A November 17 Capitol Housewarming — 211 Years Ago
From The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor:
On this date in 1800, the U. S. Congress met in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for the first time. Construction had begun in 1793 but it soon fell behind schedule and went over budget. (Nothing new under the sun.)
The cost overruns caused planners in 1796 to elect to build only the Senate wing. On move-in day on November 17, some of the rooms were still incomplete but the building was sufficiently finished to accommodate the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and some district courts.
President John Adams had pushed for the move, even though the building wasn’t complete, because he hoped to gain Southern votes for his re-election campaign.
The weather didn’t cooperate, christening the first day of the new session and the new building with heavy snow. The welcoming parade had to be canceled and congressmen were delayed trying to get to their offices. Only 15 made it into the chamber on opening day. It would take another four days before a quorum was reached in the Senate.
When a quorum was reached, the House and Senate sent word to President Adams that they awaited his address. He arrived the following day. His was to be the last personal address to Congress by a president for the next 113 years.
Members of Congress were less than pleased with their new accommodations. Although richly appointed, the building leaked and had no heat. Washington was a primitive backwater, especially when compared to the civilized and well-established Philadelphia, where they had met for the preceding 10 years. One New York senator observed that Washington needed only “houses, cellars, kitchens, well-informed men, amiable women and other little trifles of this kind” to make it perfect.
In its early days, the Capitol moonlighted as a church on the weekends. Beginning with the Jefferson administration in 1801, church services were held every Sunday in the House of Representatives.
Jefferson did not feel that this violated the separation of church and state because attendance was voluntary and the services were nondiscriminatory — at least as long as you were Protestant since only Protestant denominations were represented. Jefferson and his successor, James Madison, attended the services themselves. Worship services were expanded to include Catholic mass in 1826. Church meetings in the House continued until after the Civil War.
Both wings of the Capitol were completed just in time for the building to be burned by the British in 1814, during the War of 1812. Reconstruction began in 1815 and was completed in 1819. The first dome, however, wasn’t complete until 1826.
By 1850, with the ongoing influx of new states and their new congressmen, it was clear that an expansion was necessary. Built largely by slave labor, the new Capitol was nearly twice as long, which threw it out of proportion to the original dome.
In 1855, the old timber dome was torn down and replaced it with today’s cast-iron version. It is three times the height of the original dome and topped with a 20-foot tall statue of a woman holding a sword and a laurel wreath, known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace.
Filed under: California History
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