Once upon a time, a young man came to Washington. He wasn’t sophisticated, but he had loads of ambition. He was destined to leave his mark on Congress.
No, it wasn’t Jimmy Stewart's fictional character arriving in 1939 to clean up the corrupt Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This eager new arrival came in 1810. His name was Jacob Leonard, and he made what is now the oldest object in the House of Representatives. Small but venerable, it is the silver inkstand that is placed high on the Speaker’s rostrum whenever the House is in session.
Commercial opportunity seemed unbounded when Leonard came to Washington in the early federal period. Energetic men of modest means could accumulate wealth as merchants, bankers, and dealers in every kind of trade. Upon his arrival, Leonard immediately entered the thick of things when he took over the business of silversmith George Riggs. He was soon advertising his wares as “the most fashionable jewelry.”
The ravages of the War of 1812 and the 1814 British invasion of the city and burning of the Capitol did not prevent Leonard from continuing to gain influence. He relocated to the center of commercial action on Pennsylvania Avenue and became an established figure in town. Over the next 20 years, Leonard was named Washington’s Sealer of Weights and Measures, signed abolitionist petitions to Congress, and received official commissions for silverware from the Congress and Department of State.
Around 1819, when the House of Representatives returned to the newly rebuilt and redecorated Capitol, Leonard supplied it with an inkstand that has become the oldest artifact in the House Chamber. No one knows how he got the commission, but he was certainly ambitious enough to seize an opportunity when he saw it. At the time, the inkstand was more than a symbol of government. It was a practical utensil, holding three bottles of ink for the busy Speaker. It is a rectangular, low-walled tray. Swags and medallions with eagles adorn the sides. The tray can be carried by a center hinged handle, and three crystal inkwells rest inside. The inkstand’s feet take the form of columns with snakes winding around them, a classical representation of wisdom supporting authority. The snake-and-column motif echoes sculpture carved at the same time for the old House Chamber.
Because of its placement at the hand of the Speaker, the inkstand quickly became a marker of the Speaker’s power. Henry Clay’s 1821 portrait commemorating his Speakership includes the stand at his side. Samuel Morse’s gargantuan 1822 painting of the House during a night session includes a tiny, remarkably accurate rendition of the inkstand twinkling in the lamplight. As the decades rolled along, the inkstand bore witness to debates over slavery and suffrage, declarations of war, and all the business of the people conducted in the House.
Even now, a quick glance at the rostrum when the House is in session shows the shiny tray, now a symbol rather than a tool, still at the Speaker’s side. Before the House comes to order, the inkstand is placed on the rostrum. Stamped on the bottom with its maker’s mark, it has given Leonard an enduring place in history.
Sources: Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six, 15 February 1811; City of Washington Gazette, 22 May 1821; Charles Bird King, Henry Clay, 1821; Samuel F.B. Morse, The House of Representatives, 1822; “Memorial of Inhabitants of the District of Columbia,” 23rd Cong., 2nd sess., 1828; The Magazine Antiques, July 1878.Follow @USHouseHistory