A Brief History of Violence at the U.S. Capitol

"Capitol after Fire of 1814", from Architect of the Capitol (https://flic.kr/p/cW5e6u)

The events of January 6 were to put it simply, unprecedented. Seeing images of a seditious mob flooding through the great rotunda was something that many will never forget.

One of the insurrectionists was wearing a camp Auschwitz sweatshirt, while others waved Trump or Confederate flags. As of Friday, five people have died as a result of the chaos and violence.

Despite the fact such an orchestrated breach of the Capitol has not occurred for over two centuries, there are numerous examples of violence in the building’s history. There have been shootings, bombings, as well as the infamous fire lit by British troops in 1814. There was even a fistfight on the Senate floor in 1902.

These are some of the most notable events in the turbulent history of the U.S. Capitol.

Burning of the U.S. Capitol — 1814

A year prior to the end of the War of 1812, British forces managed to sail up the Patuxent River and fight their way to Washington. Once there, they used torches and gunpowder paste to burn down not only the partially constructed Capitol, but also the White House and other government buildings.

A month later, the Senate was left with no choice but to convene in Blodgett’s Hotel, which was the only available building in Washington. They officially returned to the rebuilt chamber four years later, but it took another decade for the Capitol to be completed in its entirety.

The failed assassination of President Andrew Jackson — 1835

Unemployed painter Richard Lawrence, deluded to the point where he was convinced he was the rightful King of England, saw it necessary to remove “King Andrew” in order to claim his crown.

He lay in wait at the entrance to the Capitol Rotunda for President Jackson to arrive for a congressional funeral service.

His first gun failed to fire. Jackson — who at that point required the use of a cane — charged at Lawrence as he attempted to fire with a second gun. This also misfired and he was quickly tackled to the ground by bystanders.

Rumours circulated that Senator John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay (who had also coined the King Andrew moniker) conspired to kill the President. However, it became very clear during Lawrence’s trial he was insane, and he spent the remainder of his life in an asylum.

Despite Calhoun and Clay having no connection with the assassination attempt, there was still no love lost with the President. Jackson responded to a question about regrets in 1837:

“I regret I was unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun”

The beating of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate — 1856

“Southern chivalry - argument versus club’s”, by Boston Public Library licensed under CC BY 2.0 (https://flic.kr/p/uLsRvg)

The catalyst for the infamous attack against Senator Charles Sumner was an inflammatory speech he gave on the Senate chamber three days prior. In it, he addressed the controversial issue of whether Kansas should be admitted into the Union as a slave state or as a free state.

In the speech, he mocked Democratic Senator Andrew Butler, charging him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight”. To avoid any confusion — the mistress he was referring to was slavery.

House Representative Preston Brooks, like Butler, was part of the South Carolina delegation. After hearing of the speech, he entered the Senate Chamber and beat Sumner with a cane to the point he was unconscious.

Brooks resigned from the House. He was later re-elected but died before his term started. Sumner survived the vicious beating and returned to the Senate, where he served for another 18 years.

The Eric Muenter bombing of the Senate — 1915

Eric Muenter, a professor of German at Harvard University, detonated three sticks of dynamite in the Senate reception room when he failed to get access to the chamber itself. His reasoning for detonating the explosives was to protest U.S. financial support of Great Britain in the war against Germany. At that time the U.S. was officially a neutral party in the conflict.

No injuries were sustained in the blast, as the Senate was out of session at the time. Before he was captured however, Muenter, in a further act of violence travelled to New York and shot J.P. Morgan Jr., whose company served as the purchasing agent for war supplies. Morgan survived while Muenter committed suicide in custody several days later.

Puerto Rican nationalists open fire on members of the House of Representatives — 1954

Taking advantage of the lax security measures at the Capitol at the time, four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party opened fire from the House gallery and injured five representatives. They were attempting to draw attention to the Puerto Rican independence movement.

The gunmen were quickly apprehended, tried, and sentenced to 49 years in federal prison. However, their sentences were commuted in 1979 by Jimmy Carter following an international campaign.

After the attack, metal detectors became an essential addition to the Capitol’s security processes.

Weather Underground Senate bombing — 1971

The anti-war group known as the Weather Underground planted a bomb in a bathroom on the Senate side of the Capitol. There were no casualties, but a substantial amount of damage was done.

Coincidentally, an interview with Bill Ayers — a prominent member of Weather Underground — in which he said he didn’t regret planting bombs, was published on the same day the Capitol was targeted in another plot — September 11, 2001.

Armed Resistance Unit Senate bombing — 1983

On the second floor of the Capitol’s north wing, a bomb hidden under a bench at the entrance to the office of Senator Robert Byrd tore through the Republican cloakroom. There were no casualties, as the Capitol switchboard was pre-warned of the bomb a few minutes before it detonated.

The purpose of the bombing was to protest recent U.S. military action in Grenada and Lebanon. Seven people were charged with the bombing following a five-year federal investigation.

Fatal Capitol Police shooting — 1998

“Chestnut-Gibson Plaque”, from Architect of the Capitol (https://flic.kr/p/bisU5x)

On July 24, 1998, a gunman pushed past a security checkpoint in the Capitol building, mortally wounding Capitol police officer Jacob J. Chestnut in the process. As he progressed further, he exchanged fire with Detective John M. Gibson while bystanders rushed for cover. Although Gibson was also killed in the attack, his actions enabled others to subdue the assailant.

Within days, a concurrent resolution was passed by both chambers which enabled the officers to lie in honour within the Capitol’s rotunda. They were the first private citizens to receive this honour.

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