The more time passes, the more I am impressed by the enormity of January 6th. It will be a day that will live in greater infamy than December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked our Hawaii Territory. January 6, 2021, however, was our own citizens attacking our own Capitol -- and threatening to kill officials who were elected by a majority of their constituents. Many commentators pointed out that this was the first invasion of the capital since the War of 1812 -- but that attack also was by another nation, not by our own citizens. Nothing ever has been comparable to last January.
The War of 1812 is an awkward name: I've always thought that it should be called the Second War for Independence. Like the first war for American independence from Britain, it was part of a greater global conflict. The first was motivated in part because Britons feared revolutionary ideas in France, while the second grew out of even greater British fear of France, as Bonaparte Napoleon tried to conquer all of Europe.
Because they needed sailors, the British Navy kidnapped and forced Americans into service on their ships. Working from Canada, they also supplied and abetted Native Americans who attacked frontier outposts in the US. Especially on the Great Lakes that border Canada, there was a real possibility of losing American territory. Congress declared war in 1812, and in 1813, the British took Fort Niagara and burned Buffalo. They also blockaded most ports on the East Coast, with resulting naval battles that harmed both sides.
American troops were untrained and badly assigned, and on August 19, 1814, some 4,000 British soldiers went up Chesapeake Bay and invaded an undefended Washington. President James Madison and his Cabinet fled, and it was up to Dolley Madison to protect what then was called "The Executive Mansion" or "The President's Palace." I remembered that she recorded her thoughts as she waited for a cart to take national treasures to safety, leaving her own things behind.
When I could not locate the item, Dr. John Belohlavk, who specializes in this period of history, immediately responded to my request. I regret that this has stayed on my desk since the January invasion. I think my slowness was not only because of my long hospitalization and recovery, but probably also because after the sunshine that January 20th brought, with the inauguration of a very different kind of president, I was reluctant to return to the dark days of early January. But here is the story of brave and resourceful Dolley Payne Madison.
DOLLEY THE DIPLOMAT
She was far from a doll. Instead, several European observers referred to her as queen-like, with a commanding presence that reflected dignity, legitimacy, and stability in the upstart nation. While her husband and other men fled, Dolley Madison not only saved state papers and presidential possessions, but also Gilbert Stuart's iconic portrait of George Washington. Waiting for transportation was agonizing: a clerk in the House of Representatives later said of his office, "everything might have been removed in time, if carriages could have been procured, but it was altogether impossible."
First Lady Madison finally did get her cart and was out of danger when "the British marched into Washington about 8:00 PM." Some defied decorum to enter her home, where one officer wrote that we "found a supper all ready, which many of us speedily consumed… and drank some very good wine also." Having filled their stomachs, they set fire to the building.
According to witnesses, "Nothing survived, but unroofed, marked walls, cracked, defaced, blackened with the smoke of fire… The British also burned the Capitol building (which included the Library of Congress), the treasury, and the building housing the war and state departments." The Navy Yard came in for special attention, with both ships and facilities set ablaze.
Washington City, which was only about a dozen years old, was in ruins. Many members of Congress – especially those from the Northeast – argued that the capital should return to Philadelphia or New York, where it had been during and immediately after the American Revolution. Congress debated for months and narrowly voted to stay put. I like the argument of a North Carolina representative, still applicable today: "If the seat of government is once set on wheels, there is no saying where it will stop."
Especially because she was a native of nearby Virginia, Dolley Madison also played a role in keeping the capital where George Washington had intended it. She had to conduct her famous salons in one small room, but she charmed elite society into investing in the capital city. As one historian pointed out, "the initial funding for rebuilding came not from the government but from local banks."
The war especially affected seamen, and at a time when "orphans" often referred to children whose mothers could not support them, Dolley Madison also led the founding of the Washington Female Orphan Asylum. Moreover, these "ladies met in civic space, occupying the House chamber." That was in 1815, and in 1816, when James Madison followed the tradition set by Washington and Jefferson and left office after two terms, the nation and its capital were on firm footing. This stability is reflected in the fact that the fifth president, Democrat James Monroe, had no opponent at all in the 1820 election.
BACK TO OUR FUTURE
Such unanimity seems impossible today, especially because so-called conservatives love to ape each in creating unnecessary culture wars. Not surprisingly, the Florida legislature joined this trend when it banned transgender girls from school athletics. My first reaction: Who is going to enforce this? Are coaches, often male, going to tell a girl to remove her panties so that he can examine her genitals? I've not heard of any school team anywhere in Florida that has encountered this as a problem. Instead, it is simply a distraction. It's much easier than dealing with the complexities of real difficulties.
I am reminded of Clara Jo Nelson, who was over six feet tall and went on to play pro-basketball – in the 1960s, when there were few such options. Everyone in our Arkansas town was proud of Clara Jo – she could just raise her arm and sink baskets. Our girls' team won every game, and we adored her. It never occurred to us that she might have male hormones.
I still get the newspaper from Dardanelle, Arkansas, and I see photos of soccer-playing girls who appear bigger and stronger than many guys. The paper's publishers clearly are proud of them, and no one would want their testosterone levels tested. If our Florida legislators were true conservatives, they would go back to a simpler time of community spirit and take pride in a girl's achievement.
The legislature also adopted the Republican agenda in "reforming" election laws -- after the smoothest election in state history and without the approval of election supervisors. The change that affects me most is that I'll now have to ask Craig Latimer's excellent office to send me a ballot at every election: before "reform," I could sign up to automatically receive one.
I wouldn't be surprised, though, if this thoughtless action will rebound against the Republicans who adopted it. Many of their voters are retirees from states like Ohio and Iowa, where they traditionally vote Republican. Unfamiliar with Florida law as they are, many will not think about requesting a ballot until the deadline has passed. They will miss their chance to mark all the boxes for Rs.
And prohibiting people from giving water to people standing in line at polls is just cruel. Do they really think that anyone with the dedication to spend time waiting in the Florida heat will change his or her intended vote because of a bottle of water? This restriction is simply another illustration of a plantation mentality that mimics Georgia – and it will work about as well here as it did there. Watch out, Republicans; you may outdo yourselves with your cleverness.
SOME GOOD NEWS
The legislature did do one excellent thing: they banned robocalls! Led by my own East Hillsborough Representative Andrew Learned and other Democrats, Republicans had the sense to join in what will prove to be a wildly popular move. I'm personally very grateful. I can't tell you how many times lately my walker and I have rushed to the phone, thinking it might be a nurse, and instead it was another recorded call from a corporation that doesn't care that it endangers my life.
I also was cheered by President Biden's recent speech. Not only was it a return to dignity, with no Trump-like personal attacks on anyone, but also he proposed the greatest economic investment since Franklin Roosevelt. It was gratifying, too, that he began by noting the making of history: for the first time ever, the two people sitting behind him, the vice president and the House speaker, were women. I have hope that I may live to see all three be women – just as it has been all men for centuries.
But more than that, I am reassured by their age and experience. Joe Biden is 79 and has spent his whole life learning the issues that matter to Americans. Nancy Pelosi did not begin her career until she reared five children; she now is 81 – and the best-looking and smartest great-grandmother in the world. These two inspire me every day.