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This Day in History: Congress, the U.S. Capitol — and a tornado!?

On this day in 1800, Congress meets for the first time in the U.S. Capitol.  Congressmen wouldn’t get to stay for too long. Did you know that Washington, D.C. was nearly destroyed by a tornado in 1814?

Or, alternatively, you could argue that the tornado saved the city. But for the tornado, the British might have completed their destruction of D.C. during the War of 1812. Instead, they left.

Washington, D.C. is our nation’s third capital since George Washington was inaugurated in 1789. New York was the first, and it remained the seat of government until Congress approved the Residence Act of 1790. This federal bill provided that the capital would move to Philadelphia while a new federal city was being constructed. George Washington was asked to choose the precise location for this city within a certain designated area.

He chose the spot by the Potomac that is today known as the District of Columbia or Washington, D.C.

Construction of the new capital proceeded slowly. When Congress met there for the first time on November 17, 1800, much of the city was still incomplete. Only the President’s House, the north side of the Capitol building, and a road connecting the two (Pennsylvania Avenue) were functional. The Capitol dome and the south wing of the building (House side) had not been built yet. Even in the “functional” north wing of the Capitol, portions of the third floor were still incomplete.

When our federal government first moved to Washington, D.C., the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress all met in the north wing of the Capitol.

Think it was crowded?!

The new country faced funding and other problems as it worked to complete the Capitol. The House was finally able to occupy its own wing in 1811. By then, the north side of the building had already fallen into disrepair, and it was being renovated! Making matters worse, the Capitol was set afire by the British in 1814. It was nearly destroyed.

A freak rainstorm and tornado may have saved the city from further destruction.   Washington, D.C. rarely endures tornadoes, but one of these occurred during August 1814. Dolley Madison had just fled the city after saving a portrait of George Washington. The British had feasted at the President’s House, using the presidential china. Then they decided to set fire to the town! Fortunately, a terrible storm intervened, and the rains began extinguishing the flames set by the British.

According to one resident, a British Admiral noted the severe weather as his troops prepared to flee. “Great God, Madam!” he reportedly said to one Washington lady. “Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” The lady responded simply: “No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.” The admiral disagreed: “Not so Madam. It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.”

Presumably, both believed they were right? When all was said and done, though, the city was not completely destroyed, as it could have been.

Restoration of the Capitol did not begin until 1815. The House and Senate finally moved back into the building in 1819. The building was finally completed in 1826.

Well, sort of. Even to this day, renovations and modifications seem to be ongoing parts of life in D.C.—don’t they?



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