Lessons from the first attack on the Capitol in 1814


As the House Inquiry Committee continues the attacks of January 6, 2021, let’s take a moment to recall the first time the Capitol was attacked. You have to go back to August 24, 1814, when the Capitol and the White House were burned down by invading British troops.

It was a harrowing moment in our history when President James Madison and the leadership fled Washington DC. This scene could very easily have spelled the end of the young United States of America.

Britain and America went to war in 1812, a repeat of the Revolutionary War when the US gained independence. One of the terrible acts of the War of 1812 was when American troops burned Canadian cities including York (Toronto). British troops later burned Buffalo.

All this vicious fighting was approaching Washington, DC in August 1814 when British troops invaded Maryland. The British victory at the Battle of Bladensburg left Washington with no defenses. The British were on their way to the capital with no one stopping them!

Citizens ran for their lives from Washington upon learning the British were advancing. President Madison and the government went to the country for safety. First Lady Dolley Madison was one of the last to leave as she collected many papers and historical items from the White House, including a portrait of George Washington. She narrowly escaped capture.

British troops soon arrived and set fire to the Capitol and other public buildings. The White House was next in their relentless march. But as soon as they got to the mansion, the British decided to eat something. Food had been prepared for that evening’s supper, which had been left behind during the hasty retreat. After the meal, the White House was set on fire.

The fire and smoke could be seen from miles away, including by Madison and other government leaders. The US was clearly on the ropes.

Imagine you have just seen the White House and Capitol in ruins. You’d think the British won the war. But the power of the United States lay not only within the central government in Washington, but from many quarters that rose to the opportunity to save the country.

After the burning of Washington, the US repelled a British land and sea attack on Baltimore. This was when Francis Scott Key was inspired to write The Star Spangled Banner after seeing the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry amid British bombardment.

America also won a turning point victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain, which borders New York and Vermont. The American naval victory on Lake Champlain prevented a massive British invasion of Plattsburgh, New York.

While all this fighting was taking place here in the States, American and British diplomats in Belgium were conducting peace negotiations abroad. Diplomats including John Quincy Adams and Albert Gallatin received reports of the British burning of the White House and other events.

On Christmas Eve the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War of 1812. There were no more wars between the two rivals. Warships on both sides of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were disarmed by the 1817 Rush-Bagot Agreement. The border between the United States and the British colony of Canada was peacefully defined. Disagreements were settled through diplomacy rather than arms.

Today we have another pivotal moment in our history as we deal with former President Donald Trump’s deadly attack on the Capitol. We must unite and reject such violence against our democracy. The Republican Party in particular must condemn the violence and return to its roots of great leaders like Eisenhower and Reagan who believed in peace and unity.

Our nation can overcome any obstacle if we believe in and support one another.

William Lambers is the author of the book Road to Peace and partner with the United Nations World Food Program for the book Ending World Hunger.


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