Government Girls


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UPDATE: Gueli’s talk has been rescheduled, for Wednesday, May 18. See our website for more information about her book.

On Wednesday, March 16, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society will host Cindy Gueli for a noon brown bag. She’ll be speaking about her book, Lipstick Brigade: The Untold True Story of Washington’s World War II Government Girls. Join us for this free event (but pre-register here if possible), or simply read on to learn more about one episode pitting the women against some Members of Congress.

–by Cindy Gueli

They were young. Most were single. They were colloquially known as Government Girls. And during World War II, this clerical corps almost 200,000 strong kept Washington’s federal agencies functioning. The massive bureaucratic demands of running a war sent recruiters all over the country seeking adventurous young women willing to relocate to the nation’s capital. Joining the war effort as a civilian or with the military offered women a chance to patriotically serve their country and explore personal and professional prospects for the future. Over the course of the war, Government Girls would turn the usually sedate capital into a rollicking boomtown.

Government girls near the Capitol

Government girls and their dates play tourist on the Capitol lawn in 1943.

However, not everyone was happy with the thousands of young women let loose in Washington. Conflicts over expectations of how these women—most in their early twenties—should dress, act, and socialize erupted between barrier-breaking Government Girls and more conservative local and federal officials. One such public battle originated in Congress.

Representative Earl Wilson (R-IN), a former high school principal, viewed
Government Girls’ unrestrained social lives as both improper for respectable young women and detrimental to the war effort. In 1942 he proposed a 10 pm nightly curfew for all (and only) female federal workers. This, he claimed, would keep the women “healthier, frisky and fine.” He suggested that boarding house owners and federal dorm managers could enforce the women’s bedtime.

Outraged Government Girls responded immediately by calling Wilson an “ogre” in the press and labeling the curfew as “childish, ridiculous, and impossible.” Instead of blaming women’s wild social lives for lagging productivity and worker exhaustion, they suggested Wilson investigate terrible housing and transportation conditions, inadequate training, and long hours with reduced lunch breaks. Wilson dismissed the women’s complaints and condemned their resistance as “thinking only of their own pleasure.”

Congressional debates over the issue crossed party and gender lines. Rep. Clare Hoffman (R-MI) supported the curfew because she once saw Government Girls smoking and fixing their nails outside of an office building. Congressmen Karl Stefan (R-NE) and Robert Ramspeck (D-GA) agreed that Government Girls lacked a sense of wartime urgency and supported a thorough investigation.

On the other side of the argument, Hattie Caraway (D-AR)—the only woman in the Senate—was the most ardent defender of Government Girls. She argued: “If the girls are old enough to be away from home to work here, they ought to be able to take care of themselves.” Caraway was backed by Congressmen Jennings Randolph (D-WV) and Victor Wickersham (D-OK) who spoke out against strict regulations because Government Girls were the backbone of the federal agencies.

As no hard evidence existed to support Wilson’s allegations, his attempt to rein in Government Girls like misbehaving schoolgirls failed. The women’s social lives would continue to cause local and official consternation throughout the war. However, Congress would make no more attempts to control them. Over half of all wartime workers who came to D.C. stayed in the city after the war. Former Government Girls found postwar clerical work within every department of the federal government, including the legislative offices on Capitol Hill.

Related: more information on one building where Government Girls lived in DC.

Gueli is an author and media professional who worked as a consultant on Showtime’s The Untold History of The United States, a reporter and producer for Associated Press Television News, VH1, and A&E, and host of the web series “Scandalous Washington.” She has written and lectured widely on American social, cultural, and pop culture history. She received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in communications and master’s and doctorate degrees in history from American University. For more about Gueli and Washington’s Lipstick Brigade, visit her website or find her on Twitter @historybyte.

Capitol Apples


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–Shana Klein, Ph.D., Art History, University of New Mexico; USCHS Capitol Fellow

An apple features in this cluster of fruit from the Brumidi Corridors. (Christiana Cunningham-Adams)

An apple features in this cluster of fruit from the Brumidi Corridors. (Christiana Cunningham-Adams)

March 11 has been declared National Johnny Appleseed Day. What better way to celebrate the occasion than by looking to the history of the Brumidi Corridors in the United States Capitol, where depictions of apples and other fruits decorate the hallways. Italian artist Constantino Brumidi painted the majority of the Capitol’s north wing corridors between 1857 and 1859.  Unlike other spaces in the Capitol devoted to heavy-handed allegorical scenes and history paintings, Brumidi devoted these hallways walked by nineteenth-century congressmen and presidents to ornamental depictions of fruit and flowers. And not just any fruit: Brumidi depicted the apple 32 times according to scholar and former U.S. Capitol Historical Society Fellow Jamie Whitacre in 2007 (Endnote 1). After surveying all of the fruits and flowers depicted in the corridors, Whitacre found that apples were one of the most frequently depicted fruits, third only to grapes and plums (rendered 53 and 36 times, respectively). Since then, conservators have discovered other fruits represented in the Capitol Building, including a banana. (If painted in the mid-nineteenth century, this is a surprising discovery given that the tropical banana would have been unfamiliar to most Americans at the time.)

Brumidi and his team of painters likely rendered the apple 32 times in the corridors because the apple was considered a uniquely American fruit. Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed, writing, “the apple is our national fruit…Man would be less solitary, less friended, less supported..withheld [of] this ornamental and social fruit” (Endnote 2). Preacher Henry Ward Beecher felt similarly, saying, “the apple is, beyond all question, the American fruit…the true democratic fruit…” (Endnote 3). Not surprisingly, the apple was used for the nation’s most patriotic dishes, including a historic recipe for George Washington pie.

Apples, however, are not indigenous to North America. The fruit was brought over by English colonists in the 1700s, who likely imported the fruit to bring a sense of home to the New World. It would then take decades for the apple to be eaten raw since raw fruit was generally thought to be unsavory and poisonous before the Civil War. Apples, instead, were largely used for cider—an alcoholic beverage that displeased many supporters of the temperance movement who felt that all forms of alcohol were sinful.

Johnny Appleseed, née John Chapman, helped revamp the reputation of the apple as a patriotic, virtuous food. Born with an entrepreneurial spirit, Appleseed roamed the western frontier (in today’s states of Ohio and Pennsylvania), donating apple seedlings for Americans to grow their own orchards. While Appleseed’s donation of seeds has been historically viewed as an act of charity to help American farmers, it was also a clever strategy to advance national expansion through the cultivation of western land under the prevailing doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Appleseed, nevertheless, proclaimed that his mission was charitable and religious, encouraging people to cultivate “God’s fruit” on “God’s land” (Endnote 4).

Brumidi, late in life (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, Brady-Handy Collection)

Brumidi, late in life (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, Brady-Handy Collection)

More than 30 years later, Brumidi would paint the patriotic apple across the golden hallways of the Capitol’s south corridor. He painted the fruit in a neo-classical, trompe l’oeil style by manipulating elements of scale and shadow to make the fruit look three-dimensional. His application of red and yellow paint was so convincing that viewers no doubt felt tempted to pluck the fruit right off of the wall. (The dimensionality and tromp l’oeil effect of the apples has since been flattened because of varnishing done in the later twentieth century—a misdirection the today’s conservators are trying to correct.) Brumidi may have modeled the painting after real fruits and flowers, which would have been easily accessible to him with the U.S. Botanical Garden on the neighboring western property of the Capitol grounds (Endnote 5).

The patriotic associations of the apple, however, did not prevent Brumidi from garnering criticism for his murals, which critics claimed were too ornate and without national history and character. A number of congressmen similarly felt that the muralled halls were snobbish and unlike the plainness and simplicity of the American spirit (Endnote 6). Brumidi faced the unique challenge of decorating the Capitol in a worldly style without compromising its distinctly American character. Unlike the representations of pineapples or recently-discovered banana in the Capitol, Brumidi’s depiction of apples would have represented American identity to its viewers and the rich legacy of the fruit left by the mythical Johnny Appleseed.

Capitol Fellow Shana Klein

Capitol Fellow Shana Klein

1. Jamie Whitacre, “The Fruits and Flowers of the Brumidi Corridors,” The Capitol Dome 44.2 (Spring 2007), 8-14.
2. These quotes were gathered by Bruce Webber in his text, The Apple of America: The Apple in Nineteenth-Century American Art (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 1993).
3. Ibid.
4. For a more thorough cultural history of Johnny Appleseed, see: William Kerrigan, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012); Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2001); and Robert Price, Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1954).
5. The U.S. Botanical Garden was formally established in 1822 from a collection of plant specimens and seeds amassed by naval officer Charles Wilkes during his journey in the Pacific. More information can be found in the archival files in the office of the Curator of the Capitol.
6. This information was collected by former Curator of the Capitol Dr. Barbara Wolanin on page 94 of her seminal and encyclopedic text on the artist, Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol (Washington, DC: United States Congress, 1998).

Mary McGrory, Congressional Columnist

Editor’s note: On Thursday, March 10, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society will host author John Norris in conversation with Don Ritchie, historian emeritus of the Senate. They’ll discuss Norris’s recent book, Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism. Below, Norris writes about McGrory’s interactions with Members of Congress and her skills as a journalist and writer. If you’re in DC, please join us on Thursday for the event! It’s free and open to the public, but pre-registration is recommended.


–by John Norris

Mary McGrory, the pioneering columnist from first the Washington Star and later the Washington Post, was most famous for covering presidents and presidential politics. The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, she featured prominently on Nixon’s infamous Enemies List, and her column was syndicated in close to 200 papers around the country.

Mary McGrory at the Watergate Hearings (Library of Congress)

Mary McGrory at the Watergate Hearings (Library of Congress [M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico])

But McGrory always had a special place in her heart for Congress. For a woman who wrote four columns a week, and whose big breakthrough came because of her coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings, McGrory knew that she could always find a story worth telling on the Hill.

But as one of the few women on the beat in the 1950s and 60s, her reception was not always a warm one. Journalist Russell Baker recalled that when he started out as a reporter, in the mid-fifties, a number of congressional graybeards pointed Mary out to Baker “as the very model of what I as a congressional correspondent should never be if I wanted to succeed covering the Hill.” Mary’s mortal sin: she had printed, verbatim, the harshly anti-immigrant views of a Pennsylvania congressman. “No reporter had ever before done him that discourtesy,” Baker recalled, explaining that most reporters in those days thought it unfair to accurately quote congressmen.

The great key to Mary’s success on the Hill was her dedication to spending long hours roaming the halls, talking to members and their staffs, and sitting through lengthy press conferences and hearings. “She was absolutely loyal to that proposition that if you didn’t see it yourself and ask questions about it yourself, you had no right to sit down and write about it,” observed anchorman Roger Mudd.

Mary would sit patiently on the leather benches below the oil portraits in the Speaker’s Lobby off the floor of the House of Representatives, lying in wait. That patience was usually rewarded. “Men naturally like to explain things to women,” Mary observed, “and I have given them exceptional opportunities in that regard.”

And equally important, Mary was able to find a certain poetry in politics and enliven even mundane proceedings on the Hill. She once described a debate on the senate floor between Everett Dirksen and Paul Douglas as looking like “two elderly polar bears negotiating the pas de deux from ‘Swan Lake.’” Efforts by a politician to restrain a freelancing underling during a hearing were akin to “a small man trying to take a large dog for a walk.”

Mary complained half-heartedly that she often played the role of a therapist to politicians eager to unburden themselves about wayward children and unhappy wives. But Mary’s were crocodile tears; she enjoyed the socializing as much as the politics. Understanding politicians as people allowed her to effectively build columns around personal observation. Many Republicans in Congress, accustomed to reading Mary’s sharp words, were pleasantly surprised to find Mary gracious in person. “The fact that I don’t raise my voice,” Mary remarked dryly, “seems to impress them favorably.”

John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism which was recently announced as a finalist for the LA Times Book Award.

Representative Caroline O’Day


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Caroline Goodwin was born on a Georgia plantation in 1875 but spent years working for progressive causes, including woman suffrage and world peace. She had gone to Europe to study art, and there she met Daniel O’Day, with whom she moved to New York after they married. In fact, it was Daniel who first asked Caroline why she was watching a suffrage parade with him rather than marching in it. After joining the League of Women Voters, O’Day met Eleanor Roosevelt and later began working with New York City settlement houses and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

O’Day held several state and Democratic Party appointments in New York before joining the 1934 race for two at-large U.S. House seats. Eleanor Roosevelt, by then First Lady, campaigned for her friend and even chaired her campaign committee. It was the first time a First Lady actively campaigned for any congressional candidate; Roosevelt said she was “justified” because the campaign was in her own state. O’Day won the largest share of the votes in the election and went on to serve four terms in the House. For the last three terms, she chaired the Committee on Election of President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress.

o'day and honeyman (LOC)

Rep. Caroline O’Day (right) with new Rep. Nan Honeyman (OR) in the House Restaurant in 1937. (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress)

O’Day worked passionately for world peace; she also advocated New Deal programs that supported labor and children as well as the various arts programs under the Works Progress Administration. She also invested in civil rights causes, including supporting 1935 and 1937 antilynching bills and opposing detention camps for aliens in the years leading into WWII. During those years, O’Day opposed Roosevelt administration actions that presaged US involvement in the war, but Nazi treatment of Jews and minorities and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led her to shift her position. While ill health kept her from Congress when it voted to declare war on Japan, she told colleagues she would have voted for the war resolution.

That poor health prevented O’Day from running for reelection in 1942, and her final term in Congress ended on January 3, 1943. She died the next day in New York.

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
Wasniewski, Matthew, editor in  chief, Women in Congress, 1917-2006 (2006), pp. 155-157.


Sen. Hiram Revels (Mississippi, 1870-71)


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–by William C. diGiacomantonio

SenatorHiramRhoadesRevels (LOC)

Sen. Hiram Revels (Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

On 25 February 1870, Hiram Revels (1827-1901) presented his credentials from the state of Mississippi, which had been readmitted to the Union just two days earlier, and took his seat in the U.S. Senate as the first African American to serve in Congress. Born of freed black parents in the North Carolina piedmont, the 42-year-old Revels had migrated through Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Missouri, and Louisiana as an educator and Methodist minister before settling in Natchez, Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Reconstruction-era policies gave newly-freed African Americans unprecedented access to both the voting booth and state legislatures. Revels was elected to the state senate in 1869. One of the most pressing tasks that fell to the southern states’ legislatures after the war was to resume their election of senators to Congress. (U.S. senators would not be elected directly by the people until ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913.) Mississippi’s new U.S. senators, once seated, would face reelection in 1871 and 1875, respectively; the latter seat had belonged to Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy. State Republicans saw the election of an African American to one of these seats as a symbolic victory; state Democrats (who had largely supported secession in 1861) saw electing an African American as a chance for Republicans to shoot themselves in the foot, by showing the ridiculous extremes to which their “Radical Reconstruction” policies would lead. With votes from both parties in the state legislature, Hiram Revels was elected to the term due to expire the very next year.

Revels was not the first African American elected to Congress. John W. Menard, Representative-elect for Louisiana, holds that distinction. But Democrats in Congress succeeded in challenging those election returns. The same strategy might have been resorted to for preventing Revels’s being seated—except that it is harder to dispute the election count of a small legislature than of an entire congressional district in the midst of radical transformation and electoral irregularities. So Senate Democrats chose a different tack: they insisted that Revels had not met the nine-years’ citizenship threshold required by the Constitution. By passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868), Congress itself—they maintained—had recognized that African Americans were not truly citizens up to that time, just as the Supreme Court had ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Senate Republicans insisted, on the contrary, that the Act and the Amendment conferred instant citizenship. After a lengthy debate marked by lofty claims of equality and cheap pandering to racist principles, and by a vote of 48 to 8, Revels was seated at 4:40 p.m. on 25 February 1871.

For more information on Revels, see his entry in Blacks Americans in Congress.

Capitol Myths: Brumidi Falls to his Death?


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Guards at the Taj promo imageThis Sunday, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society is partnering with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to present “The Price of Beauty: History and Legend at the Heart of the Capital.” The free program (get your ticket here, though you will need separate tickets for the play) is part of the House Lights Up series for the new production of Guards at the Taj. Rajiv Joseph’s play touches on many themes, including definitions of beauty, myths that surround great buildings, and the unsung laborers who build those buildings. “The Price of Beauty” will connect those themes to one of Washington’s own great buildings, the Capitol.

In thinking about the event, I was reminded of Jane Armstrong Hudiburg’s examination of a Capitol myth in a 2014 edition of The Capitol Dome. “‘From the Giddy Height Above’: Investigating Constantino Brumidi’s Final Days in the Capitol Rotunda” looks to first-hand accounts to understand what actually happened the day Constantino Brumidi, then in his 70s, fell from the scaffolding in the Rotunda, where he was working on the Frieze of American History that runs around the base of the Dome. Did he fall to his death? Hang from weak arms for fifteen minutes? Just trip a little? And did this fall affect his ability to complete his work on the frieze?

From Hudiburg’s article:

“There are many popular delusions concerning the Capitol,” lamented the building’s chief guide, H. J. Kennedy, to an Evening Star reporter in 1902. “Among the erroneous impressions that seem to be entertained by almost every visitor is one that relates to the frieze in the rotunda. Nine in every ten people who live in this city, and who bring their friends to see the building, believe that Brumidi fell from the scaffold while at work on the frieze and was killed.” (The Evening Star [Washington], Jan. 4, 1902, p. 18)

frieze and scaffold (AOC)

The scaffold used to paint the frieze remained in the Rotunda for many years. This photograph was published in George Hazelton, The National Capital, 1897. (Credit: Architect of the Capitol)

Current guides with the Capitol Visitor Center Services, however, are well aware that Constantino Brumidi (fig. 1), the nineteenth-century Italian artist, survived that fall, or actually, that near fall, in 1879 from the scaffolding fifty-eight feet above the Rotunda floor. Indeed, it is one of the favorite stories relayed to the tourists and school groups visiting the Capitol each day. Guides point to each of the frieze’s scenes, which encircle the base of the Dome, beginning with Columbus walking into the New World, and pause at the one depicting “William Penn and the Indians” (fig. 2).

Brumidi (LOC)

The scaffold used to paint the frieze remained in the Rotunda for many years. This photograph was published in George Hazelton, The National Capital, 1897. (Credit: Architect of the Capitol)

“Do you see where the background behind Penn changes from a darker taupe to a lighter color?” a guide is likely to ask. Heads craned upwards nod. “That is where Brumidi fell. He managed to grab the scaffolding”—and here the guide may mimic swinging on monkey bars—“and held on for several minutes before being rescued. He didn’t get hurt, but he was shaken up, and he never finished the scene.” Seeking a strong reaction, the guide is never disappointed. While older visitors may gasp, middle-school students, in particular, perk up, their faces brighten. Finally, an interesting story to catch their attention: an old man, in his seventies, dangling from a platform high above the Rotunda floor. Still, one is left to wonder, could a frail, elderly man really save himself in such a dramatic fashion? And, if so, how did the accident affect the outcome of the Frieze of American History, one of the most iconic artworks in the Capitol?


You can find the full article–including the author’s best guess as to what really happened on the scaffolding that day–in the online edition of The Capitol Dome starting on page 28. And in the comments below, let us know what myths you’ve heard about the Capitol; we’ll consider investigating some of them!

Senator Blanche K. Bruce


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Each February, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society commemorates Black History Month with a lunchtime lecture or similar event. This year, we’ve partnered with the Senate Historical Office and the Illinois State Society to offer a panel of historians speaking about Reconstruction Era black congressmen and, more specifically, Senator Blanche K. Bruce—the first black man elected to a full Senate term.

Bruce was elected to the Senate by a Reconstruction-era Mississippi legislature in 1874, after a quick rise through different roles in local and regional governing bodies. He had been born into slavery in Virginia in 1841 and was a personal servant to his half-brother, alongside whom he learned to read. He escaped during the Civil War and, after a stint working as a porter on the Mississippi, became a successful planter along the river’s banks.

LOC Blanche Bruce (Brady photo)--cropped

Mathew Brady photograph of Bruce (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

By the time he arrived in Washington in 1875, Bruce was a well-known politician in Mississippi and well-off compared to most of his black constituents. Throughout his time in public service, he walked a fine line in trying to please both white and black supporters, not to mention different factions of the Republican Party.

Bruce waited a year before speaking out in the Senate, similar to the period many other new senators waited. His clearest support for blacks related to issues affecting black veterans, but he also argued against the Chinese Exclusion Act and criticized federal actions regarding to Native Americans. However, neither white conservatives nor black constituents seemed convinced that Bruce was doing enough, or well enough, to continue in the Senate, and Bruce did not run for a second term in 1880.

After his Senate career, Bruce served in several capacities in the Republican party and was mentioned as a possible candidate for federal positions, including Cabinet positions and ambassador to Brazil. (He turned down the later because slavery was still legal in Brazil.) He held positions in DC as register of the U.S. Treasury and as DC’s recorder of deeds as well as serving on the board of trustees for Howard University.

blanche k. bruce web

Blanche Kelso Bruce by Simmie Lee Knox. (Collection of the U.S. Senate)

Bruce died of complications from diabetes on March 17, 1898 in Washington, DC. In October 1999, the Senate Commission on Art approved the commission of a painting of Bruce for the Senate collection. Artist Simmie Knox relied on a Mathew Brady photograph of Bruce to guide the work, which now hangs in the Senate wing of the Capitol.

To learn more about early black Members of Congress, Blanche K. Bruce, or his portrait, join USCHS for the panel on February 17, 2016.

Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. (Washington, DC: 2008) Editor-in-Chief Matthew Wasniewski, now Historian of the House, is one of our panelists. Most of the information in this post is drawn from the entry on Blanche K. Bruce.

Jane McGoldrick, ed. United States Senate Catalog of Fine Art. (Washington, DC: 2002) pp. 44-45

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).