Tag Archives: War of 1812

The Burning of Washington, D.C.

It’s hard to imagine today, but on this day in 1814 British troops torched the White House, a fire that left the Executive Mansion a charred sandstone shell . The War of 1812 has been called the Second War of American Independence, but if it not been for the quick thinking of First Lady Dolly Madison relics of the first revolution including the original copy of the Declaration of Independence would have been burned to ashes. Here’s a great article on the event from the White House Historical Society. Also, one of my earlier posts gives additional details.

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The Books That Made America

Jefferson's "book room," where he kept his personal library at Monticello.

On this day in 1815, President James Madison signed a bill appropriating $23,950 — about $282,000 in today’s dollars — to purchase Thomas Jefferson’s library. The collection of 6,500 books became the nucleus of The Library of Congress, one of the premier research libraries in the world. Although established in 1800, Jefferson’s books rebuilt the collection which had been burned to ashes by invading British troops in 1814 during one of the more ignominious events of the War of 1812.  The hostilities were part of this nation’s first declared war and it is often called “the Second War of American Nationalism” by historians who study the event.

The sale was painful one. Jefferson, always in deep financial trouble because of poor personal spending habits and inescapable debt, needed the money. The fact that his dear friend Madison was the president almost certainly helped seal the deal. But Jefferson, a confirmed bibliophile, once said “I cannot live without books.”

The story of Jefferson’s collection, his cataloging system, and the sale of the books to the LOC can found at the on-line exhibit “Treasures of the Library of Congress.” Of course, one of the most valued treasures is Jefferson’s own hand-written draft of the Declaration of Independence.

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The Day the Declaration Escaped the Flames

A print depicting British forces burning the White House, 1814

A print depicting British forces burning the White House, 1814

It was disaster enough.  On August 24, 1814, British troops under the command of Gen. Robert Ross entered Washington, D.C., bent on revenge and destruction. American forces during the War of 1812 had burned government buildings in Canada earlier that year and the British now engaged in payback. They ransacked the town and torched numerous buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. Only a torrential downpour prevented the complete destruction of most of official Washington.

            It also was a day that the original copy of the Declaration of Independence narrowly escaped being burned to ashes. Most government officials had fled from the invading British Army, terrified because of the drubbing U.S. forces received earlier that day. U.S. soldiers actually retreated in panic through the streets of Washington – part of the so-called “Bladensburg Races” – and the government (including President James Madison) soon followed. What was left in Washington was a handful of federal employees, First Lady Dolley Madison (who was hastily organizing the removal of state papers and historical treasures from the White House), and some of the most cherished documents from the early years of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence.

            Normally, Secretary of State James Monroe would be responsible for gathering archival material to prevent its destruction. But Monroe, a veteran of the American Revolution, was busy in his attempts to organize some kind of defense against the British invasion. Stephen Pleasonton, a

Stephen Pleasonton (1775-1855)

Stephen Pleasonton (1775-1855)

senior clerk in the State Department, had already purchased coarse linen cloth and was hastily sewing bags that he would use to haul away books, documents, and state papers. He ordered the few clerks remaining his office to assist him in the work, which resulted in dozens of bags of documents being transported to the relative safety of a gristmill outside of nearby Georgetown. When the last load had left, Pleasonton took one final look at his empty office to see if anything had been left behind. In frame hanging on a wall in plain view was the engrossed copy of the Declaration – it had been overlooked by everyone. He hastily cut the document out of the frame, grabbed it along with a few remaining books and documents, and hightailed out of Washington just minutes before the British troops arrived to begin their rampage.

            When the British arrived they still found plenty to burn. However, the Declaration was safe, hidden in a private home in Leesburg, Virginia, until after the British withdrew from Washington. In September 1814, government officials returned the Declaration to the national capital where it has remained for the last 195 years with only two exceptions: When in it was placed in Philadelphia during centennial celebrations in 1876 and when it was removed to Fort Knox, Kentucky, during World War II for safekeeping.

            It was a close call. But thanks to a loyal government employee who understood the significance of the document, the Declaration of Independence is safe today as a national treasure, not ashes that would have literally been on their way to the dustbin of history.

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