Word reached the Capitol on a sweltering summer's afternoon that invading forces had swept aside the defending American army at Bladensburg and would occupy Washington by dusk. While the president and his cabinet consulted demoralized commanders at a military outpost, the first lady packed a portrait of the nation's first president into her carriage and left town. Despite the wartime emergency of this 1814 summer, Congress had been in recess for four months.
Since 1789, Secretary of the Senate Samuel Otis had safeguarded the Senate's ever-expanding collection of records, including bills, reports, handwritten journals, Washington's inaugural address, and the Senate mark-up of the Bill of Rights. But Otis had died two days after the Senate adjourned in April 1814.
With the secretary's position vacant, a quick-thinking Senate clerk hastily loaded boxes of priceless records into a wagon and raced to the safety of the Virginia countryside. Nearly five years later, when the Senate returned to the reconstructed Capitol from temporary quarters, a new Senate secretary moved the rescued records back into the building. With space always at a premium in the Capitol, these founding-era documents, as well as those created throughout the remaining decades of the nineteenth century, ended up in damp basements and humid attics.
In 1927, a young Senate clerk named Harold Hufford entered a basement storeroom to find disordered papers and surprised mice. Under his foot lay an official-looking document that bore two large markings: the print of his rubber heel and the signature of John C. Calhoun. Hufford reported, "I knew who Calhoun was; and I knew the nation's documents shouldn't be treated like that."
For the next decade Hufford inventoried Senate records in more than 50 locations throughout the Capitol. Unfortunately, others had preceded him. Autograph seekers had routinely harvested signatures from presidential messages. Some notable state papers, such as Woodrow Wilson's message to the Senate on the outbreak of World War I, had simply vanished.
The opening of the National Archives building in the mid-1930s provided the opportunity to correct this dire situation. On March 25, 1937, the history-conscious Senate launched a rescue mission, perhaps less dramatic than that of 1814, but equally monumental, as it agreed to transfer these records—and all others no longer needed for current operations—to the National Archives.