Red Coats and Red Hats

by Scott Wagner

Photo (c) 2021 Mukul Ranjan

The US Capitol building is the architectural embodiment of American democracy—a temple to the cherished values of popular will and the rule of law. Yesterday, that temple was desecrated as a mob of domestic terrorists, seditionists, and white supremacists charged through a flimsy police cordon and paraded unmolested through the halls of Congress.

The Capitol has seen violence before. In 1954, for example, four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House of Representatives, wounding five Congressmen. The events of yesterday, however, were the first time the Capitol has been taken by an outside force since 1814, when the British seized Washington, DC after routing the American army at the Battle of Bladensburg.

Colonel Charles Waterhouse’s depiction of US Marines manning their guns at Bladensburg, Maryland in defense of Washington, DC against the British on August 24, 1814

There are, of course, key differences between the two incidents. Yesterday’s perpetrators were domestic terrorists; the British were foreign invaders. The events of 1814 were an act of war; the events of 2021 were insurrectionary at best, and treasonous at worst. The British were garbed in red coats; the looters yesterday were led by a man dressed as a half-naked Chewbacca impersonator.

But the role of race should not go unnoticed here. Because while the terrorists of January 6 were avowed white supremacists, the British forces in 1814 cast themselves—not entirely erroneously—as liberators and friends to enslaved Black Americans.

Given command of the North American Station in April 1814, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane made the recruitment of enslaved Black Americans a central part of his military strategy for the coming summer. He asked his superior to send him “some Thousand sets of dragoon Acoutrements [sic]” to equip potential recruits, believing that under the guidance of British officers, the Black recruits could become “as good Cossacks as any in the Russian Army.” He chose to launch the primary British invasion of the United States in the Chesapeake “more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage.”

The British benefited from the policy in two ways. First, Black recruits would bolster the size of the invading British force and offer local knowledge of the terrain and the American fortifications. Second, and perhaps more importantly, offering freedom to enslaved Black Americans would fulfill “the yet more important object of impressing [them] with an indelible confidence in the inviolability of British faith,” according to Governor James Cockburn. By liberating enslaved Black Americans, the British undercut the false perception of a “free” United States. It was King George, not James Madison, who would guarantee liberty to Black Americans.

Drawing shows the ruins of the U.S. Capitol following British attempts to burn the building, 1814. Library of Congress

Of course, the British Empire was not exactly a force for liberty in the early 19th century, either. They did not abolish African chattel slavery in the empire until 1833, more than twenty years after the War of 1812. Their treatment of colonial subjects, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, is an appalling testament to the evils of imperialism.

Yet their guarantees of liberty to Black recruits during the War of 1812 were not empty promises. Some 5000 Black Americans earned their freedom by joining the British during the war. Many were resettled in Nova Scotia, though some made their way to Trinidad, where their descendants today are still known as the “Merikens.”

It would be 50 years before their fellow Black Americans in the United States would finally be freed from the bonds of slavery, and another 100 years after that before they were guaranteed basic constitutional rights through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Damage inside the Capitol Building, January 6, 2021. Department of Homeland Security

Even so, as the jarring images of yesterday remind us, much work remains to be done. A man with a Confederate flag paraded through the halls of Congress. Police officers took selfies with white terrorists, where just six months ago they tear-gassed peaceful Black protesters. That most haunting of images, the noose, was given a position of honor outside the proceedings.

200 years ago, Black Americans in the Chesapeake heard the message; they left with the British, acquiring a liberty they could never have in the United States. Today, Black Americans are not fleeing; they are standing up. Black voters in Georgia just helped elect Reverend Raphael Warnock to the Senate. He will be the first Black man to represent the state in that chamber. Black voters were a critical part of Joe Biden’s coalition, with 87% of Black voters casting a ballot for the President-Elect.

Photo (c) 2021 Mukul Ranjan

There are, and always have been, two Americas. One is the America that is, the America that raises a flag of freedom in one hand while gripping the shackles of hatred in the other. We saw this America in all its ugly spectacle yesterday.

The other is the America that could be, the one that can fulfill its promises of liberty and democracy and create a more perfect union. This America exists in the determination of Black organizers and politicians, in the dedication of honorable political leaders, and in the full-throated demands from individuals of all backgrounds for a better tomorrow. 

After yesterday, the need to create that America is more apparent than ever.

Scott Wagner is the supervising editor of INTERZINE.

January 6, 2021. Photo by Greenpeace
January 6, 2021. Photo by Greenpeace
January 6, 2021. Photo by Greenpeace
January 6, 2021. Photo by Greenpeace
January 6, 2021. Photo by Greenpeace
January 6, 2021. Photo by Elvert Barnes
Photo (c) 2021 Mukul Ranjan
January 6, 2021. Photo by Greenpeace
January 6, 2021. Photo by Greenpeace
Photo (c) 2021 Mukul Ranjan

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