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A Capitol in Ruins


August 24, 2014, marks the 200th anniversary of the burning of the United States Capitol by British soldiers during the War of 1812.

Capture and burning of Washington by the British, in 1814
Library of Congress

In that war, the U.S. sought to end British impressment of American sailors, wished to counter British policies that provoked Indian raids in western territories, and hoped to annex Canada in order to lessen British influence in North America. Congressional "War Hawks" prompted President James Madison to take action and issued a declaration of war on June 17, 1812, while other senators opposed war and sought a way to block such a declaration. The War of 1812 lasted until 1815, when the Senate approved for ratification the Treaty of Ghent. Although neither the U.S. nor Great Britain achieved its war objectives, the treaty did bring a period of stability to U.S.-British relations.

A view of the Capitol after the conflagration of the 24th August 1814
Library of Congress

At times, senators have been appointed or have come to office in unusual ways or during difficult periods of our national history, but every new senator faces similar challenges. For this reason, as former Senate Parliamentarian Floyd Riddick explains, every two years the Senate creates a “mini-school” for its new members.

As British troops marched toward the Capitol on that hot August day in 1814, a quick-thinking Senate clerk named Lewis Machen, assisted by an African American messenger named Tobias Simpson, commandeered a wagon and saved the Senate's valuable archive of documents dating back to March 4, 1789.

Old Senate Chamber

credit: U.S. Senate Commission on Art

On September 19, 1814, the Senate convened an emergency session in a state of crisis. In the wake of the disastrous attack, Congress met in temporary headquarters to continue its legislative business. After four years of rebuilding, the Senate again occupied its chamber, now enlarged, beautifully restored, and furnished with a collection of lovely mahogany writing desks still in use today in the Senate's modern chamber.