The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The similarities to the last invasion of the Capitol matter — so do the differences

They show how imperiled our democracy is

Pro-Trump rioters storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. (Ahmed Gaber/Reuters)
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Americans are struggling to make sense of the chaotic scenes of armed insurrectionists rampaging through the halls of the Capitol on Wednesday. In such moments of crisis, it is only natural that we look to what we know. For some historians and pundits, that meant the parallels to the attempt by British forces to burn the building on Aug. 24, 1814.

At first glance, the comparison makes sense. In both cases, enemies of the United States deliberately attacked one of the most potent symbols of American democracy. In each instance, federal authorities failed to protect the Capitol from predictable assault. But it is important to remember historical analogies are useful not only for identifying similarities, but also for highlighting differences between the past and present.

The differences between 1814 and 2021 offer a much more troubling picture of the dangers faced by our democratic republic. In 1814, the enemy came from outside; in 2021, the enemy came from within. In 1814, British forces captured the Capitol under wartime conditions; in 2021, American citizens stormed Congress in peacetime. In 1814, King George III commanded his soldiers (though his appointed officers) to attack the Capitol; In 2021, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, goaded armed insurrectionists to attack Congress.

Understanding both the similarities and differences between the two sieges is critical to properly safeguarding this citadel of democracy — and democracy itself — moving forward.

The occupation of Washington, D.C., by British forces in 1814 is one of the few things that people remember about the War of 1812. While most Americans would be hard pressed to explain the origins or significance of the conflict, many people will be able to tell you that the White House earned its name when it was painted to conceal wartime fire damage. A national humiliation has been recast as an interesting piece of trivia, largely because the United States need no longer fear invasion by a foreign foe.

By 1814, the war had been raging for over two years, with neither side dealing a decisive blow. Focused on their death-struggle with Napoleonic France in Europe, British commanders hoped the military campaign of 1814 would knock the United States out of the war by following the strategic orthodoxy of the day: capturing your enemy’s capital city. With naval supremacy in the Chesapeake Bay, 4,500 British troops landed on the Maryland coast, southeast of Washington City, on Aug. 19. After defeating ill-prepared American militiamen at the Battle of Bladensburg, British soldiers marched into the undefended U.S. capital on Aug. 24.

Just over a year earlier, it was the U.S. Army that was celebrating its triumphal entry into an enemy capital. With naval supremacy on the Great Lakes after the Battle of Lake Erie, an American expedition landed near York (present day Toronto) in April 1813. The Americans handily defeated the Canadian militia and entered the capital city of the province of Upper Canada. Unruly American soldiers plundered the city and set fire to the parliament building and the governor’s residence, before abandoning York two weeks later.

On Aug. 24, 1814, British forces reaped their revenge for their humiliation at York. While British officers dined on the food and drink of President James Madison in the executive mansion, soldiers set bonfires in government buildings throughout the city, including the Capitol building. The total destruction of the Capitol was only averted by a fortuitous rainstorm that dampened the flames.

What happened to the Capitol in 1814 was nothing out of the ordinary in early 19th-century warfare. Capturing national capitals was a tried and tested method for winning a war in Europe. As an accepted practice, burning buildings was subject to the rules of war. British officers ordered their troops to only burn public property in Washington. Attacking private property was meant to be off-limits in the “civilized” prosecution of war.

By the time the smoke had cleared in Washington, peace negotiations between the British and U.S. governments had already begun in the Belgian city of Ghent. The burning of the Capitol and other federal buildings did not end the war on its own, but it did help to sustain the contentious diplomatic process as U.S. peace commissioners looked to end the increasingly unpopular war. American and British negotiators finally concluded the War of 1812 with the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814.

At war’s end, the lessons from the burning of the Capitol were clear. The United States could not rely on poorly trained militia to defend the country from harm. Despite the Founders’ concerns about the tyrannical potential of a standing army, the danger of invasion by foreign armies meant professional soldiers were necessary to defend the country.

While the illegal invasion of the Capitol by armed insurrectionists on Wednesday also revealed serious security flaws, it contrasted starkly with the lawful actions of British soldiers in 1814. It was a gross violation of the rule of law. Armed mobs, with the encouragement of President Trump, attacking Congress during its certification of presidential electoral votes is an unprecedented, and heretofore unimaginable, act of sedition. In 1814, the Treaty of Ghent lifted the immediate threat of foreign invasion to the survival of the republic; in 2021, the insidious threat of domestic terrorists to our democracy cannot be solved by simply signing a piece of paper.

The question of how to defend American democracy after the attack on the Capitol is far more difficult to answer than was the question of how to rebuild and defend the Capitol in 1814.

While security in the Capitol undoubtedly will be tightened and reinforced, truly protecting the building and its symbolism in our democracy requires addressing the root causes of the assault. That means holding leaders accountable for encouraging the insurrectionary attempt by deliberately lying to their followers about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Only buttressing security at the Capitol would represent a failure to recall that while the similarities to historical events are important, so too are the differences. It would leave the building — and our democracy — exposed to further assault.