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A Capitol in Ruins


August 24, 1814

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

When nations go to war, too often it is assumed that the conflict will be quick and victorious. That was the case in 1812. The United States sought an end to British impressment of American sailors, hoped to counter British policies that provoked Indian raids in the western territories, and looked for a way to annex Canada in order to lessen British influence in North America. A group of congressional “War Hawks,” led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay, pressured President James Madison to take action, issuing a declaration of war on June 17, 1812. The War of 1812 lasted until 1815.

The war did not go as planned for either side. The United States had a regular army, but it was small and poorly trained. State militias proved to be unreliable. Instead of capturing Canada, the U.S. nearly lost Detroit. The fiercest fighting came in northern states, in the Great Lakes region, and along the Canadian border, but as a diversionary tactic England dispatched a fleet of ships to the mid-Atlantic coast.

In August 1814, British troops sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and up the Patuxent River, then fought their way towards Washington. On August 24, using torches and gunpowder paste, they burned the Capitol, the president’s house, and other government buildings. By the time a summer rain storm doused the flames, the Capitol was barely more than a burned-out shell. The Senate’s beautiful chamber, according to architect Benjamin Latrobe, was left “a most magnificent ruin.”

Less than a month later, on September 19, the Senate convened a new session in a state of crisis. In the wake of the disastrous attack, President Madison arranged for Congress to meet temporarily in the city’s only available building, Blodgett's Hotel, which housed the Patent Office. As senators gathered in their hastily fitted legislative chamber, they sought answers to many questions: Should the government remain in Washington? Should the blackened and blistered Capitol be rebuilt? And perhaps most importantly, how could such an invasion have taken place? While Congress pondered such questions, workers began rebuilding the Capitol. Senators returned to their chamber four years later, but it would take another decade for the Capitol finally to be completed.

The war ended in 1815 with ratification of the Treaty of Ghent. Neither nation achieved its objectives. In fact, the treaty mostly restored pre-war status, but U.S.-Britain relations did enter a period of stability.

What did the Senate gain from the war? It got a valuable book collection, purchased from Thomas Jefferson to replace the destroyed congressional library. Before long, a perhaps wiser Senate created its first permanent standing committees to provide the legislative expertise needed to rebuild the Capitol and to restore confidence in the nation. And in 1819 the Senate occupied a redesigned, enlarged, and beautifully rebuilt chamber, furnished with lovely new mahogany writing desks still in use today in the modern Senate chamber.