The War of 1812 vs. Jan. 6: Which was the worst attack on the U.S. Capitol?

British soldiers actually burned Washington in 1814 — believe it or not, the Jan. 6 insurrection was worse

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 18, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, January 6th Capitol Riot and the War of 1812 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, January 6th Capitol Riot and the War of 1812 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley calls himself a history "aficionado," and we've had several conversations about the relationship between history and current events. Recently we found ourselves discussing the War of 1812 because of a major similarity with the coup attempt of Jan. 6, 2021 — namely, a direct attack on the U.S. Capitol.

As O'Malley reflected on the events of Jan. 6, he became emotional. He was thinking about his mother, who worked for former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who was the longest-serving woman in congressional history, and knew, he said, "every nook and cranny" of the Capitol. She had instilled in her son a deep love of American history and America's democratic institutions.

"As I was hearing reports about members of Congress barricading doors, huddling under desks and trying to be quiet — so the people outside in the mob wouldn't know they were there and attack them or take their lives — I was reminded of the story of the Virginia militia who found themselves inside the Capitol building in 1814," O'Malley said.

He was referring to Aug. 22, 1814, the infamous day during the War of 1812 when British troops tried to break America's will to fight by capturing Washington and burning the White House, the Capitol and other key buildings. O'Malley described how Americans in his home state of Maryland could see the orange glow from their homes.

Some, like the Virginia militia he mentioned, had a closer view. Barricaded inside a stairwell, they waited while British troops tried to break down an intervening door. After that failed, the troops set the Capitol on fire and left the frightened Virginians to burn to death. Believing they were about to die, the militiamen carved their names and other details about themselves into the stones. O'Malley contrasted it with the desecration committed by Trump supporters in the Capitol on Jan. 6 and said of his mother: "I'm glad she didn't have to witness that."

One person who did witness it up close was Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, coincidentally one of O'Malley's few congressional supporters when the then-governor briefly ran for president in 2016. Like O'Malley, Swalwell is a history buff who knows a lot about the War of 1812. In an earlier interview, Swalwell told me about the "uncertainty and terror" that he and his colleagues felt on Jan. 6. He had sent a text message to his wife asking her to kiss their young children, fearing he might never see them again. More recently, Swalwell shared another memory from that day, one brought on when he saw pro-Trump rioters brandishing the Confederate flag.

At the time, Swalwell said, his chief of staff was a Black man he identified to me as Michael. A woman on his staff kept checking in with Michael because she was worried about him. "She was watching everybody descend upon the Capitol with their Confederate flags," Swalwell said. "The person she was most worried about was not me, but our Black chief of staff because she saw all these racists with their flags, their insignia and then with their weapons." The staff member was concerned that if Michael encountered the rioters he might be in danger. "When she said that, it really elevated my concern for him and his safety as well."

Swalwell also had some choice words about Donald Trump's leadership, contrasting him to James Madison, who was president during the War of 1812. Swalwell observed that Madison made numerous errors leading into that conflict, but was a great scholar and patriot, who helped draft the Constitution and wrote many of the Federalist Papers. "Madison loved his country, he was just woefully unprepared for what the British were willing to do," Swalwell said.

In a similar situation, Swalwell speculated, Donald Trump "would have been been beholden at the time to God knows what foreign power. If you read the Federalist Papers, because we had aligned with the French during the Revolutionary War, [the founders] were worried that future leaders would entangle themselves with foreign governments. That's why the emoluments clause was put in the Constitution. ... Whoever would have had the biggest emolument, essentially, would have been in Donald Trump's ear."

There are of course many other differences between the events of August 1814 and January 2021. The former occurred during a war in which the U.S. faced a conflict with British Empire over economic and trade disputes that essentially revolved around the question of whether America was truly independent. The burning of Washington was, in that sense, the last British middle finger stuck in the young nation's face.

Also, most obviously, it was foreign troops who burned the Capitol in 1814, not American citizens. On Jan. 6, we saw a defeated political faction lashing out because their leader was being a historic sore loser, quite literally. An angry mob, egged on by the first president in American history to lose an election and reject the results, stormed the Capitol in the false belief they could somehow overturn the 2020 election. It doesn't matter whether they sincerely thought Trump had been robbed or, as Salon's Amanda Marcotte has suggested, felt they were in on Trump's con

Here's another difference: While politicians and the public learned important lessons from the War of 1812 about protecting America's democratic institutions, Republicans have gone out of their way not to face the truth about Jan. 6, or learn anything from it. Swalwell remembered seeing the faces of his Republican colleagues' faces as they fled for their lives.

"As I bumped into people who were at the [Trump] rally or who had also propagated the Big Lie, I thought, 'How strange is it that we both are running for our lives?'" he said. "It made me think, maybe this is an opening. Maybe this will be what it takes for us to come together, that we find ourselves running for our lives, and we're going to the same secure location. Maybe this will bring us together and maybe this will be an inflection point for them to break away from Trump." Trump hadn't just targeted Democrats, after all, but "squishy" Republicans who weren't helping him win no matter what. 

But now, Swalwell thinks his initial thoughts were "naive and Pollyanna-ish." When he "saw the fear" on the faces of Republican colleagues, he said, "I thought this would bring us all together to condemn Donald Trump ... we'd finally recognize that unity would be the antidote to make sure it never happened again."

The problem, Swalwell thinks, is political courage. "I serve with people who don't have the imagination to see themselves doing any other job besides Congress," he said. "They don't have the confidence to believe that they could get a job other than Congress, so they do anything they can to stay in their jobs, which right now means you have to support Donald Trump and anything he says."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Capitol Riot Deep Dive Donald Trump Eric Swalwell History Jan. 6 Martin O’malley War Of 1812