Discovering the “Lost” Records of the Early Congresses
January 22, 1939
The original Declaration of War against Great Britain, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records AdministrationOne of the surprise discoveries of the 1939 efforts to organize and inventory House records was H.R. 12, the Declaration of War against Great Britain.
On this date, the Washington Post published a front-page story featuring Clerk of the House South Trimble, whose staff had unearthed 19th century House documents long believed to have been lost. Trimble had overseen a “house-cleaning,” itself spurred by a 1937 report prepared by the Committee on the Library titled, “Transfer of Certain Records of House of Representatives to National Archives.” The committee surveyed a web of storage spaces tucked away in the corners of the Capitol—from hot attic rooms to damp basement closets. In an era when modern historic preservation standards were nonexistent, the report detailed the deplorable storage conditions of important records. “Along this narrow way,” the report described once such space, “on one side are piled from the floor to the roof hundreds of bundles of the early records of the House, neglected and decaying. A more unfit place could not be found.” Trimble’s inventory of storage spaces turned up some unexpected surprises. For years, it was widely believed that when the British burned the Capitol in 1814 that all the records of the early Congresses were lost. However, a hideaway adjoining the House Document room proved to be a treasure trove of old documents that had survived the conflagration. As Office of the Clerk staff sorted through the room, they discovered a mass of shapeless packages covered in dust which had clearly been untouched for decades. Included in this cache was the original 1812 declaration of war against Great Britain, a document believed to have been burned in the 1814 fire. Another storage area in the Capitol basement produced a document from the 3rd Congress (1793–1795). To remedy the records situation and to create more space in the Capitol, House records were transferred to the Library of Congress and eventually to the National Archives where they could be cared for and preserved by archival specialists.
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