Leave No Forwarding Address: When Congress Almost Abandoned D.C.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Sir Admiral George Cockburn commanded the British troops in the attack on Washington, D.C., in August 1814. In this 1819 portrait, he poses with the city burning in the background.
It was a low moment.
When the 13th Congress (1813–1815) trickled into Washington, D.C., in September 1814 for a third session, they found a terrorized community, most public buildings destroyed, and a humiliated army on retreat. Once the grandest building in North America, the unfinished Capitol resembled a charcoal briquette. And though the invading British forces had departed more than three weeks previously, the damage they inflicted—both physical and emotional—very nearly convinced the shocked legislators to abandon Washington for good.
On August 24, 1814, in the third year of the War of 1812, British forces commanded by General Robert Ross and Admiral George Cockburn marched into the capital city. They were nearly unopposed, the U.S. forces having already passed through earlier that day in a hasty retreat from their defeat in Bladensburg, Maryland. The invaders’ pyrotechnic experts expeditiously laid waste to Washington's official buildings. Before burning the Capitol, the brash, outspoken Cockburn had supposedly mounted the Speaker’s chair in the House Chamber and asked, “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All for it will say aye,” to resounding agreement from his troops. Before departing, they reportedly graffitied the burned building's walls: “The Capitol and the Union lost by cowardice.”
On September 19, the House packed into the Patent Office (the site of the present-day National Portrait Gallery) one of few public buildings that the British spared. Carpenters had been employed to hastily alter the interior, but accommodations were still uncomfortably tight. Though 19 of the 176 Members of the House were absent, those present found themselves crowded into a room so small they occupied “every spot up to the fireplace and windows.” The close quarters only inflamed tempers already piqued by the embarrassing military defeat. Reportedly, Federalist Alexander Hanson of Maryland had to be subdued after punching Democratic Republican Willis Alston of North Carolina in the face.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Unable to meet in the burned-out Capitol, the 13th Congress crammed into close quarters in the Patent Office, the only public building to survive the British attack. Once Blodgett’s Hotel, the building served as the Patent Office from 1802 to 1836.
It was in these dismal circumstances that Representative Jonathan Fisk
of New York introduced a resolution to abandon the District of Columbia for “a place of greater security and less inconvenience than the City of Washington.” Unsurprisingly, the House divided along sectional lines—New Englanders, New Yorkers, and other northern Members supported relocating the capital, preferably to Philadelphia or other points north. Southerners—especially those from nearby Virginia and Maryland—supported staying in Washington, a city with a southern character nestled between two slave states. This division mirrored that which emerged during debate on the Permanent Seat of Government Act
in 1790, a compromise measure that created the District of Columbia in a southern locale.
Citing the city's lack of accommodations and backwardness, Fisk was among a cadre of sophisticated, northern urbanites who argued in favor of moving Congress to “a place more connected with the moneyed interest of the nation,” so far removed from the “inconveniences” of Washington that “the Government could never be induced to return.” Supporters buttressed this argument by expressing ongoing concerns over the capital city's safety following the British invasion.
Southerners jumped to the city's defense. George Troup of Georgia—the much beleaguered Chairman of the Select Committee on Military Establishment—assured his colleagues that the city was secure. Samuel Farrow of South Carolina may not have agreed with Troup, but was quick to defend his bravery. “Having assisted in calling the nation to war,” Farrow valiantly boasted that “he was ready to take part in it himself.” Joseph Pearson of North Carolina taunted his northern opponents: “Is it not possible that gentlemen from the North and East should be filled with apprehensions for their personal safety,” he observed, “while those from Southern and middle States, whose nerves may, from climate, be supposed more delicate, should remain unappalled [sic].” Congress’ patriotic pride seemed to be at stake. Abandoning the capital would signal to the British and fellow Americans alike that the enemy had damaged the core of the fledgling government. “If. . . Congress should, under the impulse of terror, or any other motive, remove from here, they will only give cause of triumph to the enemy,” Pearson continued. “So far from entering into the feelings of the nation, for such conduct the people would scout us from our seats.”
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
When the 13th Congress (1813–1815) returned to Washington in September 1814, they found the burned out shell of the U.S. Capitol, torched by invading British troops on August 24, 1814.
The permanence of any move also became the sticking point. Proponents of moving clung to the Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 8, Clause 17, which granted Congress “exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the District. Opponents, however, clung to the permanence
of the Permanent Seat of Government Act. North Carolina Representative Nathaniel Macon
“in an impressive manner” warned the House “that if the Seat of Government was once on wheels, there was no saying where it would stop.”
Washingtonians watched congressional debate with trepidation, rallying behind the city’s largest newspaper, Joseph Gales and William Seaton’s National Intelligencer. Cockburn had burned the Intelligencer’s printing presses—abandoning his orders to destroy only public property out of distaste for the newspaper’s negative portrayals of him. “We cannot find language to express our abhorrence and astonishment at the suggestion of a permanent removal of the seat of government,” the editors decried from their borrowed presses. “A temporary removal would be scarcely less objectionable.” The District’s bankers offered a $500,000 loan to rebuild public buildings. Georgetown College offered its space “which is sufficiently large for both Houses besides rooms for the committees” at a fair price, including boarding costs not to exceed $10 per week—a fee less than the typical $16 charged by D.C. boarding houses.
Debate lasted well into October while Congress—in the words of Robert Wright of Maryland—“suspend[ed] the people of the city by the eyelids.” A special committee reported a resolution in favor of moving within 20 days and the House filled in the previously undecided blank for the destination (Philadelphia). However, on the critical third reading on October 15, the resolution died by a vote of 83 to 74. Thus, by nine votes, D.C. remained the capital and Congress met in various locations in the city for the next five years as the Capitol was rebuilt. And even the Federal Republican—rival to the National Intelligencer and no friend of the James Madison administration or the war—had to admit, “If nothing else can be permanent in the country we should hope that the seat of government, chosen under circumstances well known to the county, would be permitted to remain where nature seems to have fixed, and the founder of this empire, established it.”
Sources: Constance Green, Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800–1850 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962); Charles J. Ingersoll, Historical Sketch of the Second War Between the United States of America and Great Britain (Philadelphia, PA: Lee and Blanchard, 1849); Anthony S. Pitch, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998); Steve Vogel, Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation (New York: Random House, 2013); Annals of Congress, 13th Cong., 3rd sess., September 26, 1814, October 5, 1814, October 6, 1814, October 7, 1814, and October 15, 1814; National Intelligencer, September 2, 1814, September 27, 1814, and October 3, 1814; Federal Republican, October 11, 1814 and October 18, 1814.