One of the most memorable events of the War of 1812 was the burning of the White House. In this essay I will attempt to lay out how the burning of Washington D.C. was the catalyst that led to the Treaty of Ghent. From that look at the views of two historians as to whether or not America had “won” the war, and elaborate my thoughts on how the war and the role of the capitol and White House had in it.
The War, and the Burning of Washington as a Catalyst:
On August 24, 1814 the British had successfully invaded and burned Washington D.C. to the ground. A few short months later the U.S. had signed a peace treaty with the United Kingdom, calling an end to the war. According to historians the war had gone terribly for America from beginning to end, with a few notable exceptions. Regardless, it was when the British had finished their war with Napoleon that they laid most of their effort on the American front and consequently sacked Washington D.C. While the war had never been in America’s favor, for a variety of factors, they had shown no signs of surrender until the burning of Washington, at which point an end to the war promptly occurred. It was a symbol of British power, the ability to lay low the center of American government and power that had brought the war to a swift end.
John Green’s Take:
Popular YouTube personality and historian John Green has created numerous videos on World and U.S. History. In his video detailing the War of 1812, he states that neither side won the war, but Americans felt as if they won:
“It's hard to argue that the Americans really won The War of 1812, but we felt like we won, and nothing unleashes national pride like war winning. The nationalistic fervor that emerged in the early 19th century, was like most things; good news for some and bad news for others. But what’s important to remember is regardless of whether you're an American is that after 1812, the United States saw itself not just as an independent nation but as a big player on the world stage.”
With victories with the USS Constitution, the Battle of the Tims, and the Battle of New Orleans, America felt as though it had successfully defeated the British. Despite the war ending promptly after the British fully involved themselves in the campaign, not seizing any of their goal in Canada, and the burning of Washington, the American public felt as though they had won and solidified themselves as a player on the world stage.
Donald Hickey’s Take:
Donald Hickey wrote in New York Times Upfront and article titled “1812: America’s ‘Second Revolution.’” In which, he argues that America did not feel as though it had won the war, but lost it with honor:
“The mere fact that the new nation had emerged from the war intact and had proved it could go toe-to-toe with the British, both on land and at sea, boosted America's self-confidence as well as its reputation overseas. "The Americans," conceded one British official, "have had the satisfaction of proving their courage- they have brought us to speak of them with respect." The war also gave Americans a sense of who they were by producing bigger-than-life heroes and lasting symbols and sayings. After their stunning victories, both Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison went on to the White House. All Americans could take pride in Old Ironsides, "The Star-Spangled Banner," Uncle Sam (first used as a phrase to refer to the U.S. government in an 1812 newspaper), "Don't give up the ship" (uttered by a dying Captain James Lawrence when the USS Chesapeake was disabled), and "We have met the enemy and they are ours" (the pithy report that Oliver H. Perry sent to Harrison after his victory on Lake Erie).”
Where John Green sees that America had ended the war in a draw, Donald Hickey argues that America had lost and Britain had won. Britain had successfully stopped America from invading into Canadian territory. The sense of pride given off by the war was simply a byproduct of successfully fighting the British in a few key instances, not a pride that came from an idea of winning.
America had held up in the War of 1812 for a long time, despite numerous setbacks and improper planning. They held out for a long while and made some positive victories, but with the full force of the British Empire pushing into them that caused them to eventually end the war.
The British had focused their assaults not only through the Canadian front, but in the Gulf of Mexico and on Washington D.C. Britain also ended the war with the Treaty of Ghent, instead of continuing it and retaking the state for themselves. Washington D.C. was the pivotal strike with the destruction of the capitol and the White House. It was a symbolic gesture than undermines the notion of American pride presented by Green and Hickey.
The destruction of the capitol, and the White House in particular, showed the U.S. that the British were more than capable of destroying the central power of the United States of America. It was after this event that notions of peace were presented, and America gave up the fight with nothing to show for it. America had been beaten, and American leadership had to have known it.
Yet, despite all of this, America had bounced back. The capitol and the White House were rebuilt and America became the world power that it is today. The British were capable of drawing the war on and retaking the whole of America, but they did not. Americans saw this as a victory unto itself, quickly forgetting the symbolism brought forth from the burning city.
Gambier, Henry Goulburn, William Adams, John Quincy Adams, J. A. Bayard, H. Clay, Jon. Russel, and Albert Gallatin. “Treaty of Ghent; 1814,” December 24, 1814. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ghent.asp.
Hickey, Donald. “1812: America’s ‘Second Revolution.’” New York Times Upfront, February 20, 2012.
The War of 1812 - Crash Course US History #11, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMXqg2PKJZU&feature=youtube_gdata_player.
The only reason Mr. Deaver was approached to sign his name to this diet book is that he is President Reagan's right-hand man. He is not a nutrition expert, a former Miss America or a movie queen - which up to now has been the requirement for signers of faddist diet best sellers. Nor will his moneymaker be a literary product written on his ''own time,'' since the book is to be ghost-written.
Had it been Michael Deaver, ordinary P.R. man, who lost 30 pounds washing down vegetables with apple juice, his experience would have been of no interest to the publishing world; what makes his name and book salable is the White House imprimatur that the troika member delivers.
The White House counsel insists that the contract (which is not available for public inspection) forbids the use of the words ''White House'' in advertising. Let's be realists: Mr. Deaver is a publicity expert, and his picture-posing appearances announcing the book have already emphasized his White House connection and the fascination of losing weight among the high and mighty. Neither the publisher nor the agent, my old friend Bill Adler, are doing anything wrong from their openly commercial viewpoint; they cannot be faulted when the promotion focuses on the ''White House Diet,'' because that's the way the story is set up to play.
Mr. Deaver's noble suffering over a limitation of $9,000 per year in royalties has nothing to do with reality. To create a new outside-earnings loophole - the subject of much tugging and hauling in the Congress - Mr. Deaver has apparently agreed to defer all royalty income over 15 percent of his government salary until the day after he leaves the White House. In fact, however, he is earning that outside income while he is still in office, and collecting it later. If anything is unethical, that is unethical.
The payoff will be considerable. Make a reasonable assumption that Mr. Deaver's White House diet book sells 75,000 copies in hard cover, at about $15 a copy; that would mean more than $150,000 to him. Using a 10-to-1 rule of thumb for the ratio of soft-cover to hardcover sales, and figuring a 50-50 split with the hard-cover publisher, the paperback would earn the author another $150,000. An alternate choice of a major book club would add at least $25,000, and first serial magazine rights $15,000 more. Newspaper syndication (the National Inquirer: ''Secrets of the White House Mess!'') and foreign sales are hard to predict, but the royalty package before agent and ghost-writer fees could easily top $300,000.
Few Tammany officeholders or revolving-door generals have had such golden parachutes. Mr. Deaver cannot be insensitive to the stern dictates of appearances: it was he who demanded that Richard Allen walk the plank over a wristwatch and a misplaced thousand dollars.
Basking in amused approval, the Reagan White House has pioneered the New Graft: instead of selling influence, sell your White House celebrity to take a commercial ride on the latest fad; instead of taking cash in your office, postpone collection until the day you reenter private life.Continue reading the main story