This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
The triumphal entry of the British into the capital, the destruction of the government buildings by fire, and the retreat the following day, created intense excitement in the land. Because of the extraordinary necessity, Congress was convened in extra session at Washington, September 19th, by special proclamation of the President: washington, September 17, 1814. sir : The destruction of the Capitol, by the enemy, having made it necessary that other accommodations should be provided for the meeting of Congress, Chambers for the Senate and for the House of Representatives, with other requisite apartments, have been fitted up, under the direction of the Superintendent of the City, in the public building heretofore allotted for the Post and other public offices.
The story of the re-assembling of Congress is told by Paul Jennings, the colored body servant of James Madison and, afterwards, the servant of Daniel Webster, more clearly than by some learned writers. In his Reminiscences, he says:
" Congress met in extra session, at Blodgett's old shell of a house on 7th street (where the General Post Office now stands). It was three stories high, and had been used for a theatre, a tavern, an Irish boarding-house, etc. ; but both Houses of Congress managed to get along, notwithstanding it had to accommodate the Patent-office, City and General Post-office, committee-rooms, and what was left of the Congressional Library, at the same time. Things are very different now".
Tradition interestingly asserts that this Patent Office building was saved to Congress through the daring of Thornton, the designer of the Capitol. Seeing an English officer order a gun turned upon it, he dashed up, and leaping from his horse before its very muzzle, exclaimed excitedly : " Are you Englishmen, or Goth's and Vandals ? This is the Patent Office, the depository of the inventive genius of America, in which the whole civilized world is concerned. Would you destroy it ? If so, fire away, and let the charge pass through my body".
We cannot wonder at the discontent which followed the meeting of Congress under such unfortunate and disheartening conditions, nor that the occasion formed a pretext for those who had fought the city of Washington as a permanent seat of government, to be bitter in their expressions and criticisms. The city was still little more than a wilderness; the Capitol, the President's mansion and other government buildings were ruins. The very ground had been contaminated by the feet of an insolent, vandal-like enemy. The Library of Congress and many records of the government were ashes. In the course of debate, Mr. Stockton, Representative from New Jersey, not without cause, complained, '* in regard to ourselves, here we are in the Patent office; in a room not large enough to furnish a seat for each member, when all are present, although every spot, up to the fire-place and windows, is occupied".
Under the guise of a temporary removal, those interested in other cities pressed a permanent change in the seat of government to some more convenient and less dishonored spot. Mr. Jonathan Fisk of New York introduced the initial resolution which led to this; and in the war of words which ensued, the ground was all fought over before the project for removal was finally defeated, October 15th, by a vote of 83 to 74. Local feeling naturally was intense, and President Madison, who, in the original debates in the House of Representatives, had been active in favoring the establishment of the seat of government upon the banks of the Potomac, had now to exercise his utmost influence to keep it there.
" The next summer " (1815), continues Jennings, " Mr. John Law, a large property holder about the Capitol, fearing it would not be re-built, got up a subscription and built a large brick building (now called the Old Capitol, where the Secesh prisoners are now confined), and offered it to Congress for their use, till the Capitol should be re-built. This coaxed them back, though strong efforts were made to move the seat of government North; but the Southern members kept it here".
While yet in the Patent Office, both Houses had been considering measures by which they might be more conveniently accommodated, either by an alteration of their present chambers or by procuring other rooms within a convenient distance of public buildings; and if haste in acceptance means anything, they welcomed most cordially the proposals of the committee on behalf of the owners of the new " Capitol." On December 6, 1815, the committee on behalf of the House reported that they believed the building would " be ready for their reception on Monday next," and on Monday, the nth, the Senate adjourned " to meet on Wednesday next, in the new building on Capitol Hill." This, the owners claimed, cost $30,000 without the ground, $5,000 of which was expended in fitting it up for the use of Congress. They offered to lease it, after the repayment of the $5,000, at a yearly rental of $1,650, which was " an interest upon their capital of six per cent., with the addition of the price of insurance " ; and upon these terms the President was authorized on the 8th to lease it for a term of one year, and " thence until the Capitol is in a state of readiness for the reception of Congress".
Here Congress was still sitting when, on December i, 1817, Monroe in his annual message regretted that, though the progress of the public buildings had been as favorable as circumstances permitted, " the Capitol is not yet in a state to receive you. There is good cause to presume, that the two wings, the only parts as yet commenced, will be prepared for that purpose at the next session." It was not, however, until'December 7, 1819, that he could say to Congress, who had met the day before : " The public buildings being advanced to a stage to afford accommodation for Congress, I offer you my sincere congratulations upon the recommencement of your duties in the Capitol".