This past August 24th marks the anniversary of a tragic event in the nation’s history, as it is the day Washington D.C. was razed to the ground by British forces in 1814. Unfortunately, the War of 1812, from which this tragedy arose, is a subject that is hardly given any attention in schools. Over the decades, it has faded into the background of the American historical narrative, seeming only to resurface in order to praise Dolly Madison’s gallant efforts in saving George Washington’s portrait from falling into British hands.
If the war is no longer given much thought, then it is safe to assume that the average citizen is not very well versed in the reasons behind the declaration of war either. The official case for war was spurred on by the issue of impressment. Impressment is thus defined as the taking of men into naval or military service through means of compulsion. In the time leading up to the war’s outbreak, the British naval force was mighty but did not provide sailors with suitable pay or living conditions, causing many to desert. In order to compensate for the losses, Britain utilized impressment, supplementing their fleets with some 15,000 American men between the years 1793 and 1812. Many of these men worked on American merchant vessels, which were apprehended by British ships in order to seek out deserters.
Another catalyst to the conflict was the inflammatory trade restrictions that took the form of the 1806 British Orders in Council. Because Britain was engaged in armed conflict with Napoleonic France, trade restrictions keeping neutral countries from trading with France were established and enforced by the British navy. These constraints were detrimental to American trade and led many Americans to support entering into war.
The War of 1812 ultimately ended in December of 1814 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, but not before British forces invaded the nation’s capital and set it ablaze. Prior to its destruction, various lawmakers sought to relocate the capital to a different city every few years. Ironically, Washington D.C.’s fiery demise, though a perfect opportunity to set about measures for relocation, had the opposite effect. Instead, the event brought about a renewed sense of American patriotism, deepening the bond between what had previously been a loose coalition of states. The capital would go on to become a symbol of the ideals and freedoms that define America, a phoenix rising from the ashes.