Act of Terror on the Hill: The July 2, 1915 Bombing of the Capitol


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-by Ronald M. Johnson

In the midst of recent terrorist attacks, historians of the United States Capitol last year marked the 100th anniversary of an event that literally shook the foundations of the building.  On July 2, 1915, life on the Hill was suddenly and dramatically disrupted when a bomb exploded in the Senate reception room. In the context of a nation on the edge of involvement in World War I, the bombing appeared to represent the actions of terrorists and was widely reported in all the major papers of the country.

Public suspicion increased when, within a few days, it became known that the bomb maker and individual who set it off was Frank Holt, a German-born academic at Harvard and Cornell universities who earlier had used the name Erich Muenter.

Over the years, the full details behind the 1915 bombing have only slowly come to light. A wide variety of scholars have sought to clarify them and render an interpretation, but this has not been an easy task. As recently as 2013, social psychologist and blogger Romeo Vitelli stated that “the only conclusion anyone can make about Professor Erich Muenter is that he is much an enigma in death as he was in life.” However, popular historical writer Howard Blum appears to hold a different view; in Dark Invasion, also published in 2013, he tells the story in detail and provides a convincing context for understanding the 1915 bombing of the Capitol.

The details that should be of most interest to readers involve the damage caused to the Capitol and the effect it had on the international politics and rising war-fever of that day. As shown in the accompanying photograph, the bomb’s toll was minimal. While the Senate’s reception area was destroyed, there was little collateral damage elsewhere in the building.

1917 bombing (LOC)

Aftermath of the bombing (Library of Congress, LC-F82-1146)

Because Muenter set the bomb to go off around midnight, there were no injuries. The noise from the explosion was heard all over Capitol Hill and caused much alarm, but with no follow-up, the public’s fear quickly subsided. The general consensus among scholars is that the bombing did not accelerate American involvement in the war then underway in Europe.

The July 2, 1915 bombing of the Capitol, by itself, emerged in part as an isolated event by a lone individual. At the same time, as Howard Blum’s book reveals, German terrorist cells operated in the United States during this period. Erich Muenter/Frank Holt’s actions can be see as part of that broader effort.

After the bombing of the Capitol, for example, Muenter/Holt attempted to assassinate J.P. Morgan, Jr., who he saw as the main force behind the shipping of war materials to the Allies fighting Germany. Morgan survived the attack. Muenter/Holt also placed bombs on U.S. ships bound for Europe. Those efforts also failed, but their attempt reveals that Muenter/Holt could have done much more damage than he did, a troubling prospect at the least.

Making his life all the more complex and puzzling, Muenter was also guilty of the 1906 murder of his wife, a systematic user of aliases, and he had exhibited other violent behavior. His death by suicide, which came shortly after his arrest, has made the investigation of his origins and life in the United States difficult to draw more informed insights into the man. His actions in Washington and New York did help federal authorities track down and bring to an end German espionage within the country.

In the end, this story reminds us that Americans have successfully faced down terrorism many times before in our history. Awareness of that fact should bolster our resolve as we confront it again in today’s more complex world.

As noted, the 1915 bombing is extensively covered in Howard Blum, Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America (2013) and now available as a Harper paperback. In an early effort to tell the story of Erich Muenter’s evolution into Frank Holt, The Harvard Crimson in 1942 carried a brief account, no author listed. Romeo Vitelli’s analysis in his fascinating website Providentia on the event (Parts I and II, April 21, 28, 2013) explore the psychological underside of Muenter/Holt’s personality as a terrorist. Clearly, the event, the man, and the circumstances continue to invite interest and commentary.

Foreign Dignitaries Address Congress


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–by William diGiacomantonio

When Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress this week, he will add his name to a roster of approximately 250 foreign visitors who have enjoyed the same distinction, under the widest conceivable variety of circumstances. Some have come in peace time, while others have come to strengthen bonds of wartime alliance. Some have come to buttress failing regimes, while others seek to validate a change in regimes.

In the 19th century, most visits involved the invited speaker addressing each chamber separately. Since then, invited dignitaries have almost always addressed joint meetings of Congress. Joint sessions are much more rare, and to date have included the French ambassador’s visit in 1934 to warn of the rise of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill’s famous visit less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor, and the less famous visit of Cuba’s ambassador in 1948. The frequency of European dignitaries has also changed, declining in favor of a rising proportion of invitees from Asia or South and Central America.

Most people know that the Marquis de Lafayette was the first foreign dignitary to address Congress, in 1824. His portrait, paired with Washington’s on the other side of the Speaker’s rostrum, is a memento of that trip—which was itself a memento of his participation in the American Revolution fifty years earlier. The next visitor was also a private citizen: when Louis Kossuth addressed the House and Senate (meeting separately) in January 1852, the exiled leader of Hungary’s ill-fated Revolution of 1848 was looking to raise political clout (and money) for a comeback back home. All but a handful of the rest of the foreign dignitaries invited to address Congress were government officials: either heads of state (emperors, kings, or presidents), or heads of government (chancellors or prime ministers) or their personal representatives (envoys or ambassadors. The few foreign legislators to address Congress were all members of Japan’s Diet, or Parliament, serving as personal envoys of their prime minister in the years after WWII). The visit by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was the first by an individual who had never held any political office; her dramatic appeal on behalf of her husband, the Generalissimo, sought to stir fresh sympathy and aid in to China’s lonely fight against the Japanese in the darkest days of 1943.

The symbolic value of these visits can hardly be overstated—even in the sober calm of historical retrospection. When political leadership combines with moral leadership, the effect can be electrifying. Lech Walesa, head of Poland’s Solidarity labor union, addressed Congress in November 1989. When Vaclev Havel, President of Czechoslovakia, took the podium just two months later, their “one-two punch” in support of the “Velvet Revolution” helped speed the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and eventually of the Soviet Union itself. Similarly, Nelson Mandela’s visit as Deputy President of the African National Congress in June 1990, just months after South Africa’s government lifted its ban on the party, added international legitimacy and momentum to the anti-apartheid movement.

Francis’s visit to the United States this week, and his formal visit to Congress on Thursday morning, is an example of political and moral leadership combined in one person. As “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” the Pope can only be said to exert pastoral authority over a community of religious believers. But since the Lateran Accords with Mussolini’s Italy in 1929, the Pope is also “Sovereign of the Vatican City State.” No matter that Vatican City is only 110 acres—the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world (and Europe’s only absolute monarchy); it is enough to make him a “head of state.” In either capacity, he would have merited an invitation to Congress. In both capacities, the visit galvanizes the attention of Americans, millions of whom will no doubt be watching the Pope’s speech to Congress on live television. And in the long tradition of world leaders who have beaten a path to Capitol Hill over the past 190 years to draw attention to common concerns and aspirations, Francis may fulfill the meaning of yet a third title claimed by the Popes since the fifth century: “Pontifex Maximus,” or the great bridge-builder.

A Lesson in the Passing of Time: The Frieze of American History and Constantino Brumidi’s Panel on the Death of Tecumseh

Ronald M. Johnson
Georgetown University

In my classes, I can often tell when the students think I am pushing something that they are not so sure about. So recently, when I asked them to review The Frieze of American History, located under the great dome of the U.S Capitol, for insights into understanding the contemporary conditions faced by Native Americans, I quickly sensed their resistance. Why look to a nineteenth-century panel of historical settings on American history for answers into today’s world?

Not an unreasonable question, I thought. Why would one use valuable class time examining a set of images which, at first glance, appear to romanticize, even denigrate, the role of American Indians? It was my intent, I said in response, to demonstrate that at the very center of federal power, located within the building that houses Congress, there exists examples of historical images which still resonate and convey meaning for the twenty-first century viewer. Their question, however, forced me to examine more carefully my proposal and, as a result, we were able to develop a deeper insight into our collective, evolving sense of national identity.

The nineteen panels of the much viewed frieze, a circular painting made to appear as sculptured stone and located just below the windows in the dome, represent a much larger story too complex to tell in this blog. Suffice to say that Constantino Brumidi, an Italian immigrant sculptor retained by General Montgomery Meigs to provide art and decorations for the interior of the Capitol, created the original sketch or the panels in 1859. After a lengthy delay due to the Civil War and Reconstruction, Brumidi began work in 1877 on a series of portrayals of important events in American history. With his death in 1880, the task was taken up by Filippo Costaggini who completed the final eight panels based on the original plan for the frieze.

"Death of Tecumseh" from the Frieze of History by Constantino Brumidi in the Capitol Rotunda (Architect of the Capitol)

“Death of Tecumseh” from the Frieze of History by Constantino Brumidi in the Capitol Rotunda (Architect of the Capitol)

Upon reviewing the Architect of the Capitol’s on-line images of the frieze panels, my students were able to see how the Native American experience was well represented in the panels. To narrow our focus, however, I asked them examine closely the 1884 panel entitled The Death of Tecumseh to demonstrate how time and context can change the meaning of artistic representations. In this dramatic scene, based on the Battle of The Thames which occurred in 1813 in Canada when American and Indian fighters fought, the panel depicts the fighting while off to the side a wounded Tecumseh lies dying. As historical tableaux, the panel signifies the Americans winning a decisive battle against an enemy who sought to block their movement westward. The panel documents the original vision that Brumidi had in creating the frieze sketch, the artistry of Costaggini, and the popular belief held then that Indians stood against the emergence of the American nation.

With that in mind, I asked my students what had changed since 1884 with regard to the panel? At first we talked of how, over time, constructed images of the past often undergo a period of deconstruction, a rethinking of what they symbolize. Later generations then may reconstruct the meaning of the image to allow for social and cultural changes. Using that format, we concluded the since the creation of the panel, the death of Tecumseh had evolved from that of a fallen enemy to an individual who fought for Indian rights. As the first Native American leader to call for an inter-tribal confederation to resist American expansion, he is seen today as a forerunner of later Indian leaders who sought to redress the injustices that came with conquest and resettlement on federal reservations. Even more,Tecumseh and his actions are now viewed as integral to understanding our national history, an example of our increasingly diverse and complex American identity.

As a class, we concluded that we view the Brumidi images in The Frieze of American History with different eyes than nineteenth-century Americans. The students saw this as a testimony to how culture and perceptions shift over the passage of time. We see Tecumseh as less the slain enemy, more the fallen leader who fought the good battle. He has become more one of us, no longer alien or to be rejected, his life, and death, an important reminder of our broadening sense of nationhood. Monuments and art from another era remain unchanged, as they should, but the context in which they are viewed and the insights they provide do change. In the end, all of us in the class came to realize that this means we have changed as well.

On-line sources for this blog can be found at: and Also, see Barbara Wolanin, Constantino Brumidi — Artist of the Capitol (Senate Document 103-27, 103rd Congress, Session 2, Issued July 11, 2000).

Ninety Years Later and 1.5 Miles Away…Playoff Fever


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The annual Congressional Baseball Game, while a lovely fundraiser for charity, can’t quite give those of us in Washington the frisson of excitement that a big league playoff run does. The first postseason Nationals game kicks off in about an hour, and it’s been ALL OVER the news. It was from the Washington Post that we first learned about this gem of a find at the Library of Congress. Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section at the Library, tells the whole story in this post, but here’s the short version: when the Library recently acquired some long-forgotten newsreels, staffers were surprised to see footage from the Senators’ 1924 World Series win–the only known footage of the series and its final 12-inning game. As the Nationals romped through the end of the 2014 season, the moving image staff expedited conservation of the film and recently made the digital transfer available online.

As we delved into further research (we are historians, after all), we discovered this piece by David Pietrusza about Grace Coolidge, the First Lady who appears in that footage from the 1924 win, and her love of the game. She attended many games in Griffith Stadium during Calvin Coolidge’s tenure as president and listened to radio broadcasts when she wasn’t attending in person. (By the way, if anyone knows who the man with the glasses on the right of the first couple in the old footage is, please let us know!)

Calvin Coolidge welcomed the team on October 1, after they clinched the American League title. He began, “As the head of an enterprise which transacts some business and maintains a considerable staff in this town, I have a double satisfaction in welcoming home the victorious Washington Baseball Team. First, you bring the laurels from one of the hardest fought contests in all the history of the national game. Second, I feel hopeful that with this happy result now assured it will be possible for the people of Washington gradually to resume interest in the ordinary concerns of life. So long as we could be satisfied with a prompt report of the score by innings, a reasonable attention to business was still possible. But when the entire population reached the point of requiring the game to be described play by play, I began to doubt whether the highest efficiency was being promoted. I contemplated action of a vigorously disciplinary character, but the out come makes it impossible. As a result we are a somewhat demoralized community but exceedingly happy over it.” (Full text here.)

And just for fun, thanks to Popville for bringing to our attention this picture of the dinosaur outside the National Geographic Museum in downtown DC.

Photo by Christy Solberg/National Geographic

Constitution Day: Signers Who Went to Congress


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–by William diGiacomantonio

On Constitution Day 2014, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society celebrates the twenty Signers of the Constitution who went on to serve in the U.S. House and/or Senate. Sadly we cannot include the name of Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) on this list, since this Massachusetts merchant’s Antifederalist affinities prevented him from signing the document—although once it was ratified by his native Massachusetts, he went on to represent the state in the House (1789-93) and served two terms as governor before dying in the second year of his vice presidency under James Madison, three months after the British burned the Capitol. He is the only Signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in the District of Columbia.

Other names one might expect to see are absent from this list—George  Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin among others—because, although their contributions to the politics of the Revolutionary Era and the Federal Convention were notable, they never went on to serve in Congress.

Signers of the Constitution Who Later Served in Congress
Abraham Baldwin of Georgia (1754-1807) was a Yale-educated native of Connecticut who represented his adopted state in the House (1789-97) before moving on to the Senate (1799-1807). He is the only Signer of the Constitution buried in Washington, D.C.

Richard Bassett of Delaware (1745-1815) was a wealthy planter who served in the Senate (1789-93).

William Blount (National Archives)

William Blount of North Carolina (1749-1800) was a planter and land speculator from a powerful mercantile family. He served as a state legislator and member of the Confederation Congress before his appointment as first governor of the Southern Territory (1790-96). He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1796, but shortly thereafter his seat was “sequestered” and he was effectively expelled for participating in a conspiracy to oust the Spanish from Louisiana.

Pierce Butler (1744-1822) was a former British Army officer who married into South Carolina wealth and had extensive plantations in Georgia and South Carolina, which he represented at the Federal Convention and later in the Senate (1789-96).

Daniel Carroll (Library of Congress)

Daniel Carroll (1730-96), known as “of Rock Creek” to distinguish himself from several cousins of the same name, was a major landowner and planter in the part of his native Maryland that became the District of Columbia, which he voted for as Representative (1789-91).

George Clymer of Pennsylvania (1739-1813), was a Philadelphia merchant who followed his single term in the House (1789-91) as a federal excise collector and Indian treaty commissioner.

William Few (1748-1828) was born in Maryland but lived in Georgia from 1776 to 1799 before disgust with slavery led him back north, to New York City. After representing his adopted state in the Continental and Confederation Congresses (1780-82 and 1786-88), this wealthy planter served in the U.S. Senate (1789-93).

Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania (1741-1811) was a Philadelphia merchant who served in the House (1789-95). A native of Ireland, he shares with Daniel Carroll the distinction of being the only Catholic Signers of the Constitution.

Nicholas Gilman (1755-1814) was a New Hampshire merchant who served in the Confederation Congress after attending the Federal Convention. Despite going on to serve several consecutive terms in the House (1789-97) and later in the Senate (1805-14), he had a relatively inconspicuous congressional career.

William Samuel Johnson (1727-1819) was a Yale-educated lawyer from Connecticut, best known for his thirteen-year term as the first non-cleric president of Columbia College (now University). He served in the Senate from 1789 until his college duties led him to resign in 1791.

Rufus King. Oil by Charles Willson Peale, 1818. (Independence National Historical Park)

Rufus King (1755-1827), a Harvard-educated Boston lawyer, was a rising star in Massachusetts politics when he married a New York heiress and settled in New York City in 1786. This did not prevent him from representing his native state in the Federal Convention, although he represented his adopted New York in the U.S. Senate (1789-96 and again in 1813-25).

John Langdon (1741-1819) was a wealthy merchant of Portsmouth, New Hampshire who sat in the U.S. Senate (1789-1801). He served as state legislator and governor both before and after his congressional career.

James Madison (1751-1821) of Virginia was not only one of the most important members of the Federal Convention, but went on to become the first informal “majority leader” during the early period of his long career in the U.S. House (1789-97), during which he deserved credit as “Father of the Bill of Rights.” He went on to serve as a state legislator, secretary of state under his good friend Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), and president (1809-17).

Robert Morris (1735-1806) was a major Philadelphia merchant who became leader of the “centralist” (proto-Federalist) forces in Pennsylvania. He served as the Confederation Congress’s only superintendent of finance (1781-84), perhaps the most powerful single executive officer in national politics before the Constitution. He sat in the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1795 before the failure of several extensive land speculation schemes reduced him to poverty and imprisonment for debt.

William Paterson (1745-1806), of New Jersey, was a Princeton-educated lawyer and jurist who served in the Senate from 1789 until resigning the next year to serve as governor until 1793, when he resigned again to serve as associate justice of the Supreme Court until his death.

Charles Pinckney (Library of Congress)

Charles Pinckney (1757-1824) was a wealthy lawyer and planter of Charleston, South Carolina who served several terms in the Confederation Congress, the state legislature, and the governorship, in addition to the U.S. Senate (1798-1801) and House (1819-21).

George Read (1733-98), a wealthy lawyer of New Castle, Delaware, held many offices in the state and as a member of the Continental Congress before attending the Federal Convention. He sent on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1789 until resigning in 1793 to serve the remainder of his life as his state’s chief justice.

Roger Sherman. Oil copy after Ralph Earl. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-93), known as “Father Sherman” in deference to his age as well as his Puritan morality, was the only person to sign all four “founding documents” of the Revolutionary Era: the Articles of Non-Importation (1774), the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. This self-made man went on to serve in the U.S. House from 1789 until 1791, when he resigned to serve in the Senate until his death.

Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina (1758-1802) served as a Continental Army officer, a member of the Confederation Congress and state legislature, and governor before being appointed to serve out a brief, unexpired term in the U.S. Senate (1799-1801). Defeated for reelection, he was killed in duel with his successful opponent.

Hugh Williamson of North Carolina (1735-1819), was a native of Pennsylvania who practiced medicine but earned a wider reputation for his literary and scientific pursuits. He served as a member of the Confederation Congress before entering the U.S. House (1789-93).

200 Years Ago, DC Burned


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In the evening on August 24, 1814, British troops led by Major General Robert Ross arrived in Washington after taking casualties but defeating a small American force at nearby Bladensburg, MD. The short version of the story notes that shots were fired at the British, who responded by burning the public buildings in the city before departing the next day. For more, here’s an excerpt from John McCavitt’s article from the upcoming issue of The Capitol Dome. Look out for the full article soon, which includes a new explanation for why the British chose to burn only some of the buildings in the capital. Here, McCavitt discusses who might have fired those infamous shots.

Family portrait of General Robert Ross, reproduced courtesy of Mr. Stephen Campbell, Rostrevor, County Down, Northern Ireland.

Family portrait of General Robert Ross, reproduced courtesy of Mr. Stephen Campbell, Rostrevor, County Down, Northern Ireland


Excerpt from “Capitol Conflagrator? Major General Robert Ross”
…A parley to discuss terms of surrender had been sounded by drum and by trumpet. According to the British they carried a flag of truce.1 No response was received to the sounding of a parley. As [Major General] Ross’s small party approached the Capitol and passed the Sewall Belmont house on the way, a volley of shots rang out. Two British soldiers were killed and several were wounded.2 Ross himself narrowly missed death or serious injury. His horse, however, was killed and the mount of the trumpeter also was shot.3

Several British officers reported that the firing came not only from the Sewall Belmont house but from other nearby houses, as well as from a party of up to three hundred Americans based at the Capitol.4 Ross ordered up a brigade of troops and instructed them to fire a volley of shots at the Capitol with a view to deterring further resistance, reinforcing the impression that the British believed they had come under fire from the hallowed corridors of the American legislature.5

….In the years since the British occupation of Washington, debate has raged about the identity and number of assailants who opened fire on Major General Ross and his advance guard. Most American accounts attributed the attack on Ross to an Irish barber named Dixon, also known as Dickson.6 “Chief barber” to Congress for more than twenty years, for some he was a Figaro-type, a talkative, good-humoured man.7 While there is evidence to suggest that Dickson was involved in the attack on Ross, he was far from the only one who opened fire on the British.8 It was a volley of shots that rang out, not just a single report. Again, while they may not have acted alone, the hardest evidence about who attacked Ross indicates the involvement of some of [Commodore Joshua] Barney’s sailors who had remained in the Capitol area [after the Battle of Bladensburg earlier that day].9 The Capitol and the houses from which shots were fired at the British were not immediately burnt after the shooting incident. Still Ross tarried in the hope of negotiating a deal.10

[But t]he attack on Ross and his advance guard indicated to the British that the Americans were not going to negotiate. And so the burning began.


1. G.R. Gleig, The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans (1821; 3rd ed., corrected and revised, London: John Murray, 1827), p. 129.
2. T.A.J. Burnett, The Rise and Fall of a Regency Dandy: The Life and Times of Scrope Berdmore Davies, (London: Murray, 1981), pp. 223-25.
3. Ibid.
4. James Scott, Recollections of a Naval Life (London: R. Bentley, 1834), 3:298; Michael Crawford, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 2002), 3:220-23; MacDougall letter to Times (London), May 25, 1861.
5. Richard N. Cote, Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.: Corinthian Books, 2005), p. 303.
6. Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (New York: Norton’s, 1972), p. 161.
7. “Sketches of Private Life and Character of William H. Crawford,” Southern Literary Messenger 3(April 1837):262-65.
8. Glenn Tucker, Poltroons and Patriots: A Popular Account of the War of 1812 (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1954), 2:553.
9. Lord, Dawn’s Early Light, p. 161. See also Steve Vogel, Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 168.
10. Tucker, Poltroons and Patriots, 2:553.

Political Portraiture in the United States and France during the Revolutionary and Federal Eras, ca. 1776-1814


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A new conference organized by former U.S. Capitol Historical Society Fellow, Prof. Todd Larkin of Montana State University, will examine political portraiture in the United States and France, 1776 to 1814. The conference will be held September 25-26 in the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.


The Montana State University Foundation and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery invite scholars, students, connoisseurs, and friends of American-French cultural exchange to attend the conference, which will mark the bicentennial of an important historical event: the British capture of Washington, D.C., in 1814 and their burning of the Capitol along with Congress’s state portraits of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

European and North American scholars from universities and museums will discuss aspects of diplomatic strategy, democratic representation, and republican identity as promoted in portraits. This conference is made possible by generous support from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Henry Luce Foundation.

This event is free and open to the public.
For more information, go to
Seating is limited, so please make a reservation at

Unpacking the Image: 1950s Census



While doing some Tweet-of-the-Day research that didn’t pan out, I came across a terrific cultural artifact.

Original caption: “A homeowner takes a break from cutting the grass to be interviewed for the 1950 census.” (Census Bureau)

There are so many incredible details in this picture, which presents a specific image of 1950 that reminds us that the stereotypes we traffic in about the past have some basis in reality–or at least in a reality that was attractive at the time and not just now. It must be a publicity photo; the flora suggests a California location.

Now look again–the man on the left has supposedly been mowing the lawn. In dress pants, a button-down, and a tie! And the man on the right is walking door-to-door in a similar outfit, including white shoes. Check out the now retro-cool lawnmower, and note the laundry hanging out in the upper left corner. (Now there’s a detail that suggests a setting that wasn’t fabricated.)

What would an analogous PR piece look like today? Well, here’s a poster from the 2010 census.

Encouraging young Hispanics to participate. (Census Bureau)

It’s looking outdated already, in its own way.

OK, two more from the 1950 census, with captions from the Census Bureau. Then I’ll stop.

“An enumerator interviews President Truman and the first family for the 1950 census.” (Census Bureau)

More white shoes!

“An enumerator collects information from a mother while her son ‘supervises’ the progress of the interview.” (Census Bureau)

There’s a series of image galleries for each census year on the Census Bureau’s history pages. Enjoy!


The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: A Fifty Year Retrospective


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–by Lincoln Webb, USCHS intern

The latter half of twentieth century was an era defined by a monumental geopolitical confrontation between two behemoths: the United States and the Soviet Union. Among many other things, the Cold War was a struggle between ideals, and with the impetus supplied by George F. Kennan’s “long telegram,” it became the primary objective of the United States to contain communism. Containment took many forms from 1946 until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Fortunately, most of the time it was economic containment, as epitomized by the Marshall Plan in 1947, which was used to undermine Soviet influence in regions such as Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. However in other instances such as Korea, Vietnam, and the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Cold War quickly escalated toward prolonged military confrontation, known widely among historians as “proxy wars.”

The USS Maddox in Australia in 1967.

The most memorable and protracted of these proxy wars was Vietnam, which developed in its earliest stages in late 1955. The war reached a new level of intensity on August 10, 1964—fifty years ago this Sunday—when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Congress had quickly passed this resolution in response to the attack on two U.S. Navy destroyers, USS Maddox and Turner Joy, in international waters by the North Vietnamese on August 2 and 4. With only one representative and two senators voting against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, the level of Congressional mandate behind accelerating the war effort was immense. Above all else, this act gave President Johnson the authority to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” At the same time, this was by no means a formal declaration of war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—to an extent beyond any other Congressional action before it—gave the executive branch more authority to take military action, both conventional and covert. This legacy of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution has had far-reaching implications for United States foreign policy over the past half-century.

Pres. Johnson signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (Lyndon Baines Johnson Library)

The most direct corollaries that have followed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution are the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and the Iraq wars. During the administration of George W. Bush, the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, more so than other wars, is remarkably within the same vein as the Tonkin Resolution. This is primarily due to the fact both of these followed a so-called “black swan” event that galvanized the American people against those who had attacked them. Additionally, both of these wars have inspired a similar sentiment among the American people, as both instances have made the populace discontented with the protracted nature of a war that seems unnecessary to continue.

Yet there is perhaps an even more unpopular trend that has developed due to the increased presidential authority first provided by the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Events such as Jimmy Carter’s actions in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s involvement with the Contras, Bill Clinton’s decision to send troops to Haiti, or even Barak Obama’s use of drones in the Middle East all fall in line with the Presidential authority in foreign affairs outlined by the Gulf of Tonkin Revolution. Each has a decidedly secretive quality independent of Congressional oversight, which often leaves the American people uneasy, if not outraged.

Much debate has surrounded what degree of autonomy the president should be given to conduct military operations in the advancement of national interests. In instances such as Pearl Harbor and September 11, it would seem popular mandate seems to afford a large degree of freedom to the president. However, in the absence of such overt attacks on the United States, it is often the case that US military action seems ultimately unsavory. Regardless of whether someone thinks US foreign policy of the past fifty years has been justified or not, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution has played an important part in shaping how the United States has conducted itself on the global stage.

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


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