Look around Washington D.C. this summer and you’ll find parades, speeches and shows to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 100th anniversary of World War I. Heck, there are even exhibits honoring the 25th anniversary of Prague’s Velvet Revolution and the fact the 50 years ago the Beatles first invaded America, to much teenage frenzy.
But what you won’t find are a lot of mentions about the War of 1812’s bicentennial. “Wait,” you may ask, “if it was the War of 1812, why would we celebrate it in 1814?”
“Although it seems rather morbid to celebrate the burning of Washington in the summer of 1814, it was the turning point of the war,” says Leslie Jones, public programs manager at the White House Historical Association, one of a dozen organizations organizing events marking the anniversary. “It was the force that pushed the American side to really come out and push for the victory that culminated in the battle of New Orleans with Andrew Jackson a few months later.”
Perhaps we don’t celebrate The War of 1812 because we started it to get back Canada, which we wound up losing for a second time, along with most of the buildings in the brand new capital. But the War of 1812 is worth commemorating: it cemented America’s identity as nation and it gave us Francis Scott Key’s ode to the Battle of Fort McHenry — also known as the Star Spangled Banner.
“This is an area of history that is so not well known by the broader American public,” says Karen Daly, executive director of Dumbarton House, a historic Washington property that is now a museum. “I find when people visit Dumbarton House, an incredible number of Americans don’t even know this event even happened. They tend to jump from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. This area of history is glossed over in our schooling. And yet, this is what gave us our national anthem and it is very much the event that cemented the union and the democracy. It’s an incredible piece of our history.”
You won’t likely see Michelle Obama reenacting Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from the burning White House this weekend. But Aug. 24, the actual day of the 200th anniversary of the burning of the White House and the Capitol, will be celebrated in Washington with a 5k run at the Historic Congressional Cemetery, a family festival in Georgetown and a beer festival at Yards Park. And there’s one group that’s really celebrating: the British Embassy, tongue just a little in cheek, will be holding a “White House BBQ . . . on the 200th anniversary of a rather unfortunate event in UK/US relations . . .”