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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Back in May, our annual symposium focused on “Congress, the Home Front, and the Civil War.” C-SPAN recorded some of the proceedings, and now American History TV is airing them as part of its Civil War series. Once they air, the talks are always available in C-SPAN’s online archives.

Paul Finkelman’s “‘I Could Not Afford to Hang Men for Votes’: Abraham Lincoln and the Dakota War Pardons” aired at the end of August. Kenneth Winkle’s “‘The Best Place to Try the Experiment’: Emancipation, Rights, and Racial Equality in Civil War Washington” aired last weekend.

Coming up this weekend, Guy Gugliotta discusses “The United States Capitol during the Civil War: A National Icon Comes of Age”. Watch it live on C-SPAN 3 on Saturday at 6 and 10 pm or Sunday at 11 am or check it out online after the first airing. Also airing this weekend: USCHS Capitol Fellow Debra Hanson’s August lecture on Daniel Boone’s portrayal in Capitol artwork. It’s on at 5:15 pm on Saturday and 4:15 am on Sunday, and it’s also already available online (click the link above).

We’ll have a few additional August lectures airing in the next few months, so keep an eye on AHTV to learn more!


March on Washington Bonus Links



It feels like we’re getting nothing but wall-to-wall coverage of the last big anniversary events here in DC. As the speeches wrap up, here are links to few things you may not have seen already.

To start, here’s a list of many of the commemorations that took place in the last week. I include it because of the list of exhibits at the bottom, most of which will be around through at least September.

This piece includes images of maps and programs from the 1963 March.

A long article from the Department of Transportation includes the note that the Kennedy Administration opposed the idea of including the Capitol grounds in March and states that 75-100 members of Congress attended the event. It’s a good read, including numerous quotes from period coverage and discussing, among other things, how people traveled to Washington and the traffic and weather conditions they encountered during the event.

One of the Library of Congress blogs did a short series on the March, including an interview with Rep. John Lewis, who spoke at the Marches both in 1963 and today. Other posts in the series contain audio and video recollections from the event.

C-SPAN has coverage of the July 31 ceremony in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.


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