Lynne Cheney’s new biography of James Madison debuted just in time for the commemoration of the fourth president’s greatest humiliation. Two hundred years ago the British burned nearly all of official Washington, which had been left virtually defenseless by Madison’s appointees. Madison himself, after watching the quick defeat of mostly inexperienced U.S. militia at the Battle of Bladensburg, escaped on horseback initially to Virginia, in search of his wife and his government.
BBC journalist Peter Snow, who recently spoke at Bladensburg, Maryland on his new book about his countrymen’s burning of the White House, jocularly acclaimed Americans for unapologetically commemorating even their defeats. The festivities have indeed been lively, with a very dedicated James Madison re-enactor, who never falls out of character, making the rounds. Last weekend he was in charming Brookville, Maryland, which became national capital for a day, sort of, as Madison, now reunited with his First Lady, assembled with part of his cabinet at a village postmaster’s house.
Snow was in Brookville too, merrily signing books, unintimidated as American dragooons with sabers rattling galloped by, escorting a wagon with Madison and other Washington refugees. Also looking on was former Maryland U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, not a refugee but an octogenarian history buff enjoying the spectacle. Snow, who has also co-hosted a BBC series on famous battles, good-naturedly defends British war goals in the War of 1812. Britain was after all trying to save Europe from Napoleon when America “stabbed her in the back” by declaring war and invading British Canada. The American theater for Britain was a sideshow, and the campaign to capture Washington was only to shame America out of the war so Britain could focus on the real threat. To illustrate his point, Snow says he, although a historian, had never even heard of Britain’s burning the White House until five years ago. Neither had his publisher, or most British.
Cheney, in her widely praised book, defends both America’s role in the War of 1812 and Madison’s conduct, by quoting one of Madison’s contemporary adversaries, his predecessor, John Adams, who had famously kept America out of war. Notwithstanding “a thousand faults and blunders,” Madison had “acquired more glory and established more union than all three predecessors, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson put together,” Adams had graciously pronounced. He also declared that “a more necessary war was never undertaken,” as it was “necessary against England, necessary to convince France that we are something, and above all necessary to convince ourselves that we are not nothing.”
War for respect? It may sound trifling, but a realist like Adams knew nations don’t survive without confidence and élan. Madison retrieved his reputation by quickly establishing himself in still smoldering Washington, even though the White House was a ruin, and by insisting the nation’s capital was not moving, in fidelity to George Washington’s vision. The disaster in Washington was followed by a far more successful defense of Baltimore, thanks partly to a now wiser Madison keeping his incompetent war secretary and the ineffectual general who lost at Bladensburg decidedly away from Baltimore, which was able to defend itself.
The British general who burned Washington was killed by American defenders outside Baltimore. And the British fleet, whose admiral had enthusiastically participated in Washington’s incineration, failed to subdue Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, despite an unprecedented bombardment. Fortuitously for American morale, an observant American attorney was present to translate the drama at Baltimore into a rousing song that eventually became the National Anthem.
Straining to make his melodious BBC voice heard on the banks of the Potomac as landing aircraft aiming for Reagan Airport scream overheard, Snow smilingly acclaims “The Star-Spangled Banner” as an ode to British firepower. He also dismisses the supposed American triumph in Baltimore as merely a British decision to lift the siege in favor of more action farther south, in New Orleans, where the British met true defeat. Snow is at one more commemoration, this time in Alexandria, which unabashedly recalled its surrender to the British after the burning of Washington with its own robust festivities.
Dolley Madison at the time condemned Alexandria’s quick accession to British demands to turn over its considerable warehouse stores, which British sailors transferred to British ships in the Potomac, their guns aimed at Alexandria’s stately brick houses, shops, and churches. She thought Alexandria more honorably should have submitted to destruction than shame. Dolley had, of course, performed her own public relations coup by rescuing Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from the White House right before the British arrival.
Snow claims that if Washington had officially surrendered to the British invaders, possibly paying a ransom, its targeted public buildings would have been spared. And he points out that Madison was responsible for Alexandria’s predicament by not providing defenses and even robbing it of its own militia, which were squandered elsewhere.
Both Cheney and Snow, who is a biographer of the Duke of Wellington, cite the counsel the Duke gave his government to quit its war with America as futile and unwinnable. Peace was negotiated only a few months after the despoliation of Washington. The British admiral who helped burn America’s capital and failed to reduce Baltimore would soon escort Napoleon to his final exile on a remote island in the south Atlantic.
Cheney reserves her greatest praise for Madison as architect of the U.S. Constitution. Possibly that covenant could have shattered 200 years ago if the British had successfully leveled Fort McHenry and, as even Snow admits, burned hated, very anti-British Baltimore with more thoroughness than they had Washington, where private property was spared. On September 13-14, Baltimore will celebrate the anniversary of its deliverance, which even Snow must admit deserves commemoration, with plenty of bombs bursting in air.
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