For as long as representative assemblies have existed, in nations throughout the world, images of rebellious troops marching on legislative chambers to enforce their demands have disturbed the sleep of lawmakers. The framers of the U.S. Constitution had those images in mind in 1787 as they convened at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Just four years earlier, mutinous Revolutionary War soldiers had surrounded that same building during a meeting of the Continental Congress. Seeking immediate congressional action to provide back pay and pensions, the angry militiamen stuck their muskets through open windows and pointed them at the likes of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Congress responded to this threat by fleeing Philadelphia and moving the capital to Princeton, New Jersey. Memories of this incident caused the framers to include a provision in the Constitution guaranteeing federal control over the national seat of government.
A century and a half later, on June 17, 1932, another army massed outside the halls of Congress. While the soldiers of that army carried no muskets, they came to pressure Congress to award them a bonus the government had promised in legislation passed eight years earlier for their service in World War I. Under that 1924 law, however, the bonus was not to be paid until 1945. Adjusted to the military record of individual veterans, the award was expected to average $1,000.Desperate and penniless in the depths of the Great Depression, this self-styled Bonus Expeditionary Force of 25,000 veterans came to the nation’s capital to lobby for an immediate payment. Two days earlier, the House of Representatives, over its own leadership’s objections, bowed to the protestors’ demands and passed the necessary legislation.
Now, as the Senate prepared to vote, thousands of veterans rallied outside its chamber on the east front plaza. Capitol police, armed with rifles, took up positions at the building’s doors. Despite Majority Leader Joe Robinson’s support for the legislation, most members favored a remedy that would benefit not only the veterans but all economically distressed Americans. The Senate overwhelmingly rejected the bonus bill. Hearing the news, the marchers dispersed peacefully, but remained in Washington at makeshift campsites near Capitol Hill.
A month later, heavily armed federal troops, led by General Douglas MacArthur and Majors Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, torched and gassed the veterans’ camps, killing several and wounding many. Anarchy, both military and civilian, seemed a real possibility in those very dark times.