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he United States Capitol has always been the temple of democracy. Since the Capitol Building is the seat of the legislative branch of the United States (US) federal government, it has often been the set of protests. Nevertheless, before the storming that occurred on January 6, 2021, the Capitol had been raided only once. On August 24, 1814 — in a climate of war that was much more severe than today — the British troops marched on the Capitol and burned down the parliament building, the presidential residence, and other monuments.

War of 1812

Since the outbreak of war with Napoleonic France in 1803, the British Royal Navy had enforced a naval blockade to inhibit neutral trade to France. The United States felt Britain was trying to take control of all their foreign commerce, and that their independence was at risk. As a matter of fact, the economy of the United States suffered from this. The American feeling towards Britain grew increasingly hostile due to a number of maritime incidents such as the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard affair, when the British warship Leopard attacked and boarded the American frigate Chesapeake. At the same time, the United Kingdom was not satisfied with the American expansionism. As a result, on June 18, 1812, American President James Madison approved “an act declaring war between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependence thereof and the United States of America and their territories.”

USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere in a single-ship engagement (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It read:

“Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be, and the same is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependences thereof, and the United States of America and their territories; and that the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval power of the United States … to carry the same into effect; And to issue to private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marque and General Reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods and effects of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the subjects thereof.”

The Burning of Washington

On August 24, 1814, after the defeat of American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg, a British force marched to Washington. The British wanted to attack the Capitol as a retaliation for the American burning and looting of York — the capital of Upper Canada — that had occurred the previous year. Although the British and the Americans counted, respectively, 4,250 and 7,640 soldiers, the British were able to set the Capitol Building on fire. After that, the British turned towards the White House — then called the Presidential Mansion — and set fire to it too.

Burning of Washington — Paul de Thoyras — 1816 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“The Storm that Saved Washington”

That night, a heavy thunderstorm — perhaps a hurricane — saved the Capitol from total destruction. However, the fire had already devastated the wing of the Senate, the oldest in the building. Following the storm, the British left Washington. Historians argue that their intention was very likely just to raze the city, rather than occupying it.

Clearly, the two raids are pretty different. First of all, during the Burning of Washington a foreign power attacked the capital of the United States, whereas, on January 6, 2021, the rioters were American. Moreover, the Burning of Washington caused material damage to the Capitol, whereas the 2021 storming was more of a damage to the image of the United States. Although both the raids caused apprehension and fear, they are not comparable. Times were different, and consequences too. However, these are the only two times the activities of the legislative branch of the US federal government were interrupted.

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