Out of America: When the home of Yankee democracy was set ablaze
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Wednesday 14 September 1994
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.
- 1 Unseen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chapter deemed 'too subversive' released
- 2 Ebola virus: It's ripped through towns – now the deadliest ever outbreak of the virus is heading for Africa's teeming cities
- 3 Joan Rivers: 'Palestinians deserve to be dead'
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Israel-Gaza crisis: YouTube footage shows scale of destruction after 50 days of shelling
Keira Knightley topless: Conservative actress does own take on #Freethenipple campaign for Interview Magazine
iPhone 6 'hidden code' could indicate sharper screens or bigger phones
Joan Rivers: 'Palestinians deserve to be dead'
Ebola virus: It's ripped through towns – now the deadliest ever outbreak of the virus is heading for Africa's teeming cities
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
- < Previous
- Next >
£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: One of SThree's most successfu...
£10 - £11 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: Nursery Manager We are loo...
£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Early Years supply teachers neede...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...