In tumultuous times such as these, it is widely recognized that it is imperative that we look backwards and extract lessons from our history; to use the past as a guidebook to navigate the present and future.
That is exactly what “The Burning of the White House” by Jane Hampton Cook sets out to do.
“The Burning of the White House” takes a look at the challenges President James Madison faced on all fronts as he contended with British aggression in the War of 1812, as well as the heinous act of terrorism committed by British forces upon our young nation’s capital.
Cook paints vivid, thematic portraits of the key figures of the time. James Madison, though small in his stature, was a grand and formidable political figure. Cook documents a reporter describing him as, “the shortest but most monumental politician in Washington.” In the face of unrest among his cabinet members and mounting hostility from England, Madison stood firm in his ideals. At his side was the beautiful, charismatic and powerful Dolley Madison.
The adversary to the Madisons in this swashbuckling account is British Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn. Cook describes Cockburn as a merciless pirate, hell-bent on climbing the ranks of the British Navy and laying waste to any and all American dissenters.
While there are many moving parts and players in politics, especially in war-time, the amount of characters that Cook chose to include in the story leads to some confusion as to who is who and who all the reader needs to remember.
That being said, the author does a fine job of explaining every in and out of the political and behind-the-scenes aspects of the war and British torching of the White House. Her discussions are informative and necessary, although some descriptions, such as the great detail she goes into regarding the décor of the president’s house, verge on mundane and aimless.
Overall, Cook’s account of President Madison and his wife, Dolley fleeing a blazing White House is heart-pounding and harrowing. She breaks down political strategies and battle plans as if she had a hand in drawing them up herself. “The Burning of the White House” is a dense and informative read, so it is definitely geared towards more ardent lovers of history. Still, it serves as very educational and provides lessons that Americans can benefit from today, some 200 years later.
Jane Hampton Cook is an award-winning author who served former president George W. Bush as webmaster for five years, including three in the Texas governor’s office and two in the White House as deputy director of Internet news services.