Out of America: When the home of Yankee democracy was set ablaze

WASHINGTON - In the early dawn, over the steel fence which protects the South Lawn of the White House, it was just possible to see where Frank Corder had crashed his Cessna through an elderly magnolia tree into the wall beside the main portico. He was evidently more interested in making a big, if suicidal, gesture than killing Bill Clinton, but anything which looks like a political assassination tweaks a deep political nerve in Americans.

Only a month ago a political journalist in Washington remarked to me that personal abuse of Bill Clinton by the right was such that it would not be surprising if somebody tried to kill him. Given how little he has tried to change America and his obsessively non-confrontational style, the vilification is extraordinary.

Watching from the little press encampment beyond the south lawn early on Monday, I felt a personal interest in the damage because the only time the White House suffered seriously was at the hands of a distant ancestor who burned it to the ground.

Two years into the war of 1812 between Britain and the US, Admiral Sir George Cockburn sailed a fleet up the Chesapeake Bay with 4,500 soldiers on board. The object was to raid Virginia and Maryland and capture horses for the cavalry. In fact Sir George and his sailors showed more interest in plundering the tobacco warehouses on the creeks running down to the Chesapeake and loading the spoils on board.

They also freed 300 slaves who, according to Robin Blackburn's definitive Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, demanded to be placed in the battle line 'where they might expect to meet their former masters'. On 24 August, 1814 President James Madison, who disastrously exercised his rights as commander-in- chief, was routed with his troops at Bladensburg in Maryland and the British marched into Washington.

Sir George's behaviour in the city was not conciliatory. Before burning the Capitol, he jumped on to the Speaker's chair in the House of Representatives, and, according to a hostile source, shouted: 'Shall this harbour of Yankee democracy be burned? All those in favour say 'Aye'.' He repeated the performance in the Senate and, the motion carried unanimously, his men heaped up the furniture and set it ablaze.

Some 50 troops set off down Pennsylvania Avenue - in 1814 their route took them through two rows of newly planted poplars running through swampland - to the White House, where they found supper spread. Dolly Madison, the president's wife, had prematurely prepared a victory celebration for the defenders of Bladensburg. Having cooked the banquet she was forced to flee to Virginia leaving the meal to be eaten by the victorious British, who then set the building on fire.

Sir George, who generally refused to destroy private property, then carried out a minor act of vengeance. Proceeding to the offices of the National Intelligencer newspaper, which had abused him, he ordered his men to destroy the trays of type saying: 'Be sure that all the Cs are destroyed so that the scoundrels cannot any longer abuse my name.' He then marched north and unsuccessfully laid siege to Baltimore, his bombardment leading to the composition of The Star Spangled Banner whose allusion to 'hireling and slave' apparently refers to the freed slaves in the British force.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness