"The Burning of Washington"

Pinky Emerson, a ten-year old courier in the employ of the Postmaster General, had been given the unfortunate task of delivering the news to President Madison that the village of Buffalo had been burned by British troops.

The report of Major General Amos Hall had arrived in Washington so distraught by the winter weather that Postmaster Gideon Granger had deemed it practically unreadable. As it was the middle of the night, Mr. Granger went to fetch a scribe to create a copy fit for the Commander in Chief and sent Pinky to the president’s mansion to convey the essential meaning of the report.

Pinky turned his hat over and over in his hands while a servant led him to the president’s private study. The servant opened a wide, wooden door and gestured for Pinky to enter.

President Madison stood in front of a large fireplace. There were three other men in the room that Pinky did not know. An elderly, weary-looking man sat at a desk, writing with a quill and ink. A balding man with a pointed nose was examining what appeared to be a map on a table. An excited man with a boyish face paced back and forth at the back of the room.

All of the men wore gray jackets and blue pants.

“Pinky Emerson,” said President Madison, smiling and unsurprised, as if he had invited him over for dinner. “We hear you have news for us.”

“Yes, Mr. President,” Pinky said, solemnly. “I am very sorry to report that… the British… have burned Buffalo.”

“Impossible,” said President Madison, kindly, shaking his head.

“I am sorry to say that… it is so, Mr. President,” said Pinky.

“My dear Pinky, that simply cannot be true,” said President Madison. “Buffalo are fireproof. Why, Elbridge and I have attempted to set buffalo on fire in a variety of ways and have never been successful. Haven’t we Elbridge?”

“Indeed, Mr. President,” said Vice President Elbridge Gerry, who sat, rather occupied, at his desk. “We’ve thrown torches at them, shot them with flaming arrows, aimed fireworks at them. Nothing works. The damn beasts don’t burn.”

“Quite so, Elbridge,” said President Madison. “Believe me Pinky, I’d love nothing better than to see the manes of one of those docile, peaceable creatures fully aflame in a terrible conflagration, but it’s not meant to be I’m afraid.”

The president gave a good-natured sigh of resignation as if admitting defeat in a chess match to a worthy adversary.

“While I wish it were otherwise, you’ve come by some bad information, my boy.”

Pinky Emerson was unsure what to say next.

“Mr. President, are you not worried that the tide of the war could be turning? The British could come to Washington next.”

“Pinky, my boy, I assure you, everything is going according to plan. Isn’t that right, Secretary of War, and Secretary of Tailoring, John Armstrong, Jr.?”

The man standing at the table looked up and Pinky realized he was not studying a map, but a two-column list, one with the heading “Blue Jackets” and the other labeled “Gray Jackets.”

“Aye, Mr. President,” said Secretary of Tailoring Armstrong. “The latest numbers show a significant increase in gray jackets among the men in the southern territories while a blue jacket resurgence has been seen near the Great Lakes.”

“Splendid news, Secretary of Tailoring!” President Madison beamed.

“But what about the British?” Pinky asked.

“The who?” asked Secretary of Tailoring Armstrong.

“The fellows in red jackets,” chimed Vice President Gerry.

“Oh. I haven’t the faintest,” said Secretary of Tailoring Armstrong. “Are you worried that our men might prefer to wear red? No worries there. It’s not even an option.”

“I think young Pinky may require a bit of an education,” said President Madison.

“You see Pinky, after my first election we were in grave danger of everyone seeming to want to wear gray jackets, like me and my friends here. That may appear ideal, but in fact, it could be ruinous. A few blue jackets are necessary for the people to believe there is, ostensibly, some option other than a gray jacket. Elsewise, us gray-jacketed chaps would look like tyrants, wouldn’t we? A good fight with Britain, or whoever happens to be around really, helps to encourage those who would oppose such an obviously meaningless conflict to dress in their finest blue jackets for the sole purpose of expressing their dissatisfaction with the conflict we instigated as they work to bring it to a hasty conclusion. Thus, we maintain balance.”

“It is a fool’s mission!” yelled the man pacing in the back of the room. “Engaging in such pointless conflict will only serve to strengthen the number of blue jackets and further divide us!”

“Nonsense, Secretary of State, James Monroe,” said Secretary of Tailoring Armstrong. “You know as well as I, that a balance of blue and gray jackets is eminently necessary to maintaining the stylistic stability of this nation.”

“Agreement! Harmony! Amalgamation!” Secretary of State Monroe blurted out the terms as if he were unable to contain them.

“You are a fool, Monroe,” said Secretary of Tailoring Armstrong. “Pinky, I dare say that this conflict will go down in history as one of our country's finest hours and that school children from New York to Virginia will refer to it as ‘The Great Jacket Unification Conflict’ and by no other more vague, less meaningful name, which might sap the event of any character and make it impossible to remember for anything other than the year it took place.”

“Quite right, Secretary of Tailoring,” said President Madison. “The result shall be two sides: the easiest, clearest system possible. It is equal. It counter-balances itself. An unstoppable force and an immovable object. Mirror images. A left hand waving at a right. Anything less than that and you’ll find yourself filled with knife wounds on the floor of the Theatre of Pompey. I do not anticipate such an inherently perfect two-jacket system to ever become problematic for the preservation of this union’s sense of fashion.”

“I must admit, Mr. President, I am still a bit confused,” Pinky said.

“I know just the thing,” said the president. “Elbridge? Rouse the ex-president if you would be so kind.”

Vice President Gerry moved to a corner of the room where he turned a, thereto-unforeseen, chair on a swivel to reveal a sleeping man with a bottle in his hand. His hair stuck out in many different directions and his shirt was unbuttoned halfway down, exposing his chest. Vice President Gerry dutifully poked the man in the side of the head until he slowly opened one eye and then the other.

“Mr. Jefferson!” President Madison shouted. “Tell young Pinky here about your stroke of brilliance regarding the gray jackets and blue jackets!”

“Oh Jesus,” said Thomas Jefferson drowsily. “This was back in, uh… 1792? Yeah, ’92. We’re in Philly. Madison was there.” Thomas Jefferson pointed at President Madison. “This guy. This guy was there,” said Thomas Jefferson.

President Madison shrugged innocently, then smiled knowingly and nodded.

“Hamilton's standing up there going on and on about… who knows what… and then he gets to what color we should choose for the new uniforms for the army, and he's up there talking about how ‘obviously blue jackets with gray pants is the natural choice’ because ‘obviously I’m the most boring man in Philadelphia’ and… you know. Nobody's objecting because... who cares, right? Not this guy.”

Thomas Jefferson jerked a thumb toward himself, a bit too violently, causing his swivel chair to begin moving in circles. Thomas Jefferson continued.

“But Hamilton is such a prig, and I'm totally bored, so I'm like, ‘Hey Madison.’ (Madison's sitting next to me.) I'm like, ‘Hey Madison. Check this out.’ So I stand up and I'm like, ‘uh... well, what about...uh... what about gray jackets with blue pants?’ Madison’s dying. Trying not to laugh. Hamilton goes, ‘That’s merely what I said in reverse!’ I'm like, ‘well uh... yeah, but, ya know… I, for one... just, uh... totally want to wear a gray jacket with blue pants and, personally, I’d rather kiss King George on the lips than be caught wearing a blue jacket with gray pants.’

Well everyone just starts going nuts. Hamilton's throwing things, all the guys from Virginia are chanting: "TJ! TJ! TJ!" Madison is laughing so hard he's wiping tears from his eyes.”

President Madison clutched a hand to his heart, recalling the fond memory as he casually put a hand on Thomas Jefferson’s swivel chair to cease its spinning.

“So all of a sudden Washington stands up. And everyone gets real quiet because, it's effing Washington. And he's like, ‘Guys... we just finished fighting a common enemy. Do we really want to start fighting each other? Can't we just agree on something as simple as what color uniforms to wear?’ And he's got me there, because Jesus. I'm in pretty deep at this point.”

Everyone in the room exchanged worried looks at the potential outcome of the tale, though Pinky expected they all must have certainly known the result.

“So I say, ‘Well, you know, that is true. We did just get done fighting a common enemy. And you know what that common enemy didn't have?”

Thomas Jefferson paused for dramatic effect.

“What?! What didn’t they have?!” cried Secretary of Tailoring Armstrong.

“Opp-o-zish-in,” said Thomas Jefferson, placing an inordinate amount of emphasis on each syllable. Secretary of State Monroe winced at the word as if it might punch him.

“Like, you know, internal opposition. It was all, ‘oh, blimey, I'm the King, go… drink tea and… wear red and… tax America.’ Is that really what we wanted? A country where every last man is just forced to wear blue jackets instead of red ones? Internal opposition. It’ll keep us honest. Keep us independent. Allow us the autonomy to ‘choose’ to wear a blue jacket or a gray jacket. It’s free will, and self-evidence and unalienables, because... democracy."

The room was silent.

President Madison wiped a single tear from his eye and said, “Do you see now, Pinky Emerson? This is the reason that we must perpetuate the present conflict. For democracy. For the republic.”

Thomas Jefferson’s idea did seem to make some sense to Pinky. However, one aspect of the theory continued to perplex Pinky Emerson’s fashionably unsophisticated ten-year-old brain.

“I understand now that multiple jacket colors do seem quite necessary,” Pinky said cautiously, “but wouldn’t that also mean then, that if two colors are better than one, that three colors might be better than two, and four better than three, and so on?”

The men in the room exchanged confused looks. The servant from earlier quietly stepped back into the room and began playing a marching beat on a snare drum that he seemingly produced out of thin air. Pinky stood up on a chair and continued.

“Would it not be best to have as many different colors as might be necessary for all men to be allowed the opportunity to choose whichever color jacket they wish to wear? Would this not allow for the best possible representation of each individual in the republic? Would this not grant them the ability to express themselves in the most accurate way possible?”

Two more servants rose up behind Pinky’s chair, one playing a patriotic hymn on a bugle while the second waved an over-sized American flag.

“Should we not strive to create a veritable marketplace of sartorial ideas? Do we not place the most extreme of limitations upon the potential of Mr. Jefferson’s plan by reducing the uniform choices to two? The fewest numbers of choices before there are no choices at all?”

The servants finished their song and Pinky looked expectantly at the president and his cabinet. The room became a tumult of noise.

“Blasphemy!” screamed Secretary of State Monroe. Thomas Jefferson waved his hands, and said “Whoa, whoa, whoa, easy buddy. Easy over there!” President Madison gently shook his head and looked at Pinky sympathetically as if he had just suggested they plant a money-garden in the back yard. Secretary of Tailoring Armstrong remarked to himself that it would be “logistically impossible for his tailors to obtain the necessary materials.” Vice President Gerry only laughed, loudly and persistently, while continuing to write, and Secretary of State Monroe began to scream “NO” over and over while grabbing his hair and spinning in circles.

President Madison walked up to Pinky and patted him gently on the head.

“My dear boy. You would do best to keep such absurd notions to yourself if you have any plans of remaining a relevant cog in the machinery of this country. I tell you this, as surely as I know anything: an America with anything more or less than two giant, powerful, conflicting aspects… will never survive.”

Pinky Emerson left the white house, and in the snowy Washingtonian darkness, took off his clothes, and went running through the streets of the capital.


(This piece was originally published in the Autumn 2012, 29th issue of Block Club: The Fight with lovely illustrations by Julie Molloy.)