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August 1814: Machen and Simpson Rescue Precious Records

When British forces attacked the city of Washington in August 1814 and set fire to the Capitol, a precious collection of Senate records was saved by the quick thinking and speedy actions of a young Senate engrossing clerk named Lewis Machen and his assistant, an African American Senate messenger named Tobias Simpson. With British invasion imminent, Machen and Simpson sprung into action. Recalling the event years later, Machen wrote, “With the aid of the messenger of the office (a black man named Tobias) and the Waggoner, I engaged in removing from the Office all the Books and papers of the office which I considered of more value: and when the sun was nearly setting our vehicle being able to contain no more, I departed, with it, for my residences in the country.”

The records that Machen and Simpson managed to rescue “constituted, at that time, the only evidence of the executive doings and votes of the Senate for a period of twenty-five years,” Machen explained. The following year, the Senate, by resolution, awarded Tobias Simpson $200, “in consideration of his uniform good conduct, and particularly for his exertions to save the public property in the Capitol, both before and after the destruction thereof by the enemy.”