behind in defeating the British once again. The burning of Washington negatively impacted the British, because when the British arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 13 th , 1814, the British navy was met with a well-defended city. The B attle of Fort McHenry ensued, and resulted in an American victory. While the battle was raging, a Baltimore lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key was held aboard a British warship and watched the battle unfold. He wrote a poem called the Defense of Fort McHenry, which later became the Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem. The United States’ victory at Fort McHenry led to the eventual end of the war, with Washington left to rebuild from the fires.

The burning of Washington was not a large embarrassment as it was originally thought to be. Washington was quickly rebuilt, with the White House becoming operational in 1817 and the Capitol Building was operational by 1819. Overall, the burning of Washington symbolized that the young nation that was built upon democracy and freedom was able to take a major world power head-on and come out victorious. Thomas Law, a foreign visitor who went to Washington, described the city after the war like a phoenix rising from the fires stronger than ever before. The War of 1812 showed the world that America was a force to be reckoned with and would continue to be perpetual.


Outside the Beltway

Two centuries ago, a war that makes less and less sense with the passage of time began.

Two hundred years ago today, the War of 1812, the first war that the United States of America fought as a nation, began when President James Madison signed the Declaration Of War that had finally been approved, after rather contentious debate, by Congress the day before. The final vote approving a Declaration of War was the closest such vote in American history, and ironically also the first. Just about three years later, the war would come to an end with very little actually changed between the United States and its former Colonial maaster Great Britain. We didn’t lose the war despite the fact that the British had managed to blockade Baltimore, invade the country, and chase President Madison into hiding when they captured Washington, D.C. and burned the White House. We didn’t win either, though, considering the fact that efforts to expand American territory north into Canada ended in failure. The one battle of the war that is still remembered by history, the Battle of New Orleans, created an American hero in Andrew Jackson, but it also gained the historical distinction of having been fought after the United States and Britain had reached agreement on a peace treaty during negotiations in the Belgian city of Ghent.

Two centuries later, it’s hard to even agree on what the aims of the war actually were. The impressment of American sailors by the British Navy was one issue that aroused considerable ire in the United States, but the conflict was also wrapped up in support allegedly given to Native Americans in the Northwest Territories by the British Army, as well as efforts by the British to restrict trade with France during the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, which were arguably more important to London than the conflict with that minor nation on the East Coast of North America. By the time the War was over, though, it was decidedly unclear what the fighting was all about other than perhaps a reflection of the fact that a conflict of some kind between the United States and the British in North America had been inevitable ever since the Revolutionary War had ended.

The war did have many important consequences for history. It was the last time that the United States and Britain would meet as enemies in war, and its resolution was arguably the beginning of a change in how both nations viewed each other that evolved eventually into the “special relationship” that has shaped the world for most of the past century. It marked the beginning of the end of British involvement in North America and led to the formation of a national identity of the nation that eventually became Canada. And, it began the process by which the United States would become a continental nation.

The name is not even a very thorough description of the war’s timing. If you count the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought after the peace treaty was signed, the war lasted until early 1815.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 — which began 200 years ago today — happens to coincide roughly with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The latter was known by several names before general usage shifted decisively in favor of “Civil War.” Southerners favored “War Between the States” Northerners, “War of the Rebellion.” “Civil War” may seem bland in comparison, but at least it makes a clear statement about the nature of the conflict.

The same cannot be said for “War of 1812.” It’s a lousy label, and we should grasp the opportunity offered by the 200th anniversary of the conflict to adopt a better one.

The author suggests the title the “Second War Of Independence” which seems appropriate if you take the historical view of what the impact of the war really turned out to be, specifically including the fact that its end finally marked the time when Britain seemed to accept the sovereignty of the United States. However, given that it’s been 200 years now, it seems like the name has kind of stuck and drawing the connections between that war and the one fought from 1775-1783 isn’t quite that simple.

What really strikes me about the War Of 1812, though, is the fact that it wasn’t just America’s first war as a sovereign nation, it was also the first war based on ambiguous goals and sometimes dubious reasoning, and it’s a reminder that there really have been very few “good” wars in our history where the lines between good and evil were so easy to see. The Mexican War certainly doesn’t qualify, and the Civil War was a national tragedy all around even if it did ultimately led to the end of slavery. Perhaps World War II is the one war that qualifies for the “good” war distinction, although one could make the argument about the Persian Gulf War as well, especially given the fact that it didn’t turn into a war of conquest to the gates of Baghdad. The others? Just as ambiguous as the war whose anniversary we mark today. One wonders how history will view them 200 years later.


War of 1812: The British Burning of Washington, August 25, 1814

Canadians wanted revenge for outrages committed by the United States armies during 1813. After the Battle of York in April, American soldiers torched the Parliament and other government buildings of Upper Canada. In December, they burned the town of Newark to the ground. Sir George Prevost, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Canada, petitioned the British government for help. Their response was to send an invasion force of veteran soldiers to Washington, D.C.

Panicked Flight from Washington as the British Army Nears

When the British invasion force landed at Benedict, Maryland on August 20, they were less than 50 miles from Washington. As the enemy approached the town over the next three days, panicked residents fled across the river to Virginia. By August 24, the day the British army dispersed the last Washington defenders at the Battle of Bladensburg, only 10% of the town’s population remained. Most of the prominent citizens and politicians were gone. All that remained in Washington were a few homeowners, slaves, servants, government clerks, and the President’s wife, Dolley Madison.

Those left behind managed to save important Capitol documents, including Congressional and Senate papers, the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The White House staff, at the First Lady’s direction, rescued the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Dolley Madison was one of the last people to leave Washington before the British arrived.

A British Raiding Party Enters the Town

At 8 o’clock on August 24, Major General Robert Ross, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, and a raiding party of 200 British soldiers entered Washington’s outskirts. The town was undefended. The only resistance was a single volley of musket fire from behind a house that killed one soldier and General Ross’s horse. During the resulting chaos, the shooters ran away. The troopers torched the house in retaliation.

Soon the British Union Jack was flying over Capitol Hill. Upon entering the U. S. Capitol, the enemy soldiers marveled at the stateliness of the building and its furnishings. Despite their admiration, the raiding party followed their orders and set fires using explosive charges from Congreve rockets. The Capitol, including the Library of Congress and three thousand books, burned brightly.

The British Burn Washington

Admiral Cockburn gleefully supervised destruction of the National Intelligencer, a government newspaper that had printed sensationalistic articles denouncing his exploits. The Treasury buildings, the War Office, the Arsenal, and military barracks were set alight. The British destroyed every government building except for the U. S. Patent Office. Even the U. S. Navy yard and its military stores were on fire, torched by American sailors with orders to prevent their capture.

Nearing midnight, General Ross, Admiral Cockburn, and other officers entered the White House, at that time called the President’s House. They were delighted to find a banquet of food and wine sitting untouched in the dining room. Servants had prepared the feast for one of Dolley Madison’s famous parties, but instead, the victorious enemy gorged on the meal. After dinner, her uninvited guests looted Mrs. Madison’s home and set it ablaze.

The government buildings continued to burn until the early afternoon, when a severe lightening storm drenched Washington. For two hours, torrential rains soaked the area and extinguished most of the fires. The thundershower spawned a tornado that plowed through the town and killed several British occupiers. Shocked by the severity of the storm, General Ross and his raiding party withdrew a few hours after the rain stopped. They had occupied Washington for twenty-six hours. By August 29, the army was back aboard their transports in Benedict.

Aftermath of the Burning of Washington, D. C.

The raid resulted in the destruction of approximately $2 million of property. All that remained of the U. S. Capitol and the President’s House were blackened sandstone walls. The government eventually rebuilt both structures using these original walls.

Americans and Europeans, including British subjects, denounced the destruction of Washington as needlessly cruel and unnecessary to the war effort. Like so many events in United States history, rather than demoralizing its citizens, the burning of Washington energized Americans to double their efforts against Britain.

America had lost confidence in John Armstrong, the Secretary of War, for leaving the nation’s capital without defenses. He resigned on September 3, 1814, and President Madison replaced him with James Monroe, formerly the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, the British invaders were preparing for a combined land and sea assault on the city of Baltimore, Maryland.


​The 1814 burning of Washington, D.C.

Two hundred years ago this month, 4,000 British soldiers lay siege to Washington, D.C., and set fire to the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

A drawing of the White House after the fire of 1814. Library of Congress

And the burn marks on the White House walls are still there.

"We now have evidence of the char marks, the scorching that would have happened when flames were drawn out through open windows and doors and licked up around the tops of the stone," said William Allman, the White House curator.

It is, as far as we know, the best evidence the one time enemy's forces were in our nation's capital, said Allman.

The burning of Washington was the darkest moment for the United States and President James Madison in the War of 1812 -- a sort of second war of American independence.

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The British had been interfering with American trade at sea and kidnapping sailors. American efforts to expand westward and north into Canada were being thwarted by the British. Two years into the war, with the Americans in retreat, British forces reached the nation's capital.

Rocca asked, "What was Washington like in 1814?"

"Miserable," said William Allen, historian emeritus for the Architect of the Capitol. "Tiny, small, strung out."

200 year later, the White House still bears the burn marks of the fire. CBS News

It was basically, he said, a construction site: "There were stone yards and brick yards and kilns. It was just a mishmash of this and that."

The Capitol dome hadn't yet been built, but the original House chamber -- located on the site of today's Statuary Hall -- was an architectural masterpiece.

"Many people described it as the most beautiful room in America," said Allen. "It had this glorious ceiling with 100 skylights."

Allen said the room was fireproof, except for the ceiling. "And that, of course, was the Achilles' heel of the room. The ceiling was wooden, and all they had to do, of course, is to catch the ceiling on fire. When it fell down, the rest of the room would be destroyed.

"The heat was intense. The glass in the skylights melted, became molten, and fell down in large chunks."

The Capitol's stone walls survived, as well as the Senate vestibule, with its distinctive corn cob columns.

Allen said the corn cob was significant as "the American plant, in a classical way. Sort of thinking the way classical architects would have thought, using this very important staple of the American diet and the American economy."

Fighting with the British that night were former American slaves:

"The British brilliantly exposed a real weak side in American society, and that was slavery and our dependence on slaves," said historian Steve Vogel, author of "Through the Perilous Fight," a blow-by-blow account of Washington's capture. "They offered freedom to slaves in this region, the Chesapeake. Said, you know, 'Come over to our side. We promise you freedom. And if you want to, by the way, you can fight against your former masters.'"

Moving from the Capitol, British Navy Rear Admiral George Cockburn, Army Major General Robert Ross, and 150 redcoats marched to the White House.

Rocca asked Allman what the Britons' impression of the White House would have been as they walked in the door: "I think that it was a pretty good-sized house, but not a palatial one. No Buckingham Palace. No Versailles. That it was, you know, reasonably well decorated."

The biggest surprise? A dinner set for 40. So the British feasted in the White House dining room before burning the mansion down.

Here, too, the walls survived. But little remains of what was once inside -- what does is an American icon.

The East Room, the largest room in the house, and where Teddy Roosevelt's kids used to roller-skate where Susan Ford had her senior prom and more importantly, the room with the great full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

"This is the one that Dolley Madison rather famously saved before leaving the White House. She had already packed up state papers, the red velvet drapes that she had had put in the Oval Room. Then, kind of as a last-minute thing, she said, 'Oh, we've got to save General Washington.'"

"And she gave the instructions to get it off the wall. It was bolted on. So they had to pretty much cut the frame open and then lift the canvas out on its stretcher."

As Dolley Madison was busy cramming silverware into her purse, White House servants -- the maitre d' and one of the family's slaves -- rescued the painting. "She was trying to save everything she could," said Allman. "She was leaving her personal things."

As a rule the British invaders didn't loot, but one soldier grabbed Madison's personal traveling medicine chest. "That was taken from the White House by one of the British troops, later passed to a member of one of the naval forces, and then descended in his family until it was given to Franklin Roosevelt in 1939," said Allman.

After torching the White House, the redcoats burned the buildings housing the Departments of State, Treasury and War, concluding one of the most devastating days in American history.

Rear Admiral George Cockburn (1772-1853), by John James Halls. Royal Museums Greenwich

"Can you imagine the scene after the British have departed Washington?" said Vogel. "The Capitol and the White House are smoldering shells. The American Army has abandoned the city. Nobody knows where President Madison or the cabinet are. It's really impossible to think of many more despondent, desperate moments in American history."

As a Union Jack flew over the city, Vogel said, "A lot of people felt that, you know, the young republic was coming to its end, that the American experiment was dying in its infancy."

Fearing an American counterattack, the British occupation of Washington lasted only a day.

Among its overlooked heroes: State Department clerk Stephen Pleasonton, who hid the Declaration of Independence in a Virginia mansion.

Six months later, the war ended in a virtual stalemate, and British leader George Cockburn returned home, where his portrait features Washington blazing in the background.


The Brief Period, 200 Years Ago, When American Politics Was Full of “Good Feelings”

James Monroe rode into Boston Common astride a borrowed horse, wearing a blue coat, knee-buckled breeches and a Revolutionary triangular hat. A cheering crowd of 40,000 people greeted him.

But it wasn’t the 1770s, and the founding father was no longer young. It was July 1817, and the new nation was 41 years old. The clothing worn by the nation’s fifth president was now out of fashion. He wasn’t in Boston to drum up support for a new nation—he was there to keep it from falling apart.

Monroe, a Democratic-Republican, had won a landslide victory against the collapsing Federalist Party in the 1816 election. Now, he was touring the nation, ostensibly to visit military installations, but also in hopes of stirring up a patriotic outpouring that would bring about the end of political parties in the United States.

He wanted to heal the wounds of the War of 1812, hurry along the Federalist collapse, and bring about the party-less government George Washington had envisioned in his farewell address. And he succeeded, for a while. Monroe’s presidency marks the last time the United States didn’t have a two-party system.

Monroe swept into the presidency as an American war hero and a symbol of the young nation’s history. He’d joined the Continental Army in 1776, was wounded at the Battle of Trenton and survived the brutal winter of 1778 at Valley Forge. He was elected to the Virginia legislature, the Continental Congress, and the U.S. Senate. He served twice as an American diplomat in France and was governor of Virginia. In 1811, President James Madison named him secretary of state.

During the War of 1812, Monroe stepped up to rally the nation he’d helped form. In August 1814, the British captured Washington, D.C., and burned nearly all its public buildings, including the White House. Returning to the wrecked capital after a British retreat, the overwhelmed Madison, whose cerebral temperament left him ill-prepared to lead in wartime, handed Monroe a second title: acting secretary of war. He took charge of the war effort, reinforcing Washington and Baltimore, ordering Andrew Jackson to defend New Orleans, and convincing state governors to send more militiamen to the battle zones.   

By the war’s end, the partisan conflict that had defined American politics for two decades was sputtering out. Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, who believed in limited powers for the federal government, had held the presidency for 16 years, since Jefferson’s 1800 defeat of Federalist John Adams. But war had scrambled the parties’ old roles. Federalists in New England had largely opposed the War of 1812. Many gathered at the secret Hartford Convention of 1814-15, where the most radical delegates called for New England to secede from the Union. Instead, the convention voted to send negotiators to Washington to demand changes in the Constitution, including limits on the president’s power to make war. But news of the war’s end reached Washington before the Federalist delegates did, leaving them looking like near-traitors who had schemed in secrecy.

Monroe won the 1816 election in a landslide and developed a plan to, in his words, “prevent the re-organization and revival of the federal party” and “exterminate all party divisions in our country.” His motives were mixed. Like Washington, he believed that political parties were unnecessary to good government, but he was also furious at the wartime Federalist secessionist movement. He froze out the Federalists, gave them no patronage, and didn’t even acknowledge them as members of a party. But publicly, Monroe made no partisan comments, instead appealing to all Americans on the basis of patriotism. “Discord does not belong to our system,” he declared in his inaugural address. “Harmony among Americans… will be the object of my constant and zealous attentions.”

Emulating Washington’s tours of the nation as president, Monroe set out on his first goodwill tour on June 1, 1817. He spent all summer touring the nation, traveling by steamboat and carriage and on horseback. Like politicians today, he shook hands with aging veterans and kissed little kids. He toured farms, hobnobbed with welcoming committees, and patiently endured endless speeches by local judges.

Boston was the biggest test of Monroe’s goodwill. Massachusetts was the nation’s citadel of Federalism, and it had voted for Monroe’s opponent, Rufus King, in 1816. But Boston seized the chance for reconciliation, greeting Monroe with boys clothed in mini-versions of Revolutionary attire and 2,000 girls in white dresses, decorated with either white or red roses, to symbolize the reconciliation of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.

The night of his victorious appearance on Boston Common, Monroe attended a dinner hosted by Massachusetts Governor John Brooks. To his surprise, other guests included John Adams, the Federalist ex-president, and Timothy Pickering, the former Federalist secretary of state who had recalled Monroe from his diplomatic post in Paris in 1796. “People now meet in the same room who would before scarcely pass the same street,” marveled Boston’s Chronicle and Patriot newspaper.

Boston swooned. On July 12, the Columbian Centinel, an ardent Federalist newspaper, published a headline, “Era of Good Feelings,” that would define Monroe’s presidency. “During the late Presidential Jubilee,” the story began, “many persons have met at festive boards, in pleasant converse, whom party politics had long severed.”

The origin of The Era of Good Feelings in the Columbian Centinel 12 July 1817! pic.twitter.com/7jET2BL3TH

— James Monroe Museum (@JMonroeMuseum) July 12, 2017

Returning to Washington in September 1817, Monroe extended the good feelings into national policy. He convinced Congress to abolish all of the federal government’s internal taxes in the U.S., including property taxes—confident that customs tariffs and the sale of public land could fund the federal government. Yet he still paid off the nation’s $67 million war debt within two years. (Tariffs continued to pay for the federal government’s budget until the Civil War, when the federal government founded its department of internal revenue.) He supported Andrew Jackson’s 1819 invasion of Florida, then had John Quincy Adams negotiate a treaty with Spain that ceded Florida to the U.S. The Monroe administration built up the nation’s defenses and strengthened West Point into an elite military academy. Pioneers flooded westward. In his 1823 message to Congress, he articulated what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, warning European powers that any future attempt to colonize the Western Hemisphere would be considered a threat to the United States.

Even the great regional battles over extending slavery westward didn’t scuttle Monroe’s efforts to create a new political era. In March 1820, three weeks after signing the Missouri Compromise, Monroe set out on a four-month, 5,000-mile tour of the South, where his success at getting the Spanish out of Florida was wildly popular. Charleston and Savannah, especially, celebrated Monroe with such zeal that a Georgia newspaper declared Savannah was “in danger of overdoing it.” Monroe visited Jackson at his Tennessee home, The Hermitage, and spoke at the Nashville Female Academy, the country’s largest school for women, before swinging back to Washington in August.

Of course, the “Good Feelings” nickname only applied to those who could enjoy the rights enshrined in the Constitution. Native Americans, enslaved persons and other besieged groups would have had little “good” to say about the era. Nor would the huge number of Americans impoverished in the Panic of 1819.

Still, as Monroe had hoped, the Federalist Party died away. “A few old Federalists still moved around the capital, like statues or mummies,” wrote George Dangerfield in his 1952 book The Era of Good Feelings, but “all ambitious men called themselves Republicans, or sought, without undergoing a public conversion, to attach themselves to whatever Republican faction would best serve their interests.”

In 1820, Monroe won a second term essentially unopposed, with an Electoral College vote of 231 to 1. He felt he had carried out “the destruction of the federal party,” he wrote to Madison in 1822. “Our government may get on and prosper without the existence of parties.”

But the good feelings didn’t last. The U.S. forsook parties, but it couldn’t forsake politics.

Though historians disagree on when the era closed – some say it only lasted two years, ending with the Panic of 1819 -- ill feelings defined America’s mood by the end of Monroe’s second term. Without party discipline, governing got harder. By the early 1820s, it was every man for himself in Congress and even in Monroe’s cabinet: Secretary of State Adams, Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun all jockeyed to succeed Monroe as president.

The incident that best proves the Era of Good Feelings was over occurred in winter 1824. Crawford, furious at Monroe for not protecting his cronies during Army budget cuts, confronted him at the White House. “You infernal scoundrel,” the treasury secretary hissed, raising his cane at the president. Monroe grabbed fireplace tongs to defend himself, Navy Secretary Samuel L. Southard stepped between the men, and Crawford apologized and left the White House, never to return.

The 1824 presidential election, held without parties, attracted four candidates: Jackson, Adams, Crawford, and House Speaker Henry Clay. After none won an Electoral College majority, the House of Representatives elected Adams, the second-place finisher, as president – passing over Jackson, who’d won the most electoral votes and popular votes. That election provoked American politics to reorganize into a new two-party system—Jacksonian Democrats versus Adams’ Whigs.

Monroe died on July 4, 1831, with a substantial legacy in American history, from the Monroe Doctrine’s influence on foreign policy to his role in the nation’s westward expansion. But the nation never again neared his ideal of a party-free government. For better and for worse, through battles over economics and war, slavery and immigration, the two-party system he inadvertently spawned has defined American politics ever since.

About Erick Trickey

Erick Trickey is a writer in Boston, covering politics, history, cities, arts, and science. He has written for POLITICO Magazine, Next City, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine


Britain apologizes for tweet marking 200 years since White House burned

(CNN) -- Who knew the War of 1812 could inflame passions in the age of Twitter?

The British Embassy in Washington has apologized after tweeting a photo marking the 200th anniversary of British troops burning the White House on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812.

The photo shows a cake featuring the White House, a few sparklers and the Stars and Stripes and Union Jack. Included in the caption: "Only sparklers this time!"

Commemorating the 200th anniversary of burning the White House. Only sparklers this time! pic.twitter.com/QIDBQTBmmL

&mdash British Embassy (@UKinUSA) August 24, 2014

One person said on Twitter found the post "in extremely POOR TASTE." Another asked: "What the hell? A commemoration?"

Whereupon the right honorable Embassy sought to make amends. It published a "we're sorry" tweet noting that it "meant to mark an event in history & celebrate our strong friendship today." It also linked to a Huffington Post piece by Patrick Davies, its deputy ambassador to the United States.

Apologies for earlier Tweet. We meant to mark an event in history & celebrate our strong friendship today http://t.co/gs3heJDMzt

&mdash British Embassy (@UKinUSA) August 25, 2014

He noted that the countries are "closer today than ever," the redcoats' torching of the White House 200 years ago notwithstanding.

"Far from fighting each other, our soldiers, sailors and airmen train together, deploy together and recuperate together," he wrote.


Archaeological evidence shows that the Pacific Northwest was one of the first populated areas in North America. Both animal and human bones dating back to 13,000 years old have been found across Washington and evidence of human habitation in the Olympic Peninsula dates back to approximately 9,000 BCE, 3,000 to 5,000 years after massive flooding of the Columbia River which carved the Columbia Gorge. [2]

Anthropologists estimate there were 125 distinct Northwest tribes and 50 languages and dialects in existence before the arrival of Euro-Americans in this region. Throughout the Puget Sound region, coastal tribes made use of the region's abundant natural resources, subsisting primarily on salmon, halibut, shellfish, and whale. Cedar was an important building material and was used by tribes to build both longhouses and large canoes. Clothing was also made from the bark of cedar trees. The Columbia River tribes became the richest of the Washington tribes through their control of Celilo Falls, historically the richest salmon fishing location in the Northwest. These falls on the Columbia River, east of present-day The Dalles, Oregon, were part of the path millions of salmon took to spawn. The presence of private wealth among the more aggressive coastal tribes encouraged gender divisions as women took on prominent roles as traders and men participated in warring and captive-taking with other tribes. The eastern tribes, called the Plateau tribes, survived through seasonal hunting, fishing, and gathering. Tribal work among the Plateau Indians was also gender-divided with both men and women responsible for equal parts of the food supply. [3]

The principal tribes of the coastal areas include the Chinook, Lummi, Quinault, Makah, Quileute, and Snohomish. The Plateau tribes include the Klickitat, Cayuse, Nez Percé, Okanogan, Palouse, Spokane, Wenatchee, and Yakama. Today, Washington contains more than 20 Indian reservations, the largest of which is for the Yakama. [4]

At Ozette, in the northwest corner of the state, an ancient village was covered by a mud slide, perhaps triggered by an earthquake about 500 years ago. More than 50,000 well-preserved artifacts have been found and cataloged, many of which are now on display at the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay. Other sites have also revealed how long people have been there. Thumbnail-sized quartz knife blades found at the Hoko River site near Clallam Bay are believed to be 2,500 years old.

Early European and American exploration Edit

The first European record of a landing on the Washington coast was in 1774 by Spaniard Juan Pérez. One year later, Spanish Captain Don Bruna de Heceta on board the Santiago, part of a two-ship flotilla with the Sonora, landed near the mouth of the Quinault River and claimed the coastal lands up to the Russian possessions in the north.

In 1778, the British explorer Captain James Cook sighted Cape Flattery, at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But the strait itself was not found until Charles William Barkley, captain of the Imperial Eagle, sighted it in 1787. Barkley named it for Juan de Fuca. The Spanish-British Nootka Conventions of the 1790s ended Spanish exclusivity and opened the Northwest Coast to explorers and traders from other nations, most important being Britain, Russia, and the United States. Further explorations of the straits were performed by Spanish explorers Manuel Quimper in 1790 and Francisco de Eliza in 1791 and then by British Captain George Vancouver in 1792. Captain Vancouver claimed the sound for Britain and named the waters south of the Tacoma Narrows Puget's Sound, in honor of Peter Puget, who was the lieutenant accompanying him on the Vancouver Expedition. The name later came to be used for the waters north of Tacoma Narrows as well. [5] Vancouver and his expedition mapped the coast of Washington from 1792 to 1794. [6]

Captain Robert Gray (for whom Grays Harbor County is named) discovered the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, naming the river after his ship "Columbia" and later establishing a trade in sea otter pelts. The Lewis and Clark expedition, under the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, entered the state from the east on October 10, 1805. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were surprised by the differences in Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest from those they had encountered earlier in the expedition, noting, in particular, the increased status of women among both coastal and plateau tribes. Lewis hypothesized that the equality of women and the elderly with men was linked to more evenly distributed economic roles.

Canadian explorer David Thompson extensively explored the Columbia River commencing in 1807. In 1811, he became the first European to navigate the entire length of the river to the Pacific. Along the way he posted a notice where it joins the Snake River claiming the land for Britain and stating the intention of the North West Company to build a fort there. Subsequently, Fort Nez Perces trading post, was established near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Thompson's notice was found by Astorians looking to establish an inland fur post. It contributed to David Stuart's choice, on behalf of the American Pacific Fur Company, of a more northerly site for their operations at Fort Okanogan.

By the time settlers arrived in the 1830s, a population of Métis (mixed race) people had grown from centuries of early-European fur traders procreating with Native American women. [7] Before Caucasian women began moving to the territory in the 1830s, it was not uncommon for traders to seek Métis women for wives.

American–British occupation disputes Edit

American interests in the region grew as part of the concept of manifest destiny. Spain ceded their rights north of the 42nd Parallel to the United States by the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, (but not possession, which was disallowed by the terms of the Nootka Conventions).

Britain had long-standing commercial interests through the Hudson's Bay Company and a well-established network of fur trading forts along the Columbia River in what it called Columbia District. These were headquartered from Fort Vancouver in present-day Vancouver, Washington.

By the Treaty of 1818, following from the War of 1812, Great Britain and the United States established the 49th parallel as the border west to the Continental Divide of the Rocky mountains but agreed to joint control and occupancy of Oregon Country. In 1824, Russia signed an agreement with the U.S. acknowledging it had no claims south of 54-40 latitude north and Russia signed a similar treaty with Britain in 1825.

Joint occupancy was renewed, but on a year-to-year basis in 1827. Eventually, increased tension between U.S. settlers arriving by the Oregon trail and fur traders led to the Oregon boundary dispute. On June 15, 1846, Britain ceded its claims to the lands south of the 49th parallel, and the U.S. ceded its claims to the north of the same line, in the present day Canada–US border, in the Oregon Treaty.

In 1848, the Oregon Territory, composed of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming, was established. Washington Territory, which included Washington and pieces of Idaho and Montana, was formed from Oregon Territory in 1853. In 1872, An arbitration process settled the boundary dispute from the Pig War and established the US–Canada border through the San Juan Islands and Gulf Islands.

Eastern Washington Edit

Settlements in the eastern part of the state were largely agricultural and focused around missionary establishments in the Walla Walla Valley. Missionaries attempted to 'civilize' the Indians, often in ways that disregarded or misunderstood native practices. When missionaries Dr. Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Whitman refused to leave their mission as racial tensions mounted in 1847, 13 American missionaries were killed by Cayuse and Umatilla Indians. Explanations of the 1847 Whitman massacre in Walla Walla include outbreaks of disease, resentment over harsh attempts at conversion of both religion and way of life, and contempt of the native Indians shown by the missionaries, particularly by Narcissa Whitman, [ citation needed ] the first white American woman in the Oregon Territory.

This event triggered the Cayuse War against the Indians, followed by the Yakima War, together with continuing until 1858. The Provisional Legislature of Oregon in 1847 immediately raised companies of volunteers to go to war, if necessary, against the Cayuse, and, to the discontent of some of the militia leaders, also sent a peace commission. The United States Army later came to support the militia forces. These militia forces, eager for action, provoked both friendly and hostile Indians. In 1850, five Cayuse were convicted for murdering the Whitmans in 1847 and hanged. Sporadic bloodshed continued until 1855, when the Cayuse were decimated, defeated, bereft of their tribal lands, and placed on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon.

The conflicts over the possession of land between the Indians and the 'American' settlers led the Americans in 1855, by the 'treaties' at the Walla Walla Council, to coerce not only the Cayuse, but also the Walla Walla and the Umatilla tribes, to the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon fourteen other tribal groups to the Yakama Indian Reservation in southern Washington State and the Nez Perce to a reservation in the border region of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. That same year, gold was discovered in the newly established Yakama reservation and white miners encroached upon these lands. The tribes - first the Yakama, eventually joined by the Walla Walla and the Cayuse - united together to fight the Americans in what is called the Yakima War. The U.S. Army sent troops and a number of raids and battles took place. In 1858, the Americans, at the Battle of Four Lakes, defeated the Indians decisively. In a newly imposed 'treaty,' tribes were, again, confined to reservations.

Puget Sound Edit

As American settlers moved west along the Oregon Trail, some traveled through the northern part of the Oregon Territory and settled in the Puget Sound area. The first settlement in the Puget Sound area in the west of what is now Washington State was Fort Nisqually, a farm and fur-trading post owned by the Puget's Sound Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of the Hudson's Bay Company. Washington's pioneer founder, Michael Simmons, along with the black pioneer George Washington Bush and his Caucasian wife, Isabella James Bush, from Missouri and Tennessee, respectively, led four white families into the territory and settled New Market, now known as Tumwater, in 1846. They settled in Washington to avoid Oregon's racist settlement laws. [8] After them, many more settlers, migrating overland along the Oregon trail, wandered north to settle in the Puget Sound area. Contrasted with other American occupations of the West, there was comparatively [ citation needed ] little violence between settlers and Native Americans, though several exceptions, such as Territorial Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens' extensive campaigns in 1853 to force Indians into ceding lands and rights, are notable: [9] the Puget Sound War, Cayuse War, Yakima War, and Spokane War being the largest conflicts between the new American authorities and indigenous governments. Raids by Haida, Tlingit and other northern tribes from British and Russian territory terrorized Native Americans and settlers alike in Puget Sound in the 1850s (see Port Gamble). Miners bound for the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in British Columbia in 1858 using the Okanagan Trail traveled underarms and there were many instances of violence along the route.

Lumber industries drew settlers to the territory. Coastal cities, like Seattle (founded in 1851 and originally called "Duwamps"), were established. Unlike the wagon trains that had carried entire families to the Oregon Territory, these early trading settlements were populated primarily with single young men. Liquor, gambling, and prostitution were ubiquitous, supported in Seattle by one of the city's founders, David Swinson "Doc" Maynard, who believed that well-run prostitution could be a functional part of the economy. The Fraser Gold Rush in what would, as a result, become the Colony of British Columbia saw a flurry of settlement and merchant activity in northern Puget Sound which gave birth to Port Townsend and Whatcom (which became Bellingham) as commercial centres, at first attempting to rival Victoria as a disembarkation point of the goldfields until the colony's governor ordered that all access to the Fraser River go via Victoria. Despite the limitation on goldfield-related commerce, many men who left the "Fraser River Humbug", as the rush was for a while misunderstood to be, settled in Whatcom and Island counties. Some of these were settlers on San Juan Island during the Pig War of 1859.

Upon the admission of the State of Oregon to the union in 1859, the eastern portions of the Oregon Territory, including southern Idaho, portions of Wyoming west of the continental divide (then Nebraska Territory), and a small portion of present-day Ravalli County, Montana were annexed to the Washington Territory. In 1863, the area of Washington Territory east of the Snake River and the 117th meridian west was reorganized as part of the newly created Idaho Territory, leaving that territory with only the lands within the current boundaries of the State of Washington.

After the passage of the Enabling Act of 1889, Washington became the 42nd state in the United States on November 11, 1889. [10] The proposed state constitution, passed by a four-to-one ratio, originally included women's suffrage and prohibition, but both of these issues were defeated and removed from the accepted constitution. Women had previously been given the vote in 1883 by the Washington Territorial Legislature, but the right was rescinded in 1887 by the Washington Territorial Supreme Court as a response to female support of prohibition. Despite these initial defeats, women in the Pacific Northwest received the right to vote earlier than the rest of the country with Washington passing a suffrage amendment in 1910. [11] Prohibition followed in 1916, two years before the rest of the nation.

Early prominent industries in the state included agriculture, lumber, and mining. In eastern Washington, Spokane was a major hub of mining activity and the Yakima Valley was known for its apple orchards and wheat fields. The heavy rainfall to the west of the Cascade Range produced dense forests and the ports along Puget Sound prospered from the manufacturing and shipping of lumber products, particularly the Douglas fir. In 1905, Washington State became the largest producer of lumber in the nation. [12] Seattle was the primary port for trade with Alaska and for a time possessed a large shipbuilding industry. Other industries that developed in Washington include fishing, salmon canning, and mining. For an extended period of time, Tacoma was known for its large smelters where gold, silver, copper and lead ores were treated. The region around eastern Puget Sound developed heavy industry during the period including World War I and World War II and the Boeing Company became an established icon in the area.

The progressive force of the early 20th century in Washington stemmed partially from the women's club movement which offered opportunities for leadership and political power to tens of thousands of women in the Pacific Northwest region.

Bertha Knight Landes was elected mayor of Seattle in 1926, the first woman mayor of a major city in the United States. [13]

In 1924, Seattle's Sand Point Airfield was the endpoint of the first aerial circumnavigation of the world. [14]

Vancouver became the endpoint for two ultra-long flights from Moscow, USSR over the North Pole. The first of these flights were performed by Valery Chkalov in 1937 on a Tupolev ANT-25RD airplane. Chkalov was originally scheduled to land at an airstrip in nearby Portland, Oregon but redirected at the last minute to Vancouver's Pearson Airfield.

During the depression era, a series of hydroelectric dams were constructed along the Columbia River as part of a project to increase the production of electricity. This culminated in 1941 with the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest in the United States.

During World War II, the Puget Sound area became a focus for war industries with the Boeing Company producing many of the nation's heavy bombers and ports in Seattle, Bremerton, Vancouver, and Tacoma available for the manufacturing of ships for the war effort. As the demand for labor and the number of young men drafted increased simultaneously, women entered the workforce in great numbers, recruited by local media. One-fourth of the laborers in shipyards were women, resulting in the installation of one of the first government-funded child-care centers in the workplace. [15]

In eastern Washington, the Hanford Works nuclear power plant was opened in 1943 and played a major role in the construction of the nation's atomic bombs. One of the atomic bombs (nicknamed 'Fat Man' and dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945) was fueled by Hanford plutonium and was transported in Boeing B-29s, also designed in Washington State.

Eruption of Mount St Helens Edit

On May 18, 1980, following a period of heavy tremors and eruptions, the northeast face of Mount St. Helens exploded outward, destroying a large part of the top of the volcano. This eruption flattened the forests for many miles, killed 57 people, flooded the Columbia River and its tributaries with ash and mud and blanketed large parts of Washington in ash, making day look like night.

Economy Edit

Washington is well known for several prominent companies, the most notable of which are Microsoft, Amazon.com, Boeing, Nordstrom, The Bon Marché, Costco, and Starbucks. Monopolies have a long history in the state. Bill Boeing's namesake company grew from a small airplane company in 1916 to the national aircraft and airline conglomerate of Boeing and United Airlines, which was subsequently broken up by anti-trust regulators in 1934.

Politics Edit

Politics in Washington have been generally Democratic since the 1950s and 60s and President John F. Kennedy's election. The state's system of blanket primaries, in which voters may vote for any candidate on the ballot and are not required to be affiliated with a particular political party, was ruled unconstitutional in 2003. The party-line primary system was instituted for the 2004 presidential and gubernatorial elections. In 2004, voters elected Governor Christine Gregoire into office, making Washington the first state to have a female governor and two female senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, sometimes referred to as the "Battle of Seattle", took place in 1999 when the WTO convened to discuss trade negotiations. Massive protests of at least 40,000 people included organizations such as NGOs involved in environment issues, labor unions, student groups, religious groups, and anarchists.


Watch the video: The British Burn Washington DC 200 Years Ago (June 2022).


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