The War of 1812:
The Capitol in Flames

At first I thought the world was on fire. Such a flame I have never seen since.”

Matilda Roberts recalling the burning of Washington, DC, which she observed as a seven-year-old girl.

For the early decades of the nation’s history, relations between the United States and Great Britain remained strained. Their relationship deteriorated sharply with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1803. Britain imposed a blockade on neutral countries such as the United States. In addition, the British took American sailors from their ships and "impressed" them into the British Navy. In Congress, southern and western Democratic-Republican "War Hawks," such as the new Speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Representative John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, led the sentiment for war, calling for a defense of American interests and honor. On June 1, 1812, President James Madison asked for a declaration of war. Shortly afterward, Congress, despite the opposition of every Federalist, approved the declaration.

Except for Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans, the War of 1812 produced a string of American military disasters. The most shocking of these was the British Army’s burning of the Capitol, the President’s house, and other public buildings in Washington on August 24 and 25, 1814. (Americans had previously burned public buildings in Canada.) When Congress returned September it considered moving to another city, but decided to stay after securing a $500,000 loan from Washington bankers.