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

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


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-Ronald M. Johnson
Georgetown University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitol Christmas Tree 2013



–by Lauren Borchard

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

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

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

Sunset at the Capitol

Sunset at the Capitol


The U. S. Marine Band was on hand.


Viewers crowd onto the Capitol balconies to watch.


USCHS President Ron Sarasin presents our 2013 ornament.


It’s getting darker…


…and darker!

The Statue of Freedom Turns 150


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–by Donald Kennon

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

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

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

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

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

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