The Capitol Dome

Fall 2014

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THE CAPITOL DOME 13 "THE third day, only; before the destruction of the Capitol by the British, all in the City was doubt, confusion, and dismay. e citizens were absent, under arms; business was suspended. Every means of transportation was either engaged or in use; and no certain intelligence of the Enemy was either communi- cated or known." 1 Written two decades after the War of 1812, this account by the Senate clerk, Lewis Machen, captures the atmosphere in Washington just prior to the British invasion on August 24, 1814 (fig. 1). In the Capitol, the few remaining House and Senate assistant clerks, under no clear direction, worked fervently to remove their chambers' respective records without possessing enough wagons to carry them all to safety. e clerks' considerable efforts had mixed results; on both sides of the Capitol, priceless records were destroyed and price - less records were preserved. However, the House account emphasizes what was lost and the Senate account emphasizes what was saved. e House assistants express their regret over the "troublesome scene," while the Senate engrossing clerk her- alds his "providential circumstances." 2 And the wealthy clerk of the House and his colonel brother are publicly rebuked, while an African American messenger wins high praise on the Senate floor. 3 Born to a prominent Montgomery County family in 1768, the future House clerk, Patrick Magruder (fig. 2), a Democratic- Republican, served in the Maryland legislature and one term in the House of Representatives. 4 Despite claiming that his "blood" was "allied to the whole District," he lost his 1806 cam- paign for reelection to the uncle of Francis Scott Key, prompting one Federalist newspaper to crow, "rudeness and insolence will always meet with their proper reward, contempt and defeat." 5 e sentiment proved to be an overstatement, however, as Magruder soon returned to Capitol Hill. With the support of his former House colleagues, in October 1807, he won the election for the chamber's top administrative position, House clerk, as well as the subsequent appointment as librarian of Congress. 6 As librarian, Magruder was responsible for the proper cir- culation, labeling, and shelving of material, more than 3,000 books and documents. ese duties he delegated to assistants. 7 Of greater concern, perhaps, was the Library of Congress's role as a Capitol Hill social facility, located in a grand room of the Senate wing. Magruder and his wife, Martha (Goodwyn), the daughter of a House Republican, attended "high society" func- tions there and elsewhere in the city. 8 Persistent poor health, however, dampened both his social life and his ability to per- form the more involved role of House clerk. On at least two occasions, George Magruder, Patrick's brother, a colonel in the District of Columbia's militia, served as acting clerk, due to the clerk's absence from "indisposition," the last instance com- mencing on December 9, 1813. 9 Stricken twice again after the New Year, Patrick left the city in late July for health-restoring mineral springs. Before doing so, he placed George, the principal clerk, in charge of the clerk's office and assigned another clerk to open and air the library books. 10 At this time, accord- ing to the House assistant clerks, Samuel Burch and John T. Frost, "all was quiet," and they had no fears regarding the safety of the Capitol. They heard nothing from the enemy, except for "marauding parties in the Chesapeake, and what was seen in the newspapers, of troops being ordered from Europe to America." By the middle of August, though, news arrived that the "enemy was in the bay, in great force." 11 e city's residents fled to the countryside or answered the militia's call to service. 12 Anxious to protect the House papers, Burch, a member of the District's 2nd Regiment, asked for a discharge. Lacking "superior authority," though, his captain denied the request, forcing Burch to march from Washington on the 20th. 13 Two other House clerks, Samuel Hamilton and Brook Berry, joined their artillery company, while Colonel Magruder took com- mand of the 1st Regiment, leaving the clerk's office to the newly- appointed Frost, an older man exempt from militia duty. 14 By Sunday, the 21st, Burch's concern reached the colonel, now leading several hundred men in the field. Magruder secured a furlough for the assistant clerk with instructions to return to the Capitol that evening to save as many of the clerk's papers as he could "in case the enemy should get possession of the place." e order had one caveat: Burch and Frost must not begin packing until they ascertained that the clerks in the War Office had begun to do the same. 15 On this day, the third day before the invasion, the two House clerks knew well Lewis Machen's emotions. Amidst the "doubt, confusion, and dismay," Burch and Frost waited for a message from the War Office. 16 In the meantime, they resumed their routine clerical duties, updating committee records. Finally, at noon on Monday, they learned that the War Office clerks had already packed up the day before. In a frantic burst of energy, they began gathering files. "As it was not certain that the enemy would get to the city," though, they set the committee Fig. 2. Patrick Magruder. L IB R A RY O F C O N GRE S S PRIN T S A ND PH OTO GR A PH S D I V I SI O N

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