September 19, 1814
The Senate Convenes in Emergency Quarters
On September 19, 1814, the Senate began a new session in a state of profound crisis. Four weeks earlier, invading British troops had reduced all but one of Washington's major public buildings to smoking rubble. That August 24 blaze had particularly devastated the Capitol's Senate wing, honeycombed with rotting wooden floors and containing the Library of Congress' tinder-dry collection of books and manuscripts. The conflagration reduced the Senate chamber's marble columns to lime, leaving the room, in one description, "a most magnificent ruin."
President James Madison arranged for Congress to meet temporarily at the city's only available building, Blodgett's Hotel, on Eighth and E Streets, Northwest. The hotel also housed the U.S. Patent Office. At the time of the invasion, a quick-thinking superintendent had saved the building by explaining that it housed a large collection of patent models, which belonged to individual inventors and therefore should be protected as private property.
The nineteen senators who gathered in Blodgett's hastily fitted Senate chamber on that mid-September day had many questions. Should the government remain in Washington? Might it not resettle in the more comfortable city of Philadelphia, its home in the 1790s? If it continued in Washington, should the blistered Capitol and blackened White House be rebuilt? Or should members follow a Louisiana senator's suggestion to construct an "unadorned" capitol, located conveniently near Georgetown? He reasoned that "Our laws to be wholesome need not be enacted in a palace." Should members give priority to funding construction of legislative chambers while leaving the unpopular president's mansion until later? And should they move the cabinet offices closer to Congress? The House of Representatives agreed to this, only to change its mind after hearing stories, dating from Congress' Philadelphia days, of how frequent interruptions by senators and representatives had complicated the work of the all-too-accessible cabinet officers.
Members studied and debated these issues almost until the March 1815 adjournment, when they authorized President Madison to borrow from local banks to rebuild, on their existing sites, the Capitol, White House, and cabinet quarters. When members returned in December, they moved to a new temporary structure on the site of today's Supreme Court Building. They hoped it would be a brief stay, but construction delays and cost overruns kept them there for another four years.
Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998.