The August day in Washington that literally brought the (White) House down

Sunday marks 200 years since burning of Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Don’t expect fireworks, but Washington is observing a hot bicentennial this weekend. Sunday marks the date in 1814 that the British army marched into our nation’s capital and torched the place.

The still incomplete Capitol building, the White House and virtually every other government building in the city were gutted by British fires while private buildings were mostly left alone.

It being August, Congress was, of course, in recess and only a few clerks were left behind to try to get official documents out of harm’s way. None of the books of the Library of Congress escaped, though the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did.

Even as the White House guard fled, first lady Dolly Madison delayed leaving as she directed servants to gather up documents and a portrait of George Washington and take them to safety, exiting only when the Redcoats approached Capitol Hill. The painting, by Gilbert Stuart, still hangs in the White House today.

In keeping with the Washington tradition of skipping town in August, a special two-day symposium to commemorate the burning, sponsored by the White House Historical Association and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, won’t take place until Sept. 3-4. (Perhaps the most fitting memorial to the day takes place at the Congressional Cemetery this weekend – the “Flee the British 5K”)

President Obama was light-heartedly forgiving about the attack during welcoming ceremonies for British Prime Minister David Cameron in March 2012. 

"It's now been 200 years since the British came here to the White House under somewhat different circumstances. They made quite an impression. They really lit the place up! But we moved on,’’ Obama said.

Cameron responded in kind, admitting to being “a little embarrassed … to think that 200 years ago my ancestors tried to burn this place down.  Now, looking around me, I can see you’ve got the place a little better defended today. You’re clearly not taking any chances with the Brits this time.”

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