The Significance of The Burning of Washington

the burning of Washington, D.C.

The Taking of The City of Washington in America, West Smithfield, London: published by G. Thompson No.43 Long Lane, 1814 Oct 14. Print Shows a view from the Potomac River, of Washington, D.C under attack by British forces under Major General Ross, August 24, 1814

The image show above is one of the most famous events in the war, the invasion Washington D.C by British soldiers who mercilessly burned down any public facility in the area during the war of 1812. It was an important moment during the war and it was a devastating moment for American citizens, mourning for their loss. However, the event could also be taken as a representation of how the war itself is only ruining America and possibly destroying the Union since it was a very unpopular war in itself. The War of 1812 was certainly a momentous event in American history and the engraving of Washington burning symbolizes a possible foreshadowing of the British taking back their lost property and that their American citizens must take this event seriously to prevent it from happening elsewhere.

The relationship between America and Britain is, by no ones surprise, incredibly strained during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. After their declaration for independence and revolting against England, the presence of bitterness between the two is very noticeable. The War of 1812 only intensified it and created dilemmas within the colonies on how to approach the issue. Should America defend themselves because of the British impressing American soldier out in seas, or should they avoid another war that might make their situation worse? With the burning of Washington, the debate staggers and gives a basis on why they should fight back.

“The Taking of The City of Washington In America” is a wood engraved piece by G. Thompson that recreates the burning of Washington, capturing the intense moment of the invasion that shocked Americans throughout their nation. The art itself is simple and lacks any color other than black and white but it is detailed enough to show the big picture of how the invasion occurred. The picture is overflowed by the foreign invader burning down the city, smoke and fire are engulfing what appears to be both public facilities, like the white house and homes. This can be misleading to how the event occurred since the British had no intention in attacking private property, only public. Perhaps the lack of detail of the areas being burned down is created on purpose in order to provoke a stronger emotional appeal for the audience. If a citizen were to look at this painting, they would see buildings burning, nothing particular other than it was in Washington and was done by the British. By not knowing exactly what is being attacked, except that it was in Washington, it would connect the viewer more closely to the painting and the war itself. They would to come to believe that homes, just like theirs, were attacked without mercy.

Not only that, the angle was drawn to show the overwhelming amounts of British soldiers invading the city. Why such a shot? If the artist truly wants his people to see how large and dangerous the situation was, he needs the show the whole city burning down. Soldiers are flooding in and taking more of the space to create a drowning feel by the British presence. Once again, there is that strong presence of a call for action because this could happen to anybody. By ignoring the damages they have done, this could lead to a similar disaster. The picture shows the influx of British soldiers with no American citizens fighting against them, showing how the attack began without warning in what seems to be in the night by the dark tones of the picture. If they attacked while everyone was asleep, they become even more of a danger, which is what the artist is conveying. That this should not let the enemy trick them again. However, not all have this opinion.

Ted Widmer in his article “The War of 1812? Don’t remind me” expresses this opinion while explaining the history of the war itself briefly. Widmer presents the exact opposite of how the burning of Washington was not a moment of unity but a moment of disaster.  He articulates his view from that of New England’s stand point, a colony that was vehemently against the war. He states that due to the rushed decision of declaring war “it soon became apparent that the United States was ill-prepared to wage a war against the world’s preeminent military power”. He connects this by explaining that the burning of Washington is an example of such “ill-preparedness”. There was actually a point that New England, he says, “might have led to New England breaking away from the United States” during conventions within the colony but the opportunity did not arise once the Treaty of Ghent was established. If this point of view was used for Thompson’s work of the burning of Washington, it only reinforces the fact that the war is only destroying America from the inside out, possibly creating more divisions, like what happened to New England, rather than unity.

However, this is a very limited point of view, it would be interesting to see the author expand on his claims that the war was a bad choice to begin with. It also raises the question of what other alternative could be used if not war. A treaty perhaps could be made between America and Britain, I assume that Widmer would be more comfortable with, but considering that Britain was kidnapping American sailors and more or so violating their independence, I doubt a simple treaty would fix it. War was a loud act of self defense, by ignoring Britain’s disrespect, the problem will most likely become worse. Yet, I agree with Widmer that the colonies should have been much more prepared for war rather than diving right in.

Do the positives or negatives outweigh one another about entering the War of 1812? It is more of a mixture between the two. Thompson’s wood engraving is a demonstration of not only the weaknesses of the nation but also the reason of why they should be fighting in the first place. Widmer pushes the notion that perhaps war is not the answer and the War of 1812 was a terrible decision due to the circumstances that America was in at the time. It is important that The Burning of Washington was certainly the pinnacle of the war, representing the ideas of what could happen and what should be done, important topics that were involved during the war.


Citation Page:

“The Taking of the City of Washington in America.” The Taking of the City of Washington in America. Web. 15 Jan. 2016.

Widmer, Ted. “The War of 1812? Don’t Remind Me – The Boston Globe.” Boston Globe Media Partners, 20 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2016.


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