The Positive Effects of the Burning of Washington D.C.

The beginning of The War of 1812 focused mainly on the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, but as time went on and especially once Napoleon was defeated in mid-1814 the theatre expanded across the United States. With the increase in troops coming from the end of the Napoleonic Wars the British grew more brazen and started assaults in the Chesapeake Bay. The assumption by the Secretary of War John Armstrong was that the British would move to attack Baltimore because Washington  D.C. was of little strategic or economic importance to America at the time. He even went so far to say, “they would not come with such a fleet without meaning to strike somewhere. But they certainly will not come here! What the devil will they do here? No! No! Baltimore is the place, Sir. That is of so much more consequence” (3). This attitude shows why the British were able to practically waltz into Washington D.C. and go about destroying the public buildings. In a flurry of activity the clerks of the government offices fled with every piece of important documents they could grab including the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and George Washington’s famous resignation letter (3). Once the British troops had arrived in the Capitol they found it mostly abandoned. Several officers ate a dinner in The White House laid out earlier that day for First Lady Dolley Madison and her guests. Almost all public buildings such as the White House and Capitol Building were burned down that night, but surprisingly the British took great care in preserving private property, even going so far as to punish several soldiers for assaulting people in their homes (3). The next morning the British burned the Navy Yard down and then withdrew knowing they did not have enough men to hold the city. The invasion of Washington dealt a major blow to President Madison’s fledgling support, but in January of 1815 The House of Representatives approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s Library to start rebuilding the Library of Congress for $96,613, and  in February the Senate passed a bill allowing $500,000 to rebuild the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings on their current sites (1). If Washington held no strategic value, there was enough time for government staff to escape with most important documents, and President Monroe was able to move back into the White House by 1817 was the Burning of Washington as much of a detriment as having your capitol razed could have been? Did the burning of the nation’s capitol become a martyr for the defenders of Fort McHenry to rally around and survive the British bombardment and lead to the end of The War of 1812? Several primary sources have been assembled that support the theory that the nation rallied around the invasion of Washington and that benefit could outweigh the limited negatives of the Burning of Washington D.C.


Alexander Bonn