#OnThisDay: British Invasion of Washington, DC

My blog post on June 22, 2020 (#OnThisDay: The Chesapeake – Leopard Affair off Virginia, 1807) was about a naval incident that was a cog in the wheel of events that resulted in the War of 1812. One of the most famous events of that three-year war between the United States and Great Britain was the British invasion of Washington, DC and the burning of the White House on August 24, 1814.

Left behind in Washington City

United States First Lady Dolley Madison showed what she was made of on that day. Her husband, President James Madison left Washington City to join General Winder. Before leaving, he asked Dolley if she would be all right there until his return. She assured him that all was well and she wasn’t afraid. He instructed her to take care of the public and private Cabinet papers, the Cabinet being the Secretary of State and other federal department heads.

That’s not how things played out, though, and Dolley became a bit of a hero on that August day 206 years ago. It turned out that the British troops were much closer to the capital city than the president had thought. When President Madison realized the imminent danger posed by the British troops, he wrote to Dolley twice in pencil that she should get out of Washington as soon as possible.

Dolley filled trunk after trunk with government papers, sacrificing the Madison family possessions in order to save important documents. People all around her were fleeing for their lives. As she wrote in a letter to her sister, Anna, “even Colonel C with his hundred, who were stationed as a guard in this enclosure” fled.

Photo by David Everett Strickler on unsplash.com

A faithful servant, French John, offered to “spike the cannon at the gate, and lay a train of powder, which would blow up the British should they enter the house.” Dolley declined to take him up on his offer of defending the White House.

The Battle of Bladensburg

At sunrise the next morning, Dolley looked through her spyglass in all directions, watching for her husband to appear. He didn’t come. In the early afternoon she could hear the cannons firing as the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg. By mid-afternoon she had procured another wagon and “filled it with plate and the most valuable portable articles belonging to the house.” That wagon was dispatched to the Bank of Maryland for safe keeping.

Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of George Washington

Dolley was urged to get in a carriage and leave immediately, but she still refused to leave the White House without Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. It turned out that the frame was bolted to the wall, so it was not just a matter of taking it down. To save time, the canvas was cut out of the frame, rolled up, and saved by Dolley Madison. She went down in history for her heroics of August 24, 1814.

The Burning of Washington City

As the British troops entered the capital city, they torched one government office after another until finally reaching the White House. Some sources say the soldiers feasted on a meal prepared for 40 guests at the grand dining table before setting fire to the house; but that seems a little far-fetched since there was no one remaining there to prepare food and Dolley Madison had fled with the china.

It was surely a day and night of terror for any Washington residents who dared to stay behind. When the sun rose the next morning, the Capitol Building, the White House, and every other building of importance lay in smoking ruins.

Dolley Madison’s Background and Legacy

Growing up in North Carolina, I wasn’t taught much about the War of 1812 when I was in school. The battles all took place north of our state. It just wasn’t emphasized when I came along. If one of my social studies teachers had related the above story with energy and enthusiasm, it would have made the War of 1812 much more memorable and relatable than a recitation of battles and dates.

Dolley Madison is also remembered for making a conscious effort to invite guests from both political parties to social functions at the White House. The term “bipartisanism” had not yet been coined when she worked to do all she could to encourage cooperation between the political parties.

Dolley Payne Madison was born to Quaker parents in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1768. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was 15 years old. She married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, and they had two children; however, Mr. Todd and the younger of their sons died during a yellow fever outbreak in 1793.

At that time, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. Dolley was an attractive young widow. Senator Aaron Burr introduced her to then Congressman James Madison. She married Madison after a brief courtship.

James Madison was an Episcopalian. Dolley converted to his faith and abandoned her Quaker upbringing and manner of dress. The Madisons lived at Montpelier, the family plantation in Virginia before moving to Washington, DC in order for James to be President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. It seems that Dolley happily fell right into the Washington social scene.

Since President Jefferson was not married, Dolley Madison served as the unofficial First Lady. It was she who got to make many decisions about the furnishings of the newly-constructed White House. James Madison was elected US President in 1808. Although much-revered as the “Father of the US Constitution,” he was 17 years Dolley’s senior and his terseness was in great contrast to the vivacious Dolley.

At the end of President Madison’s second term, he and Dolley returned to Montpelier. They lived there until his death in 1836. Dolley then moved back to the social life in Washington, DC, where she died in 1849.

Since my last blog post

Life has thrown a few curves at me since last Monday. It seems in the coming days I’ll learn how to care for a diabetic dog. My work on my scenic or step plot outline got hijacked, but I’ll get back to it.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. My mind has been pulled in more than a few directions, making it difficult for me to concentrate on reading. I still have a couple of books I want to finish, though, by the end of the month.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.

Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask. It’s not a sacrifice in the big scheme of things.

Janet

“I can’t breathe!”

I planned to blog about point-of-view in fiction writing today. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been able to settle my mind around point-of-view in fiction the last couple of weeks and especially not in the last seven days.

I don’t take lightly what I’m posting here today. I’ve wrestled with the words all weekend. I take no joy in saying what is on my heart.

I live in the United States. This is a watershed moment in this country. We are beginning to come to grips with social and racial injustice which has existed in America since its very founding. I will blog about point-of-view in fiction writing at another time when it seems more appropriate.

What happened May 25, 2020

On May 25, 2020, a police officer murdered Mr. George Floyd who was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. He might not have even known the bill was counterfeit. Three other officers were there. Two were new on the job, so I can’t help but think the officer in charge was making a show for them.

Mr. Floyd was slammed to the pavement. One police officer held his knee on the man’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Part of the time, two other offices held the hand-cuffed man down by pressing down on his back. One of the officers asked his superior officer twice, “Shouldn’t we turn him over?”

Among the last words Mr. Floyd uttered were, “I can’t breathe!” He lost consciousness and died on the scene. The police officers were white. Mr. Floyd was black. It was all captured on a 17-year-old young woman’s cell phone video.

This type of thing has happened over and over again. One would think it would have stopped when the police knew that there’s always someone nearby with a cell phone, but this has happened repeatedly in the United States even as rogue police actions are captured on camera.

I want to believe that most police officers are honest, fair, and people of good character; however, we all know that there are officers who represent the worst in our society. There are “good” people and “bad” people among us and in every walk of life.

But the problem is more systemic than that. As police departments have been weaponized more and more since September 11, 2001, I think there has grown within that brotherhood more of a military mindset than existed before.

As a white woman, I’ve had several bad experiences with police officers. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel to be a person of color dealing with a police officer. White people like to think, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” Sadly, that’s not the reality that black people live every day in the United States.

For black people in America, doing the right thing and being compliant when stopped by a police officer isn’t necessarily enough. Mr. Floyd didn’t resist arrest, as far as can be seen on the video. That wasn’t enough to save his life.

What happened to Mr. George Floyd on May 25 was tragic and abhorrent. “I can’t breathe!”

Black Lives Matter
Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

In response to this incident, there have been peaceful protests by hundreds of thousands of people of all colors across the nation. (My favorite sign in the photo above is the one that says, “If you’re not angry, you aren’t paying attention.”)

"God marches with us" sign in peaceful protest in the US in June 2020
Photo by Andrew Winkler on Unsplash

In some of the cities, a violent element has emerged and committed acts of violence and looting of businesses. The few looters give the peaceful demonstrators a bad name and they draw attention away from the real issues.

I was horrified to watch the murder of Mr. Floyd on television. I was saddened and angered to watch the looting on television. The rioting and looting only served to take the spotlight off of Mr. Floyd and the other black men and women who have died at the hands of rogue cops. The looting of businesses hurts the very people for whom the peaceful protesters are marching.

Insurrection Act of 1807 Threat

Last Monday, Donald Trump threatened to enact the Insurrection Act of 1807 and, in the process, turned the police against a group of peaceful protesters with tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets so he could stage a photo-op across the street from the White House at a church. I heard the Attorney General of the United States say it wasn’t tear gas. He said it was pepper spray. He went on to say that pepper spray is not an irritant. And so it goes. And so it goes.

Mr. Trump went on the threaten to deploy the US military into states if state governors didn’t put an end to the protests. He essentially said that if the governors didn’t take care of the problem, he would.

For those of you who are not US citizens, I want you to understand how despicable Mr. Trump’s threat is.

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra



Since Washington, DC (District of Columbia) is not a state or in a state, the president has the authority to call in the US military into that city; however, he does NOT have the authority to order the US military into states if the governors don’t put a stop to the protests in their states. He cannot legally do that. Under the Insurrection Act of 1807, the president can only mobilize the military in a US state at the request of that state’s governor.

What has happened over the last two weeks has made me sick to my core. I cannot find the words to adequately express my anger, sadness, disappointment, shock, sorrow, or fear.

The US military is supposed to protect us, not beat us into submission! Mr. Trump’s idea of “law and order” is to quell anyone or any group that dares to speak out against him.

The list of retired US military officers who have spoken out against Mr. Trump’s threats last Monday continues to grow. Several have used strong language such as saying Mr. Trump is “a threat to the Constitution.”

Use of a Church and the Bible just as props

The icing on the cake was when Mr. Trump posed in front of a church and held up a Bible. Then, he called his all-white White House staff to stand with him for another photo-op with the Bible.

Numerous religious leaders have spoken out against what Mr. Trump did in front of St. John’s Church last Monday. He held a Bible in the air and looked stone-faced into the cameras. He didn’t read from the Bible, he didn’t pray, and he didn’t call for prayer for our country in crisis. He offered no words of consolation for all the hurting people. He didn’t mention Mr. George Floyd.

Still oblivious, on Friday Mr. Trump said “George” (not “George Floyd” and not “Mr. Floyd”) was probably looking down on us and saying it was a great day because the unemployment rate in the US dropped to 13.3% in April. He failed to mention that unemployment rates for black Americans increased to 16.8%.

My hope and prayer

I pray that people will think long and hard before they vote in November on the national, state, and local levels. Every four years, Americans tend to say, “This is the most important election in our lifetimes.” I’ve thought and said that myself. It was certainly true about the 2016 election but, if the 2020 presidential election goes the way the 2016 election did, there will be a real constitutional crisis in store for us.

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

The United States Senate had a chance in January to impeach Mr. Trump and remove him from office. The Republican majority caved. They’ve been predictably silent throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and the president’s mishandling of the current racial injustice crisis.

Mr. Trump’s answer has been to make threats and have layer after layer of fencing and concrete blockades built around the White House in the past week. He got an expensive education, but it’s sad he wasn’t given a history or civics lesson. The White House is “the people’s house.” It’s not his house. It’s his, rent-free for four years.

It was never my intent to use my blog as a political platform, but I have this internet platform and I would be remiss if I ignored what is happening in America. It is way past time for all Americans to look within ourselves and honestly recognize our prejudices. I believe we all have prejudices. Each of us has flaws and faults.

If I see injustice and I don’t speak out, I’m complicit. I’m part of the problem. There is racism in the White House. There is racism in the US justice system. There is racism within city and county police departments.

Until people in all positions of authority and those of us who are not in positions of authority recognize and name our prejudices, the problem of social and racial injustice in the United States will remain with us.

Until we embrace these words in the US Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” our country can’t reach its full potential. Until Americans of all colors can reach their full potential, our country can’t reach its full potential. I sincerely hope 2020 is a turning point for the good of the whole of the United States.

“I have a dream…”

Martin Luther King, Jr. statue, Washington, DC
Photo by Sonder Quest on Unsplash

I pray that the day will come when the words of Dr. Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech August 28, 1963 become a reality. Dr. King said, in part, the following:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We’ve come a long way since 1963, when I was 10 years old, but I’m appalled to realize how far we still have to go before Dr. King’s dream can become a reality. It’s been 57 years since his speech. Let that sink in for a minute. Fifty-seven years.

I thank God I live in a country where I have the right to criticize the government and political office holders without fear of retribution. I pray it will remain so today and especially after the November 2020 election. Free speech is a fragile thing.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I suggest you make a conscious effort to read a book written by a person whose skin color is different from your own. Ask for a recommendation at your local library or bookstore.

Continue to stay safe during the Covid-19 pandemic. Care for one another. Wear a mask to protect others.

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Be an instrument of God’s peace. Seek ways in which you can work for social justice.

Janet