by Robert Morrison
August 24, 2014
Professional football Hall of Famer Steve Largent liked to tell the story of his first real visit to Washington, D.C. He had been to RFK Stadium repeatedly when his Seattle Seahawks played our Redskins. As he rode in a cab to the Capitol in 1995, the newly elected Congressman from Oklahoma (R) marveled at all the huge government buildings he saw on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. “I wonder how many people work in those buildings,” he mused. “Oh,” his cabby said, “about half of them.”
Government workers in Washington had plenty of work to do on this date two hundred years ago. In the President’s House, First Lady Dolley Madison was supervising the emergency evacuation. During the War of 1812, most of our victories against Britain had come at sea, in ship-to-ship encounters or else on the Great Lakes. America’s army had repeatedly failed to conquer Britain’s northern dominions in Canada, but had managed to outrage the Canadians by burning their provincial capital of York, Ontario.
By 1814, it was payback time. A powerful British squadron sailed into Chesapeake Bay. Landing a strong contingent in Maryland, the redcoats marched overland. U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong was complacent about the threat to Washington, D.C. They are headed for Baltimore, he repeatedly told subordinates. Or maybe Annapolis.
President James Madison felt it his duty to join the troops defending the nation’s capital. The five-foot-four-inch, 63-year old commander-in-chief calmly mounted his horse and rode off.
Meanwhile, Charles Carroll of Maryland, a famed Signer of the Declaration and a leading Catholic layman, stopped by the Executive Mansion to warn Mrs. Madison of the British advance. She was all activity that day as the enemy defeated state militia forces at battles in Bladensburg and Upper Marlboro, Maryland. American troops were attacked with Congreve rockets. These newly developed weapons were not so deadly in themselves, and fairly inaccurate, but they served to panic the Yankees’ horses (and, truth be told, not a few inexperienced American militiamen.)
Dolley Madison had bravely remained behind to take care of last-minute details. She went from window to window with a spyglass, looking for the redcoats’ approach. She was determined to rescue Gilbert Stuart’s famous full-length portrait of President George Washington. The canvas painting had to be cut out of its frame.
At the State Department, a clerk was not one of those “half of them” — government workers who worked. On this fateful day, this clerk was all duty and all efficiency. As the National Archives website relates the story:
Secretary of State James Monroe rode out to observe the landing of British forces along the Patuxent River in Maryland. A message from Monroe alerted State Department officials, including a clerk named Stephen Pleasonton, of the imminent threat to the capital city and, also, to the government’s official records. Pleasonton “proceeded to purchase coarse linen, and cause it to be made into bags of convenient size, in which the gentlemen of the office” packed the precious books and records including the Declaration. A cartload of records was then taken up the Potomac River to an unused gristmill belonging to Edgar Patterson. Here the Declaration and the other records remained, probably overnight. On August 24, while the White House and other government buildings were burning, the Declaration was stored 35 miles away at Leesburg. The Declaration remained there at a private home until the British had withdrawn their troops from Washington and their fleet from the Chesapeake Bay.
Americans long remembered the British burning of our White House, our Capitol, and, shamefully, our Library of Congress. They held off burning the Patent Building only when a brave American, William Thornton persuaded them that it contained private property, a priceless record of inventions to benefit all mankind.
The mayors of Georgetown and Alexandria, Virginia, pursued the British Admiral for two days. When the harassed Royal Navy leader impatiently granted them an audience, they told him they wanted to surrender their cities to him. “I’m not even going there,” was the exasperated response of the man who burned Washington. True enough. He was headed to Baltimore. Georgetown and Alexandria are famous liberal bastions (ready then as now to surrender even before they are attacked.)
Stephen Pleasonton, however, is a great example of a government worker with a high sense of duty and the keenness and foresight to understand the inestimable value of the records that were given to him for safekeeping. We can all be thankful for the watchfulness and energy of Stephen Pleasonton, the dutiful government clerk. Now wouldn’t it have be wonderful if the IRS’s Lois Lerner had been as careful to preserve important government documents as Stephen Pleasonton was?