The Debunker: Did Canada Really Burn Down the White House?

by Ken Jennings

Since it's July, we're celebrating North America's most important patriotic holiday. Put that watermelon on ice and stock up on fireworks, because Canada Day is here! July 1 celebrates the Constitution Act of 1867 that unified Canada into a single dominion—but have American really studied up on our neighbor to the north, or do we take its many accomplishments for granted? Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings is not Canadian, but he does live just two hours from the border, and is very pale and polite. All month, he's going to be correcting our counterfactual Canadian conjectures, eh?

Did Canada Really Burn Down the White House?

From many conversations with Canadians over the years, I get the impression that this little-remembered episode from the War of 1812—a footnote in most American history classes—gets a lot of play in Canadian elementary schools and popular culture. "Yeah, the War of 1812. That's when we burned down your White House, eh?" This was apparently the all-time high-water mark for Canadian military efficiency until January 1992, when Jacques "The Mountie" Rougeau won the WWF Intercontinental championship belt just two days before the Royal Rumble.

White House

It's true that Washington D.C. was attacked and occupied on August 24, 1814, for the only time in its history. Soldiers looted and set fire to government buildings, including the White House and Capitol. (All three thousand books in the new Library of Congress were burned, and ex-president Thomas Jefferson had to donate his personal book collection to replace them.) President James Madison and his government fled to rural Maryland; his wife Dolley organized the household staff and slaves to save important documents, silverware, and an iconic portrait of George Washington. When the invading soldiers arrived at the White House, they found food for a never-eaten banquet still sitting on empty tables, so they sat down and had dinner.

The Canadian citizenship study guide is a little coy about what really went down in Washington: "In 1814, Major-General Robert Ross led an expedition from Nova Scotia that burned down the White House and other public buildings in Washington DC." It's true that the offensive was launched from Nova Scotia, but the troops were British regulars recently dispatched from Wellington's army fighting in Europe. They weren't Canadians in any meaningful sense. Canada was part of the British Empire at the time, but to say that "Canada burned down the White House" is a little like saying that Guam or American Samoa killed Osama bin Laden.

(Also, this is a minor point, but the building didn't burn down. The White House and Capitol Building are made of sandstone. They took a lot of damage, but they were still standing when the non-Canadian invaders had done their worst. If you ever visit the White House, ask to see the scorch marks—some are still visible today.)

Quick Quiz: What country's presidential palace, the Darul Aman, was burned down by Soviet-backed rebels in a 1978 coup, and still stands deserted today?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.