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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.