On August 24, 1814, in one of history’s most farsighted and selfless moments, British troops burned down Washington, DC. Americans never even thanked them, only rebuilt and wasted the opportunity.
Now the bicentennial is only a year away, so let’s make amends. Every heartland town needs a down-home barbecue with children waving American flags and Union Jacks, with red-white-and-blue sparklers before Tea-Partiers start the big fireworks display. Have home-schoolers dress their rap-singing kids as King George III and General Washington whose wise advice remains ignored. Invite Royal Naval vessels to pay courtesy calls at every port. Maybe Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (who is a skilled barbeque cook), can line-dance in Texas far from officialdom. In D.C. a million black American dads, plus their sons, can protest the Federal Government destroying black families, with the same number of whites alongside showing love and support. Then a big concert on the Mall, followed by a candle-light vigil in front of the baby-killing U.S. Supreme Court. Then maybe the adults can get liquored-up and finish the job that America’s British friends began.
Seven years before 1814, Britain entered a public-spirited phase with The Slave Trade Act, and by shortly before America’s anti-slavery Civil War (killing more than 600,000 of each other), one Royal Navy squadron alone captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 captives. So, British decency and common sense abounded, despite France wreaking its usual bloodthirsty ideological havoc. As Cold War America did with the Soviets and modern America does with Iran, Britain and what remained of Free Europe called for trade sanctions to slow Napoleon’s war-machine. Even though 80% of America’s foreign trade was with Britain, the irresponsible profiteers refused, the War of 1812 began, and the U.S. forgot everything that George Washington had warned them in 1796 and attacked Canada. Canada? I suppose it was nearby, but the proto-Kirkian American conservative John Randolph complained, “Agrarian greed…urges this war. We have heard but one word—like the whippoorwill’s one monotonous tone: Canada! Canada! Canada!” All else, he swore, was whitewash.
Canadians were about the same as now, so they agonized over what they might have said by mistake to make the neighbours angry, and whether a written apology would suffice or if they should throw in a couple of six-packs. But a high-tech Canadian invention won them support of the Indians: clean blankets which, unlike the American gifts, were not infected with small-pox. Support from healthy Indians bought Canadians time to learn which white family had borrowed the village gun, and how to wield a hockey stick while not wearing skates. Meanwhile the British grew irritated, moving up from Security Stage Five (I Say! Frightful Behaviour, Old Chap) to Stage Six (Now See Here, My Good Man). They initially fought a purely defensive strategy to protect innocent Canadians whose private property had been destroyed in war-crimes and blockaded U.S. ports abetting French terrorism, but later occupied a part of Maine, by intention temporarily, possibly hoping to demonstrate good governance in case the Mainiacs reconsidered all that nonsense about independence. In 1814 they defeated Napoleon and moved to Security Stage Seven (Marquis of Queensbury Rules, You Bounders).
Avenging American attacks on Canadian beaver-trappers, the British counterattacked in Maryland. They hoped to merely capture Baltimore, unlike its current residents, who spent the past century trying to destroy it completely. William Winder was a Baltimore lawyer hastily made Brigadier General, with his military command experience limited to having been taken prisoner and then exchanged a year before: the clever Brits figured he could best help the U.K. by fighting on the American side, and they were right. Winder had twice the men, and 400 cavalry while the British had none, and at Bladensburg traded the best position for the most, um, defensible (so if he didn’t attack he was fairly safe). Americans lost only 26 soldiers and the British thrice that many, but the Americans ran away anyway, leaving ten cannon behind as gifts for the visiting team.
Impolitely deserted by their hosts, the British strolled instead to Washington, DC, waving a white flag of truce but they were shot at from a Capitol Hill boarding-house, presumably by crack-dealers who managed to kill the British commander’s horse. Inventing a strategy that later proved about as useful there as “urban renewal”, the visitors burned down the slum-dwelling; then presupposing Mayor Bloomberg’s celebrated “Zero Tolerance” policy they raised the British flag over the strangely deserted U.S. Capitol buildings.
They set the House and Senate alight, hoping to attract locals for free and frank discussions, but throughout their visit the crack-dealers were nearly their only interaction with Washingtonians, so no visitors were mugged or taxed or audited, subpoenaed, bored witless or water-boarded as now. They also found a small, unoccupied library attached to the Congress. Puzzlingly devoid of librarians and readers, it was stocked with tracts supporting atheism, regicide, anti-Catholic bigotry, secular government, and other dangerous ideologies some even French. It was too bulky to shift, so in order to protect impressionable American youth they responsibly set it afire. Some other Britons ambled down to burn the Washington Navy Yard, with its munitions stores and a big warship being built, but the Americans had burnt it first before they all ran away. It being tea-time on August 24th, the sensible Brits called it a day.
Little did they know of the panic across town. Even though the British force was far too small to hold the capital, no American defense or counterattack was even considered. Bureaucrats stampeded out and President James Madison was one of the first to skedaddle into Virginia, deserting his wife to rescue government files. She did not personally save the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington; her black American slaves were made to do that. Mr. Paul Jennings, a 15-year-old slave owned by the so-called architects of freedom, wrote in a later memoir:
It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington…and carried it off…. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it…. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment.
So, publicity-minded enough to later get cupcakes names after her, Dolly Madison grabbed the family silver and split, leaving the slaves behind; after all, one could always buy new slaves.
After a hearty English breakfast, the responsible British commander realized no lawyers with which to sue the particularly slanderous newspaper, National Intelligencer, so he ordered its building burnt down, reasonably enough. Local women begged him to spare risking their nearby homes from spreading fire, so he kindly agreed and merely had it torn down brick by brick. Apart from the hostel from which they had been fired upon, the prescient and principled British only attacked government and media.
The Executive Mansion (later dubbed The White House) stood unoccupied, so the British troops helped themselves to an early lunch, washed down with Madison’s French wine from the terrorism-trade, took home a few souvenir cushions, burnt it along with the Treasury Building nearby, and set off back to their ships as a hard rain began to fall. Their Washington holiday had only lasted twenty-six hours, and unaware of their good fortune, they had not laid eyes on a U.S. Federal employee so their personal belongings were intact.
The 1960’s British call-girl, Miss Mandy Rice-Davies, answered her scandalized cabinet-member customers by quipping, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” We could respond similarly to American historians griping about the “retaliatory” burning of Washington. It wasn’t indiscriminate, as easy as that would have been. The British forces only targeted government and media, intentionally sparing people and pets, homes and businesses. It wasn’t like the American slaughters of Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Moreover,
The British general who captured Washington, Robert Ross, did not mention retaliation in his reports to England but instead described it as an American humiliation that would soon end the war. “They feel strongly the disgrace of having had their capital taken by a handful of men and blame very generally a government which went to war without the means or abilities to carry it on,” Ross wrote to his wife.
Did the British try to warn Americans of indiscriminate and unaffordable wars launched unilaterally from Washington? Yes. Did Americans listen then or now? No. Is Washington, D.C.’s behaviour worse now, internationally and domestically? Do untold millions of conservative Americans want to stop it, even if that means putting the capital to the torch again and more thoroughly? You may judge.
Perhaps the British troops learnt nothing themselves, and wanted merely to teach American upstarts a lesson that was nevertheless kinder than sheer retribution. But, perhaps just a few of them saw hope for America where Britain was too corrupted by empire to turn back, too driven by governmental arrogance, public truculence and greedy vested interests.
Were the 1814 Britons young men from long-lived families, their own children would have seen the end begin, watching the military costs of empire exceed commercial benefit throughout that century. Their grandchildren might have seen the empire end near the mid-Twentieth century as Western-taught values led colonists to overthrow their masters, while the Mother Country went broke fighting for survival on other fronts. In three lifetimes their empire ended, to the same ancient rhythms as America’s does now. Maybe just a few men of 1814 may have wished to humiliate America in a small way, to save her from a greater, far more painful and terminal humiliation self-inflicted later. If I can no longer change, perhaps I can save you from becoming like me.
We may learn the truth over a few pewter tankards of bitter, in some Anglo-American Squaddies’ Mess in the hereafter. Before then we need merely to look about us to see the opportunities missed; the tyranny and the truculence, the unbridled arrogance, the moral and financial bankruptcy, and America’s well-tended and now sturdy roots of self-destruction.
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