In History Today, Graeme Garrard tells the tale of the burning of Washington in 1814:
When James Madison, fourth President of the United States and ‘Father of the Constitution’, signed a declaration of war against Britain on June 18th, 1812 he could scarcely have imagined that two years later he would be fleeing from his burning capital before the invading enemy. At the start of the ‘War of 1812’, the first the US had declared on another nation, his friend and predecessor as president, Thomas Jefferson, had smugly declared that the war against Britain’s colonies in what is today Canada would be ‘a mere matter of marching’. As Madison abandoned the White House on horseback with his entourage and raced towards Virginia on August 24th, 1814 he stopped and looked back as he beheld the ruined city of Washington. The smoke from flames that engulfed it could be seen as far away as Baltimore, Maryland. Although he left no personal account of his feelings about these shattering events, the normally imperturbable president must have been deeply shaken by the turn they had taken, as were most Americans. What his many domestic critics had derisively branded ‘Mr Madison’s War’ had led to the only foreign occupation of the US capital in its history. Soldiers and marines under Major-General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn put Washington’s public buildings, including the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Library of Congress, the Treasury building, the State and War Departments, the historic Navy Yard and the President’s House (as the White House was then known), to the torch. Exactly two centuries later, few people in the United States or Britain are aware of this national humiliation, the ‘greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’.
Why were the British so determined to burn the government buildings in Washington? Revenge for the Americans having done the same thing to York the previous year:
The Americans were as dejected and enraged as the British were elated by the effects of the occupation. The reserved and stoical Madison returned to Washington as soon as the British had departed. Unable to live in the President’s House, he took up residence at the home of his brother-in-law. His wife soon joined him, exclaiming when she saw the ruined capital: ‘Such destruction, such devastation!’ The secretary of state James Monroe, Madison’s successor as president, cursed the British troops as ‘all damn’d rascals from highest to lowest’ for torching the capital. He seems to have forgotten that American troops had done much the same in 1813 when they occupied the undefended city of York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario). Then they had burned the colony’s legislative and judicial buildings, plundered its public library and destroyed private property. Indeed, the Governor General and military Commander-in-Chief of British North America during the war, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prévost, wrote that, as a ‘just retribution, the proud capital at Washington has experienced a similar fate’. When the news reached London a month later of the British retaliation, guns outside Parliament and the Tower of London boomed a joyous salute, a reaction echoed throughout the colonies of British North America, particularly in York.