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What if the Statue of Liberty burned like Notre Dame?

What if the Statue of Liberty burned like Notre Dame?
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The Cathedral of Notre Dame symbolizes France’s national identity. “Notre-Dame de Paris is Paris..." It’s our roots, our history, our civilization,” Karine Berger of the Paris Centre Pompidou Museum, told the "New York Times" after a fire severely gutted the cathedral on April 15, 2019.

The likely accidental fire was heartbreaking in part because Notre Dame has survived more than 800 years of French history.

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“The iconic Notre Dame cathedral saw Napoleon crowned Emperor. It lived through Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake, witnessed the worst of the Black Plague, barely survived the French Revolution and forget about the Nazis,” Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith reported of how the icon survived many trials.

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We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years,” French President Emanuel Macron said in a televised address of his desire to finish by the time Paris hosts the 2024 Olympic Games. Donations topped $1 billion within a week.

Some of France’s yellow jacket protesters, who have been protesting class inequality for weeks, objected. “‘If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, said.

If Notre Dame symbolizes France’s national identity, then what landmark represents America’s identity? The U.S. Capitol is known as the temple of liberty, which is filled with symbols of a nation that gave up royalty to embrace representation. The Capitol has outlived two world wars, a Cold War and survived the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A recent PRRI survey revealed that 91 percent of Americans today are divided over politics. If the Capitol were to burn tomorrow, would our impotent politics prevent us from rebuilding? Would we, like France today, have a political fight on our hands?

Though it’s impossible to say, history shows how we might respond. On August 24, 1814, British soldiers burned the U.S. Capitol and White House during the War of 1812. 

As the British formed a line, they were impressed by the three-storied dome-less Capitol. “It was an unfinished but beautifully arranged building,” described Navy Lt. James Scott, the British admiral’s top aide. Inside he found a wonderland of architecture and art, including Corinthian columns carved like cornstalks.

Scott saw the symbolism. The Speaker of the House’s chair was “surmounted by a gilt eagle, with extended wings and ruffled crest, looking towards the skies, emblematical, it is to be presumed, of the rising greatness of the young nation.”

The eagle, a sacred bird to native tribes, symbolizes liberty. In America’s great seal, the eagle holds a scroll “inscribed with this motto, ‘E pluribus Unum,’” or out of many one.

Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?” Scott’s British Admiral, George Cockburn, mocked from the Speaker’s chair in the House Chamber. “All for it will say aye.” There were no nays.

Scott along with his fellow British marines and soldiers sprinkled gunpowder onto piles of furniture and books. Outside they thrust their fiery javelins into the Capitol, which instantly caught fire. A storm drove them out of Washington. Though they burned its landmarks, they didn’t conquer the nation’s capital city.

Despite widespread initial shock, a political fight was immediately kindled, with petitions arriving from Pennsylvania and congressmen putting forth legislation to move the nation’s capital city to Philadelphia. Imagine that. Politicians were taking advantage of a tragedy.

Politics were just as polarized back then, with deep divisions for and against the war that spilled into the fight over rebuilding the Capitol and White House. Most Northern members voted for removing the capital from Washington, while most Southern members voted against it. Likewise Federalists voted to relocate, while most Republicans voted to stay.

Representatives from the state most likely to benefit from removal, Pennsylvania, were the most split. Seven of the sixteen members of the Pennsylvania delegation voted against the interests of their state and in favor of what they saw as the greater good of the union. Their selfless vote proved that one voice could arise out of many.

Local bankers pooled their resources and loaned Congress $500,000 “exclusively to the purpose of rebuilding or repairing the President’s House, Capitol and public offices.” Washington remained the nation’s capital city.

“The immediate and enthusiastic effect of the fall of Washington was electrical revival of national spirit and universal energy,” Charles Ingersoll, a Pennsylvania congressman reflected. “The smoldering fires of the Capitol were spices of the phoenix bed, from which arose offspring more vigorous, beautiful and long lived.”

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Within a month, more than 15,000 Americans repelled a British attack in Baltimore on Sept. 13-14, 1814. The battle inspired the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and forced the British to try one final but failed military action in New Orleans. Peace arrived in Washington in February 1815.

The story of saving Washington and overcoming party politics during the War of 1812 provides hope that phoenix-like patriotism can overcome polarized politics in the worst of times.

French President Macron sure hopes the same is true for his country. “The fire at Notre Dame reminds us that history doesn’t stop and that we always have trials to overcome. We are this nation of builders, we have so much to rebuild,” Macron said.

The same can be said of America.

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of “America’s Star-Spangled Story” and “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.” She is a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush.