Canadians Burning the White House

Oh Canada,
you ransacked through the town
searching for a Timmy’s
you burned the White House down

Yes indeedy, it’s July 1st — Canada Day! The day that celebrates that glorious time in 1867, when the various provinces of Canada became a confederation in the British Empire. It was later called Dominion Day, and then officially Canada Day in 1982.

But it’s an especially yummy day to talk about Canada and Canadians here at the Buzzkill Institute. That’s because, during a recent discussion with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Trump responded to Trudeau’s complaints about impending US tariffs on Canadian goods by saying, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”

Trump was apparently referring to the attack on Washington in August 1814, during the waning months of what is called The War of 1812 (in the United States, anyway). Once the story of Trump’s version of history hit the news and the internets, the switchboards here at the Institute lit up, with people calling in to say, “surely this isn’t true. The British burned the White House. Right?”

Thank the stars above I have so many historians slaving away here in our Research Division. I was able to farm those questions out to them and relax with a snack pack of Timbits from you know where.

Here’s the story about the burning of the White House in 1814. It happened in response to the destruction of Port Dover in Ontario in the summer. British forces marched on Washington in August, and burned many important buildings, including the Capitol and the White House (which was then known as the Executive Mansion).

But the War of 1812 was only one North American part of the Napoleonic Wars, fought between Britain and a great many of her allies on one side, and Napoleon’s French empire on the other. These wars engulfed much of Europe and the Atlantic World.

In theory, British forces in North America could have used Canadian soldiers and militiamen in their eventual attack on on Washington in 1814. That, among other things, would give President Trump a “see, it could have happened” opening through which he could continue espousing his “reading” of history. The problem is that, once Napoleon himself had been been defeated and forced to abdicate in April 1814, the British military decided to keep all the Canadian militia in Canada, defending those provinces against further American attack. British forces were then freed up to attack the United States to the south.

Therefore, Washington was attacked and burned down by military forces that were overwhelmingly British in terms of the “nationality.” I don’t what to go down the rabbit hole of what it meant to be a “British” or “Canadian” soldier in the British Empire at that time. But I’d bet my bottom Buzzkill dollar that those rummaging through Washington DC in 1814 hailed from Old Blighty, not from the Great White North.

But don’t tell President Trump. Please, please, please go on the Twitter and tell him (@realdonaldtrump) that Professor Buzzkill says that it is possible that there were Canadians involved. Maybe he’ll react and, inadvertently, promote the show. Don’t tell him that the chances of it being true are a million to one. Or maybe go ahead and tell him. That would probably seem like pretty good truth-telling odds to him. And we certainly need the publicity.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (2012).

A myth-shattering study of the War of 1812 that will inform and entertain students, historians, and general readers alike.