As December draws to a close, there’s a tendency to review the efforts of the past year. In 2015, House History, Art & Archives added a slew of new information to the website, including pages on signers of the U.S. Constitution, histories of the House Office Buildings, trivia about addresses by Foreign Leaders, a documentary on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and much more. On the blog, we introduced the new Photography blog entries, took you inside the Speaker’s Office, and traveled to Selma, Alabama. Here are just a few of our favorites from the past year.
Here’s the thing about being a spy: You can’t tell anybody. Especially if you’re a descendant of the Lee family of Virginia, educated at an elite prep school and university, a Rhodes Scholar, a lawyer at a prominent Manhattan law firm, and working in counterintelligence for the United States. Duncan Chaplin Lee was and did all of those things. He was a spy, and he got away with it.
When a possum snuck into the Old House Office Building in 1946, it had little idea that it would end up as a Capitol dinner. The possum, or opossum, is a nocturnal marsupial, known for playing dead when faced with danger. Usually found in the woods of the southeastern and northwestern United States, possums have occasionally wandered into buildings in Washington, D.C. In March 1946, a particularly resourceful possum broke into the Old House Office Building (now known as the Cannon Building) and roamed the hallways for nearly a week while staffers hunted it down.
If you studied Latin in school you may recall the phrase, “Omne trium perfectum” (every set of three is complete). From history to pop culture, trios make for interesting stories. Ancient Rome had Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Mark Antony. The antebellum Senate boasted its Great Triumvirate—Webster, Calhoun, and Clay. The Bee Gees laid down the beat for 1970s disco goers. Harry Potter and his friends, Ron and Hermione, spellbound a later generation. The Illinois Seventh Congressional District of the 1840s spawned its own memorable political trio: John J. Hardin, Edward D. Baker, and Abraham Lincoln.
Rarely do we visit a historic site with someone who helped to make history there. But one weekend a year, more than 60 Members of Congress travel to Alabama with Selma veteran and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. The Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage in 2015 commemorated the 50th anniversaries of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches which spurred passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The pilgrimage is an important congressional tradition and one the Office of the Historian chronicles through its civil rights oral history project.
At 10 different portrait unveilings on Capitol Hill, a man named Charles J. Fox was praised as the artist who captured the sitter’s likeness. Fox didn’t immediately fit the image of an artist in mid-century America—an unkempt genius in a beret and paint-splattered smock. Instead, he looked like a prosperous businessman with a well-tailored suit and receding hairline. Nor did he look like a sophisticated aesthete, although a promotional pamphlet described him as “the son of a well-known Austrian artist whose subjects were European royalty and continental society.” The only problem was that Charles J. Fox was not the true identity of the artist.
In politics as in life, everyone discovers that they have to choose their battles, deciding when to fight and when to walk away. The lucky ones get to learn this lesson early and in private. Then there are others, like Ohio Representative William Sawyer. On Wednesday, March 4, 1846, the House of Representatives finished its daily business. At this point, an angry William Sawyer of Ohio rose and demanded recognition “to make an explanation personal to himself.” He brusquely sent to the House Clerk a recent copy of the New York Tribune which he declaimed had a “personally abusive” article and demanded that the article be read for the record.
Shortly before seven o’clock in the evening, on Saturday, February 2, 1856, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, strode to the well of the House, climbed the rostrum’s few steps to the Speaker’s chair, and sat down. He paused for a moment. With his thick dark hair swept to one side and a prominent mustache obscuring his upper lip, Banks then stood to address his colleagues, referencing “unusual difficulties.” What he unassumingly called “unusual difficulties” was, in fact, the fallout from the most chaotic period in House history.
A space dedicated to receiving honored guests, a staging spot for invitees addressing joint meetings and a genteel setting for photo ops wasn’t part of the Speaker’s suite of offices until the mid-1930s, after the Longworth House Office Building opened. Increased space, more frequent visits by foreign dignitaries, and the demand for news photos spurred development of what is today known as the Speaker’s Ceremonial Office.
Stay tuned in 2016 for the tale of one of the worst snowstorms to ever hit D.C., some Capitol Hill movie trivia, a look at the first female House photographer, and plenty more!Follow @USHouseHistory