British Embassy apologizes for tweet commemorating the burning of the White House (but not for the actual burning of the White House)


British humor and politeness battled for supremacy online this Sunday, the 200th anniversary of one of the signature events of the War of 1812. But in this social media battle, unlike the War of 1812 itself, there was a clear loser: The funny side blinked.

It's been exactly 200 years since the British burned down the White House. It has now been less than 24 hours since the British Embassy in Washington tweeted a joke about it.

Tweeting an image of a cake adorned with British and American flags, the Embassy staff joked yesterday that it was "commemorating" the destruction of the White House two centuries ago — but it was “only sparklers this time!”

Apparently, diplomats missed the fact that a cake celebrating the destruction of a U.S. national symbol might be viewed by some as a bit -- well, undiplomatic. Some 4,000 retweets later, it became clear: 200 years after the fact, the stateside reaction to the White House blaze anniversary may have cooled down a bit -- but some Americans' feelings about the fire tweet still run hot.

Marie Harf, a spokesman for the State Department, also weighed in on Cakegate. Her reaction: #itsComplicated:

Hours later, in a Monday morning tweet, the British Embassy dialed down the snark and apologized:

And so the social media dustup — much like the War of 1812 itself — ended with more or less no change to the status quo.

This isn't the first time the British government has issued a War of 1812-related apology. In his 2003 speech to Congress, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the British attempt two centuries before to burn down the Library of Congress. "I know this is kind of late, but sorry," he said.

Related: D.C.'s darkest day: A war no one remembers

Sebastian Payne is a national reporter with The Washington Post. He is the Post’s 35th Laurence Stern fellow.

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