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In 1809, the British minister Francis Jackson likened the American Capital to the British, yet spoke about Washington's "wild, desolate air from being so scantily and rudely cultivated." All were agreed, however, that Washington was charming during "the season." Mrs. Madison's drawing room would be filled with "gallants immaculated in sheer ruffles and small clothes", exchanging delightful small talk with "dainty belles in frills, flounces, and furbelows." But during the congressional recess even President Madison thought the city was "a solitude." "You cannot imagine", wrote Washington Irving in 1811, how forlorn this desert city appears to me, now that the great tide of casual population has rolled away."

Had Irving visited the Capital 3 years later, after the British invasion of August 1814, he would have found it somewhat more forlorn even than a "desert city." Madison had sought ineffectually to curb the young Republican "War Hawks" in Congress who were clamoring for aggressive action against England, and in 1812 the country entered upon a needless war for which it was in no way prepared. Eventually in this contest the Capital was destined to swallow a bitter dose of its own prescription. On August 19, 1814, British regulars under General Ross, with marines under Admiral Cockburn from the latter's squadron in Chesapeake Bay, landed at Benedict on the Patuxent River in Maryland, and began a leisurely 40-mile march upon Washington. Five days later they were met near Bladensburg, just outside the District line, by a hastily assembled force of militia and marines commanded by General Winder. In the ensuing engagement the American troops were soon routed, and retreated in partial disorder to Georgetown, leaving the Capital undefended. Ross and Cockburn entered the city late in the same day (August 24). That night and next morning they burned the Capitol, the President's House, and all other public buildings except the combined Post Office and Patent Office. Very little private property was destroyed. A terrific windstorm occurred during the afternoon of the 25th, and fearing a surprise attack by reinforced troops in the resulting confusion the British withdrew that evening. Three days later a small British fleet appeared before Alexandria, levied a heavy tribute of food and merchandise from the town, then sailed down the Potomac to join Cockburn's Squadron in attacking Baltimore.

With the Executive Mansion in ruins, President and Mrs. Madison took up temporary quarters in Colonel Tayloe's "Octagon House." Congress convened in one remaining public building, the Post and Patent Office. In 1815 a structure which came to be known as the "Brick Capitol" was erected by private subscriptions on part of the site now occupied by the Supreme Court Building. Here Congress held its sessions from December 1815 to December 1819 original Capitol was being rebuilt; and on "elevated portico" in front of this structure James Monroe took the oath of office as President on March 4, 1817. Before the end of the latter year, Monroe and his family were installed in the rebuilt President's House, and official society in Washington again assumed its wonted stateliness and formality-as witness this "elegant extract" from Mrs. Ellet's Court Circles of the Republic:

The court circle in Monroe's administration still has the aristocratic spirit and elevated tone which had characterized the previous administrations. Its superiority was universally acknowledged, and nothing vulgar entered its precincts. Elegance of dress was absolutely required. On one occasion Mr. Monroe refused admission to a near relative who happened not to have a suit of small-clothes and silk hose in which to present himself at a public reception...

The female society of Washington during the administration of Monroe was essentially Southern. Virginia proud of her Presidents, sent forth her brightest flowers to adorn the court circle. The wealth of the sugar and cotton planters, and the vast wheat fields of the agriculture States, cultivated by [African Americans], enabled Southern Senators and Representatives to keep their carriages and liveried servants, and to maintain great state dinners and suppers. [These meals were filled] with rich wines and the delicacies of the season, had their persuasive influence over the minds as well as the appetites of the entertained.

The Federal city was finally beginning to take the air of a capital city.

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