Saving Senate Records
On a sweltering August day in 1814, word reached the Capitol that British forces had swept aside the defending American army at Bladensburg, Maryland, and would occupy Washington by dusk. By late afternoon, British soldiers had marched on the Capitol, torching just about everything in sight. The documentary record of the Senate’s earliest years might have gone up in flames as well, had it not been for the quick action taken by a 24-year-old Senate clerk named Lewis Machen.
Since 1789 Secretary of the Senate Samuel Otis had safeguarded the Senate's growing collection of records—bills, reports, handwritten journals, and even the Senate’s mark-up of the Bill of Rights. But Otis died in April of 1814, and no secretary was on hand to protect the collection from the invading soldiers. Fortunately, with little time to spare, Lewis Machen devised a plan to save the precious records. Assisted by a Senate messenger, an African American named Tobias Simpson, Machen commandeered a wagon from a District resident and began loading it with bundles of Senate papers. “I engaged in removing...all the Books and papers of the office which I considered of more value,” he later recalled. “When the sun was nearly setting, our vehicle being able to contain no more, I departed.”
Machen headed southeast toward a family farm in Maryland. The journey proved to be adventurous. As he traveled in complete darkness, one wagon wheel flew off, forcing him to borrow “without leave from the owner” a replacement from an abandoned blacksmith shop. As he approached the Maryland state line, the wagon suddenly and violently overturned, spewing bundles of papers in all directions. It took several hours to repair that damage and reload the valuable cargo. In the morning hours, Machen finally reached the relative safety of the farm. Later, another Senate clerk delivered the records to Brookville, where government officials were working in exile. Five years later, the documents were returned to a rebuilt Capitol. As the years went by, these founding-era documents and other Senate papers were stored away in the Capitol’s damp basement rooms and humid attic spaces—and were forgotten.
More than a century later, in 1927, another Senate clerk named Harold Hufford entered one of those basement storerooms. He found there surprised mice and disordered papers. Under his foot lay an official-looking document that bore two distinct markings: the print of his rubber-heeled shoe and the signature of John C. Calhoun. “I knew who Calhoun was;” Hufford said, “and I knew the nation’s documents shouldn’t be treated like that.” Over the next decade, Hufford inventoried Senate records stored throughout the Capitol, and discovered that autograph seekers had harvested signatures and thieves had stolen notable state papers. Clearly, the Senate needed a place to archive its important collection.
In 1934, Congress established the National Archives. Three years later, the history-conscious Senate launched another rescue mission—less dramatic than that of 1814, but equally important—and began transferring its records to the newly built Archives. Today, the Senate can boast of a vast archival collection dating back to March 4, 1789, its very first day of operation—thanks, in part, to two diligent clerks named Hufford and Machen.