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The burning of Washington: a bicentennial the nation's capital is ignoring

The burning of Washington during the War of 1812 is depicted in a painting that hangs in a corridor of the House side of the United States Capitol.
The burning of Washington during the War of 1812 is depicted in a painting that hangs in a corridor of the House side of the United States Capitol.
Flickr: Architect of the Capitol

You'd think a city that shoots off fireworks at the drop of a hat would do something to commemorate the day the British lit it up with fireworks of their own. But you'd be hard pressed to find much happening in Washington this weekend to memorialize the day, during the War of 1812, that British troops marched into town and torched nearly every federal building in the city.

There's a ranger talk, free "Dolley" cake at the Georgetown house that First Lady, Dolley Madison, was forced to evacuate as the British approached the White House, and even a "Flee the British!" 5K run. But that's about it. Both Maryland and Virginia have big commemorations planned, but Washington is mostly choosing to ignore the event that marks an American defeat.

Too bad. It's the perfect opportunity for a town full of government workers to salute the heroism of a pair of its own.

On Aug. 24, 1814, invading British soldiers set fire to the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Treasury, State and War Departments and even a local newspaper office. It could have been worse: A violent thunderstorm put out most of the flames.

In the midst of the chaos, two civil servants took it on themselves to save the paperwork that catalogued the early days of American government.

The Federal City of Washington wasn’t much more than tobacco fields and an occasional government building in 1814. The smart money was that the British would attack a more attractive target, like Baltimore. But Senate clerk Lewis Machen was worried and tried to get his bosses to prepare for the worst.

Unfortunately, there was a lack of leadership at the top. The longtime Secretary of the Senate, who'd served since 1789, had died. The President of the Senate — otherwise known as the Vice President of the United States — had also died that year. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says nobody wanted to take command, despite Machen's plea to "move the records out of here!" Instead, his bosses wanted to wait and see what happened.

Ritchie says Machen commandeered a neighbor’s wagon – just in case. As the British overran American troops in nearby Bladensburg, he and an African-American Senate messenger named Tobias Simpson carried out every box and every file cabinet they could, put them on the wagon, and got part of the way out of town when "the wheel fell off the wagon. " That wasn’t the only calamity. The wagon overturned, and they had to move everything twice, all while escaping advancing British troops.

The House of Representatives waited too long to get a wagon, so all of those original records were destroyed. But the Senate civil servants saved George Washington’s handwritten letter nominating his first cabinet, international treaties and other precious documents, detailing the beginnings of the of a brand new nation — the United States of America. Those papers now reside in the National Archives.  

We know the details of this paper chase from letters Machen wrote on his own behalf, trying to get a better job. Congress expressed its gratitude to Lewis Machen and Tobias Simpson as well, passing resolutions honoring the pair for their service. Simpson was granted $200 for his "exertions to save the public property in the capitol." Machen got the job he wanted: chief clerk.