Music, Song, and Fireworks: Thirty-Three Years of Capitol Fourth Performances on the West Lawn

-by Ronald M. Johnson

On July 4, 1981, in the hour and half before the Washington Monument fireworks began, thousands of locals and visitors to the city gathered on the U.S. Capitol Grounds to enjoy the always entertaining Pearl Bailey, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, sing patriotic and popular songs. There were also thunderous marches and inspirational readings that night as a national television audience joined over 200,000 at the event. It proved a magical night of music and song. As evening fell, and the sky lit up, the event concluded with cannon firing as the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

A new tradition was born that night, one that continues to this day. Organized and staged by Jerry Colbert and the non-profit Capitol Concerts, Inc. he had founded, the show proved an instant hit. Those at the performance and others watching across the nation registered their approval with comments and support. Such musical occasions have had a long history in the nation’s capital. This event, however, and its continual reoccurrence every year, can be seen as the launching of a new, sustainable, and growing use of the Capitol Grounds and other public spaces in Washington for musical performances.

Neil Diamond performs at the 2013 Capitol Fourth concert.

Neil Diamond performs at the 2013 Capitol Fourth concert.

This blog will review the origins of that first Capitol Fourth, the long period of gestation which brought it about, and invite readers to respond with their own recollections of the evening. The blog builds off of a large body of existing commentary about the role that the U.S. Capitol and the larger National Mall has played in fostering a broader public appreciation of our country’s musical traditions.

The historic roots of the 1981 concert are deep in 19th and 20th century musical performance history. As James R. Heintze has noted, musical concerts on July 4th began in the late 18th century and continued to expand in number over the next two centuries, at first in cities such as New York and Boston and then, after the Civil War, increasingly in Washington. He documents that the tradition of summer concerts was well established in the national capital by the turn of the twentieth century, particularly on the Capitol Grounds.

During the first half of the new century, stimulated by the momentous impact of two world wars and the Great Depression, Americans increasingly enjoyed patriotic marches and popular music that sounded sentimental themes and words. In the post-WWII years, the west side of the Capitol Grounds—along with National Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument—became the focus for a growing number of musical performances. As the Cold War settled in, the call for more concerts with patriotic music increased. Even the 1960s and anti-war protest did not slow the rise of such events, such as in 1970 when Kate Smith sang “God Bless America” at the July 4 “Honor America Day” ceremony in Washington. Throughout the decade, in cities across the nation, summer night concerts with patriotic music provided enjoyment as the sense of national pride grew.

In that context, the National Symphony Orchestra launched the first concert on the Capitol Ground’s west lawn on July 4, 1979. The event immediately drew a large crowd prior to the fireworks. After that first concert, a young PBS producer who had arrived in Washington a few years earlier, approached the organizers of the event about televising the festivities. They accepted his offer. Jerry Colbert’s vision of the event as “a party at the most special building in the country” led him to found Capitol Concerts, Inc., a non-profit organization which raised the funding needed and moved the event to a new level. His motive was clear: “We need to come together as Americans,” he told Rebecca Smith in 2008, ”’and remember it’s been a great experiment in democracy.”

From the beginning, Colbert showed a genius for bringing together the technical and logistical support needed to host a live-telecast event that, through the network of PBS stations, would reach a national audience. Every year since that first concert, he has expanded the dimensions of the event, from working with a multitude of governmental entities, including the Military District of Washington, National Park Service, and Architect of the U.S. Capitol, to bringing together a small army of savvy television producers and talented artists, many of whom essentially donate their time and efforts to bring the concert off. He has been quoted as saying: “You have to juggle a lot of hats when you do this,” referring to the myriad of roles he fulfills throughout the year and especially in the final staging of the event.

Over the years, the event has also reflected the broader context that frames the music. In the 1980s, as the first concerts were staged, the technical underpinning of the Capitol Fourth evolved and expanded. Better broadcast and filming equipment emerged as well as improvements in sound and recording. In the early 2000s, weather conditions, always a potential problem, led to a larger and more protected performance shell, erected each year in late May for the Memorial Day Performance, also staged by Colbert’s non-profit organization, and ready for use again five weeks later.

The long list of well-known MCs and both emerging and established performers have documented the changing tastes in popular music while, at the same time, providing for new ways to perform the traditional patriotic melodies that are at the heart of the show. In 2002, new security procedures were adopted in light of the 9/11 tragedy. Finally, by 2012, the size of the live audience and that of national viewership elevated the Capitol Fourth to first place as the nation’s largest combined audience to attend and view by telecast a live performance, a ranking it continues to enjoy today. As the nation has changed and evolved, so has this remarkable event over the last three decades.

In brief, this is the story and the history, but what do you personally remember about the Capitol Fourth concerts? The Blog of History is interested in hearing from you. We welcome any thoughts and, if you wish, any statement on how the music and fireworks have enriched your own understanding of the Capitol Grounds as a venue for celebration. We look forward to your comments.

Note on Sources: There is a wealth of material on the Capitol Fourth concerts on-line. The Capitol Concerts, Inc. website provides good information on the event at and the biographical sketch of Jerry Colbert found on the Faith and Politics Institute website at provides an interesting perspective on the man behind the event. Rebecca Smith provides background on Colbert at Finally, the historical background on July 4th musical performances has been explored by James R. Heintze, American Musical Life in Context and Practice to 1865 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994). Heintze’s on-line chronology of July 4 musical performances is accessible at

Memorial Day 1958, A Nation Remembers:  World War Two and Korean War Unknown Soldiers Lie in State in the Capitol Rotunda


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-Ronald M. Johnson
Georgetown University

Flag draped coffins bearing the remains of two unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean conflict lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in May 1958. Architect of the Capitol photo

Flag draped coffins bearing the remains of two unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean conflict lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in May 1958. Architect of the Capitol photo

It was a moment born of war and remembrance. Two flag-draped caskets, side by side, rested on black catafalques in the filtered light of the Capitol Rotunda. Long lines waited patiently to view them. Many of those who passed by must have thought of Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir, Inchon Landing, and all who had died in those and other battles during the preceding years of war.

Fifty-six years ago, during the last days of May, an event filled with poignant emotion unfolded in the Capitol Rotunda when a special tribute honored two unknown soldiers who had died serving their country during World War Two and the Korean War. As Congress had done in 1921 when a single unknown soldier laid in state in the Rotunda and was then moved to be the first so honored in the recently constructed Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This time the site hosted two individuals who had lost their lives in battle, their identities “known but to God,” as stated on the Tomb.

During a three-day period lasting from May 28 to 30, 28,000 people passed through the Rotunda, over 6,000 arriving the morning before burial. At 1 p.m. on May 30, a funeral procession bearing the two caskets began the slow march to Arlington National Cemetery where burial would occur in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This began the process that would expand the memorial to one representing more than just those who had died in World War One. The site had also earlier become a place of memory for those who had died during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

President Dwight David Eisenhower laid the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the remains of the World War II and Korean conflict unknowns were laid to rest in 1958. Old Guard Museum

President Dwight David Eisenhower laid the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the remains of the World War II and Korean conflict unknowns were laid to rest in 1958. Old Guard Museum

The 1958 funeral cortege included military units and featured President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, along with members of Congress and the Supreme Court. The estimated 100,000 who lined the streets grew silent as the procession passed. “Men bared their heads. Many men and women wept,” noted one newspaper account, as it “appeared from interviews that hundreds of bereaved parents and relatives of war dead had come here in the belief that perhaps the two unknown servicemen were theirs.” Warm temperatures marked the day and the final ceremonies movingly affirmed the significance of the burials.

Few in the crowds who viewed the caskets fully understood the lengthy effort that undergirded this expansion of the Tomb as a site of national memory. The effort was first authorized in 1946 by Congress as Public Law 429, sponsored by Illinois Congressman Charles M. Price, as a way to honor the fallen dead of World War Two. The long process of choosing two unknowns who represented all the branches of the military and the detailed planning of the ceremonies was further extended by the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950.

That conflict, lasting until 1954, led Congress to expand Public Law 429 to include two unknown soldiers who had died during those years. Finally, in 1955, with the selection process completed and the Korean cease-fire line in place, the decision was made to go forth and add the additional soldiers to the Tomb. As in 1921, Americans united around the ceremony and joined in honoring the two lost lives. Later, in 1984, a fourth unknown solider who represented those who died in Vietnam would be added with a similar ceremony at both the Capitol and the Tomb.

The act of honoring the military dead has greatly deepened the tradition of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. In death, there must be remembrance. In dying for one’s country, whether a President, Senator, General, Civil Rights activist, or a soldier fallen in battle, there is national remembrance. Such occasions, especially those in the Capitol Rotunda, serve to unite us as a nation and transcend the many factors that otherwise might divide us as a society. We are brought together in a public affirmation of national service and individual sacrifice.

Note on the Sources:  The historical background on the 1958 event can be found in B.C Mossman and M.W. Stark, The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921-1969 (Department of Army, Washington, D.C., 1991), pp. 93-124.  The New York Times, May 31, 1958 carried a front-page story of the event and provided important details of the event. A helpful on-line source is the Architect of the Capitol’s “Explore Capitol Hill” and its discussion of “Lying in State,” found at

Capitol Christmas Tree 2013



–by Lauren Borchard

Last week, this year’s annual evergreen offering arrived at the Capitol, and earlier this week, it blazed forth in all its glory. Speaker John Boehner officially lit the Capitol Christmas Tree on Tuesday. The tree, from Washington State, is decorated with ornaments made by state residents.

USCHS was on hand for the ceremony; USCHS president Ron Sarasin traditionally presents our annual ornament, which this year features the Statue of Freedom. Some of our staff also attended and took very pretty pictures. Enjoy!

For our past posts on the Capitol Christmas Tree and its history, click here or here.

Sunset at the Capitol

Sunset at the Capitol


The U. S. Marine Band was on hand.


Viewers crowd onto the Capitol balconies to watch.


USCHS President Ron Sarasin presents our 2013 ornament.


It’s getting darker…


…and darker!

The Statue of Freedom Turns 150


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–by Donald Kennon

One hundred and fifty years ago shortly after noon on December 2, 1863, workmen bolted the head of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome, completing the statue’s installation.  The event was purposely low-key, even though it was marked by a volley of artillery from the Union forts that encircled the city. The New York Times, for example, had only a two-sentence notice in its dispatches from Washington that day: “The head or crowning feature at the statue of Freedom was successfully hoisted to its position on the dome of the Capitol, to-day, amid the cheers of the spectators below and a salute of cannon. The figure is made of bronze, is 19 feet high, weighs 15,000 pounds, was designed by CRAWFORD, and was cast by CLARK MILLS.”

The flag of the United States was unfurled from the statue and at that moment a photographer took a picture of the event from the west front side of the Capitol. A copy of that photograph, preserved in the collections of Charles F. Thomas, the engineer who supervised the installation, is shown here courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol, whose Flickr feed includes a high resolution image of the photograph.

statue of freedomWe have two other blog posts about the Statue of Freedom .  Check out these posts for more perspectives on the statue’s history and meaning:

Building Freedom: The Story of an Enslaved Man and a Statue

December 2, 1863: The Speech That Was Never Given at the Capitol

The most recent issue of the Capitol Dome magazine has an interesting article by Katya Miller on the productive friendship between Thomas Crawford and Sen. Charles Sumner that culminated in the creation of the sculptor’s masterpiece. You can find the article online here.

“We, the People, Mourn”: The U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s Response in 1963 to the Death of John F. Kennedy


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–by Donald Kennon

If, like me, you are of a certain age, you will always remember where you were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. You never forget the overwhelming initial shock and the lingering sadness, but you also remember how this national tragedy brought people of all walks of life together.

The casket of President John F. Kennedy arrived at the Capitol for viewing in the rotunda on Sunday, November 24, 1963.

The casket of President John F. Kennedy arrived at the Capitol for viewing in the rotunda on Sunday, November 24, 1963.

The afternoon of Sunday, November 24, a horse-drawn caisson carried the flag-draped casket from the White House to the Capitol where Kennedy’s body would lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Hundreds of thousands lined up in near-freezing temperatures to pay a final respect. Although the rotunda was scheduled to close at 9:00 PM, it remained open all night. For 18 hours, 250,000 people, some of whom waited in line 10 hours, in a line up to 10 abreast that stretched 40 blocks passed through the rotunda in a massive outpouring of national grief and respect.

Mourners in lines up to 40 blocks long waited as long as 10 hours to pay their final respects to the slain President.

Mourners in lines up to 40 blocks long waited as long as 10 hours to pay their final respects to the slain President.

The United States Capitol Historical Society was just completing its first year of existence in November 1963. Its first major production, the publication of an illustrated historical guidebook to the Capitol, was at the printer, and copies were literally rolling off the press when Kennedy was assassinated. The organization’s leadership realized that an event of this historical significance must be included in the first edition of the guidebook.

The U.S. Capitol Historical Society delayed publication of the first edition of its Capitol guidebook to include coverage of Kennedy's lying in state.

The U.S. Capitol Historical Society delayed publication of the first edition of its Capitol guidebook to include coverage of Kennedy’s lying in state. (USCHS)

Society President Fred Schwengel ordered the presses to stop and the addition of a final two-page spread, “We, the People, Mourn,” that included a photograph of the tribute to Kennedy in the Capitol Rotunda. The text concluded by observing that the President was to have been presented the first bound copy of the book on December 4: “But time makes its changes swiftly, and often shockingly. Now John Fitzgerald Kennedy belongs to history, and his deeds to the Nation’s heritage.”

Getting to Gettysburg


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–by Donald R. Kennon

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. An estimated 9,000 people are expected to attend ceremonies at Gettysburg National Military Park (somewhat fewer than the estimated 15,000 that attended the 1863 event). A Lincoln reenactor will recite Lincoln’s immortal address and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel and Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson will also speak, though most likely their combined length will not equal the two-hour classical oration by the main speaker in 1863, Edward Everett.

There will be many blog posts about the Gettysburg Address itself, and you should begin by rereading Lincoln’s words and pondering their meaning at the time and their meaning in today’s world as well. But what I want to present here is a part of the story of how Lincoln got to Gettysburg by focusing on the role of his friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.

Brady photograph of Ward Hill Lamon (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection)

Brady photograph of Ward Hill Lamon (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection)

Eighteen years younger than Lincoln, Lamon (the President called him “Hill”) was a young lawyer in Illinois when he and Lincoln met. Although Lamon was argumentative and pugnacious, Lincoln took a liking to the younger man (who was nearly as tall as Lincoln but more burly), and they became law partners from 1852-1857. After Lincoln’s election to the presidency, Lamon served as the president-elect’s bodyguard on the train trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. (Feb. 11, 1861-Feb. 23, 1861) and clashed with detective Allan Pinkerton, who had been hired by the railroad to investigate plots to assassinate Lincoln. Lamon discounted the reports of organized assassination plots in Baltimore made by “the detective,” as he referred to Pinkerton. For his part, Pinkerton thought Lamon was a “brainless egotistical fool.”

After Lincoln and Lamon snuck through Baltimore ahead of the scheduled train (on which Mary Todd Lincoln and the rest of the party traveled unscathed through the city the following day), the President appointed Lamon as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. Lamon served as the marshal in charge of the arrangements in Gettysburg for the dedication of the cemetery. He and his wife traveled by train with the President’s party on November 18, 1863. Once again Lamon was in charge of security, along with Gen. James B. Fry, whom the Secretary of War had ordered to accompany the President.

Photograph believed to depict the train carrying Lincoln to Gettysburg as it stopped at Hanover Junction in 1863. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Photograph believed to depict the train carrying Lincoln to Gettysburg as it stopped at Hanover Junction in 1863. (National Archives and Records Administration)

A closeup of the Hanover Junction platform showing the tall figure that may be Lamon or railroad president A.W. Eichelberger. (National Archives)

A closeup of the Hanover Junction platform showing the tall figure that may be Lamon or railroad president A.W. Eichelberger. (National Archives)

In addition to providing security on the train, Lamon was responsible for gathering the speakers and dignitaries for the ceremony and heading the procession to the cemetery. Once in place on the 12 by 20 foot platform, he had to command the crowd to keep from pressing against the participants. His role in the ceremony was to introduce Lincoln following Everett’s oration.

The procession to the cemetery on the morning of November 19, 1863 makes its way along Baltimore Street. (National Archives)

The procession to the cemetery on the morning of November 19, 1863 makes its way along Baltimore Street. (National Archives)

Some remarkable photographs of the train trip and the Gettysburg ceremonies indicate Lamon’s presence and his role as “marshal.” The first is a photograph of the train when it stopped at Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania en route to Gettysburg. When this photograph was first found, attention focused on the tall figure wearing a stove pipe hat. First thought to be Lincoln, closer examination revealed the man was too burly and it was thought it might be Lamon, although some think it might well have been railroad president A.W. Eichelberger.

Lamon is also visible in another photograph, which shows Lincoln seated on the platform at the dedication of the cemetery.

Lincoln, hatless and seated, at center and Lamon, in stovepipe hat to Lincoln's left, on the platform at Gettysburg. (National Archives)

Lincoln, hatless and seated, at center and Lamon, in stovepipe hat to Lincoln’s left, on the platform at Gettysburg. (National Archives)


In addition to the links in post above, there are several good books on the Gettysburg Address that merit your attention.  Here are four:

Boritt, Gabor. The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows. Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Graham, Kent. November: Lincoln’s Elegy at Gettysburg. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Johnson, Martin P. Writing the Gettysburg Address. University Press of Kansas, 2013.

Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Simon & Schuster, 1993

Revolutionary War Veterans


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–by William diGiacomantonio

In the earliest days of Congress, before administrative mechanisms existed for dealing with veterans’ benefits, addressing the overwhelming number of private petitions seeking back pay, invalid pensions (for those permanently disabled by war injuries), and other compensation for military service in the Revolutionary War absorbed a significant portion of Congress’s day-to-day order of business. Early legislators knew to pay a due regard to petitions, because—after elections—they were the primary means of knowing what their constituents expected of them. Two hundred years later, the petitions relating to the Revolutionary War still merit our attention because, more than almost any other primary source, they attest to the personal, human costs paid by the nation’s first soldiers.

Gilbert Stuart’s c. 1805 portrait of Gen. & Sec. of War Henry Knox (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

There were more than 300 such petitions to the First Federal Congress alone (1789-1791). They include many that remind us the War for American Independence was not won exclusively by Anglo-Americans. There were petitions from Hessian mercenaries like Nicholas Westfall, who sought money for deserting; French Canadian volunteers like Prudent La Jeunesse, who sought compensation for abandoning their homeland; and Oneida Indians like Lt. Col. Louis Atayataronghta, who sought the same invalid pensions as their fellow (white) officers. The vast majority of petitions that escaped being tabled immediately were generally dismissed because of various “statutes of limitations” that cut off the eligibility of certain types of claims after a given date. Nowhere was this policy more rigidly adhered to than with the approximately 150 petitions submitted to the First Congress concerning invalid pensions—requests for new ones, or arrearages for old ones. (Disabled officers were entitled to half pay for life; non-commissioned officers and soldiers were entitled to no more than five dollars per month, with proportional allowances for partial disabilities.)

Even apart from the statutes of limitations, Secretary of War Henry Knox was inclined to reject new applicants if they had failed to persuade the state authorities, who were responsible for maintaining the pension rolls. Henry Carman’s case is a perfect example of the kind of fraud Knox was trying to guard against. Carman had petitioned the House, claiming a disability caused by a shoulder wound. In his report, Knox verified that Carman had served in the New York militia, but he was not convinced the wound dated from Carman’s time of service. An affidavit by five of Carman’s neighbors, later submitted to the War Department by the local examining board, testified that he had in fact “received his wound in his own house, by the accidental discharge of a pistol [while] said Carman had been in pursuit of a cat.”

With other invalid petitioners, it is harder to look the other way. Thomas Simpson rose from private to captain lieutenant in a New Hampshire unit between 1775 and 1779, when he saw action at Quebec, Saratoga, and Monmouth. During that period he lost his left eye to smallpox, had an inextractable musket ball lodge near one of his kidneys, and had his right leg crushed by the fall of a horse. Yet Knox still denied his request for an increase from a quarter pension to a half pension, on the grounds that it would set a “pernicious” precedent to deviate from the states’ pension boards.

In the absence of any new legislation, petitioners could only claim a change in their pension status if they were mentioned by name in a private act. Not until March 1792 did Congress enact legislation altering the manner of establishing or changing a claim. A comprehensive 1818 act offered pensions to all Revolutionary War veterans based on service and need rather than disability. In general, what one discovers—not surprisingly, perhaps—is that, as the pool of eligible claimants died off, those who were left acquired near-mythic status, and Congress became less stingy in relaxing its purse strings to support them. By the Jacksonian era, a pension was virtually guaranteed to any veteran who had done as much as beat a drum at Yorktown and was still around to brag about it. Although their impact in the form of legislative remedies was relatively minor, petitioners with war-related claims kept Congress mindful of the needs and attitudes left in the wake of the Revolutionary War—still the longest declared war in American history.

Source: Charlene Bickford et al., The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 (20 vols. to date; Baltimore, 1972-), volume 7.

Citizenship Essay Contest



The 2012-2013 school year saw our inaugural essay contest, Making Democracy Work, in celebration of our 50th anniversary year. Our winners, Omar Qureshi and Vaishnavi Rao, won a cash prize for themselves and for their schools as well as a trip to Washington, DC to receive their awards.

The Hon. Richard Holwill of ??? presents Vaishnavi Rao with her award. (USCHS)

USCHS Trustee Hon. Richard Holwill (Amway) presents Vaishnavi Rao with her award. (USCHS)

In this school year, we challenge middle- and high-school students to reflect on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Students should consider the rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution and the corresponding duties that citizens owe to implement and protect those rights for themselves and for others. How do these rights and responsibilities affect you and your family? Why is it important to be aware of your rights and responsibilities?

Winners in both the junior (grades 6-8) and senior (grades 9-12) receive a trip to Washington to accept their $1000 prize. Second place winners in each category receive $500, and third place winners receive $250. For all the details about entry, please visit our website.

USCHS Vice President presents Omar Qureshi with his award. (USCHS)

USCHS Vice President Don Kennon presents Omar Qureshi with his award. (USCHS)

“We are proud to offer talented students the opportunity to showcase their thoughtful perspectives about what it means to be an American citizen today,” said Ronald A. Sarasin, President of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. “We hope our contest will be a catalyst for an important national discussion about democracy, citizenship and our collective responsibilities as Americans.”

The U.S. Capitol Historical Society is a congressionally chartered non-profit, non-partisan, educational organization founded in 1962. Its mission is to inform the public about the rich heritage of the Capitol and the Congress.

September 24, 1963: The First Official Photograph of the United States Senate in Session

Fifty years ago photographers from the National Geographic Society took the first official photograph of the United States Senate in session. The photograph was taken for publication in the first edition of We the People: The Story of the United States Capitol by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. The story of how the photograph came to be taken is as interesting as the image itself.

First official photograph of the United States Senate in session, September 24, 1963.

First official photograph of the United States Senate in session, September 24, 1963.

Senate rules prohibited the taking of photographs in the Senate chamber and surrounding rooms. Permission to take the photograph of the Senate in session for We the People required the Senate to suspend its rule against photography.

Representative Fred Schwengel, the founding president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, reminisced years later in an oral history interview about how the recently established organization went about securing permission to take the photograph:

Senator B. Everett Jordan of North Carolina, whom we had placed on our board, was chairman of the Rules Committee, which would have to approve a resolution like this to get a picture of the Senate in session. After several hearings, the Rules Committee, by unanimous vote, voted to give us the authority, and we hired the (National) Geographic, to take the picture of the Senate in session. Jordan said, “That will have to carry by unanimous vote (of the full Senate); anything like this, breaking tradition. They have never allowed this before, ever for anybody.” They had told us that two weeks before we had made our request, Life magazine people had come there and they’d turned them down. Jordan said, “Only one man will give you real trouble on this project and that’s Russell.” (Sen. Richard Russell, D-GA).  Jordan said, “Schwengel, you ought to talk to him, yourself.”

Well, I called Senator Russell and told him what I wanted, and I wanted to see him before he could say no. “Well,” he said, “you’re a member of Congress. I’ll give you ten minutes.” He told me the time. So I went over with Mel Payne and Robert Breeden of the Geographic. Breeden became the overall supervisor and Lonnelle Aikman the principal editor of this publication. We also brought over the dummy of the kind of publication we planned. Then I made my pitch for this picture of the Senate in session, with the senators on the floor. I told him all the reasons why this was necessary. Russell asked a lot of questions. He was particularly interested in one: Could we satisfy requests of publications that might want copies of whatever picture we took? We gave him assurances that anyone producing a book, magazine or newspaper article, a legitimate publication, of course, we would give them the negatives at cost. Finally, he quit asking questions, swiveled around in his swivel chair and looked out the window, for the longest time. Then he turned around and said, “Schwengel, did you work your way through college?” I said, “I sure did, that was the only way I had a chance to get there.” He said, “If you didn’t, you should have been selling Bibles.” Then he said, “I’m still against your project, but, if you’ll tell Lyndon (Vice President Lyndon Johnson) and Hubert (Sen. Hubert Humphrey) when they’re going to call up the resolution for approval, I’ll arrange to be off the floor.” So that’s what happened.

The photograph was taken on September 24, 1963 just before the Senate voted on ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which assured that most of the members would be present. Ninety-eight Senators took their seats at 10:15 a.m. for the photograph. The Senate Historical Office reports that: “Concerned about adequate lighting, cameraman George Mobley had set up three giant reflectors containing 21 large flashbulbs. Following each of six exposures, technicians hurriedly replaced the burned-out bulbs for the next shot. During one exposure, a bulb exploded and showered glass onto Representative Fred Schwengel.”

The photograph was published in the first edition of We the People later that year. The publication was delayed in order that another historic photograph could be included—of the casket of President John F. Kennedy as it lay in state in the Capitol rotunda—which will be the subject of an upcoming post in November.

Constitution Day



Signing of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy (1940) hangs in the House wing of the Capitol. (Architect of the Capitol)

Today is Constitution Day, celebrated in its current guise since 2004. Students and government workers across the country learn about the Constitution on this day each year. In addition, it’s also Citizenship Day, a time to recognize all those who have become citizens of the United States. (For more on the history of Constitution Day, which traces its roots to I Am An American Day, see this Library of Congress Law Library page.)

Here at USCHS, we’re naturally fans of Article I of the Constitution, which established the legislative branch (Congress), so we’re pleased to see that the National Constitution Center is focusing on that branch in this year’s celebrations. Article II covers the executive branch (the president and departments below him or her), and Article III addresses the judicial branch (court system). The remainder of the document covers state/state and state/federal relationships, amending the Constitution, the continuance of government obligations contracted under the Articles of Confederation, and ratification. The amendments follow.

September 17 was chosen as Constitution Day because it’s the day that Constitutional Convention delegates signed the completed document in 1787. June 21 would also be a good day to learn about our government’s framework: it’s the day New Hampshire ratified the Constitution in 1788. It was the ninth state to do so, and the action brought the document into force and our current system of government into being (more or less).  Some states, such as Massachusetts, voted for ratification only after assurances that the new government would soon work on amendments addressing issues like guaranteeing the freedom of speech. Rhode Island was the last of the original colonies to ratify the Constitution in 1790. The Senate History Office has a good overview of the process of writing and ratifying the Constitution (plus a paragraph about the history of Constitution Day), as does the History Channel.

The U.S. Capitol Historical Society has lesson plans for teachers. The National Archives also has great resources.

In honor of the “world’s longest surviving written charter of government” (Senate History), tell us your favorite thing about the Constitution in the comments!


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