Patriotism and Reconstruction: Washington, DC after Conquest and Arson during the War of 1812
Anthony S. Pitch
The 24-hour occupation of the nation's capital by British forces during the War of 1812 was arguably the lowest point in American history. The President fled to Virginia hours before the invaders torched the White House, Capitol, State and War Departments, and the Treasury. The colossal buildings that represented the hopes and aspirations of the young Republic were now wizened and hollow in what was nothing more than a 14-year-old glorified village, with 8,000 residents. It should have doomed the infant capital to instant oblivion, with many claiming the moment was opportune to relocate to Philadelphia or elsewhere to save the cost of rebuilding. But a surge of patriotism followed the heroic defense of Fort McHenry, the birth of the anthem, and a monumental victory over the British at New Orleans. It reinvigorated those in Congress invoking the memory of George Washington, who had personally selected the site for a capital and marked the locations of its major public buildings. Local businessmen overcame Congressional critics citing post-war depleted Treasury coffers, by proffering bank loans to fund the costly estimates. Yet even though Washington won the vital reprieve as America's capital, rebuilding would be halting and arduous, slowed and marred by squabbling over designs, construction material, a paucity of creative artists, and financial restraints. But the monumental buildings would rise again, with legislators reconvening in even more splendid comfort, due in no small measure to a President who micromanaged, keenly aware that a rebuilt White House and Capitol would be symbolic of national resilience and unity.
School of Architecture and Planning, Joint Program in City Design and Development
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