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The Burning of the Capitol


[U.S. Capitol after burning by the British]

On a hot August day in 1814, word spread that British troops were marching toward the Capitol. Had it not been for the quick action of two Senate employees, clerk Lewis Machen and messenger Tobias Simpson, the Senate’s growing collection of records—bills, reports, handwritten journals, and even the Senate’s markup of the Bill of Rights—might have been lost forever. Machen and Simpson commandeered a wagon, filled it with Senate documents, and Machen drove southeast toward a family farm in Maryland. That evening, British troops set fire to the Capitol, the president’s mansion, and other local landmarks. Only a torrential rainstorm saved the Capitol from complete destruction. The fire devastated the Capitol’s Senate wing, the oldest part of the building. President James Madison arranged for Congress to meet temporarily at the city’s only available building, Blodgett’s Hotel. On September 19, senators gathered in a hastily fitted Senate chamber to debate war-related issues, including the reconstruction of federal buildings.