Saving some of the records
It may be one of the most important rescues in the history of the United States.
The rescue of its history itself.
A rescue that became critically, vitally, important, 206 years ago today.
Because it was 206 years ago today that British troops set fire to newly-constructed (and some not-yet-finished) official buildings of the fledgling United States in Washington, D.C.
And part of our history went up in smoke and flames.
But not all.
Because so many people pitched in to save so much.1
The problem in August 1814, when the young American nation was at war with one of the most powerful military powers of the world, Great Britain, was that there was no national archive and no-one in particular in charge of protecting government records. Each of the federal departments had charge of its own records, while the Department of State had charge of “the nation’s early state papers—treasured documents including the records of the Confederation and Continental Congresses, George Washington’s papers as commander of the Continental Army, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.”2
And the British were moving in fast. They’d put troops on the ground in Maryland on August 19 and 20, and were marching on Washington at a fast clip. On 22 August, Secretary of State James Monroe, scouting the British advance, sent a note back to President James Madison:
The enemy are advanced six miles on the road to the wood Yard, and our troops retiring. Our troops were on the march to meet them, but in too small a body to engage. General W. proposes to retire, till he can collect them in a body. The enemy are in full march for Washington. Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges.3
And there was a footnote: “Monday 9 oClock You had better remoove the records.”4
Fortunately for our history, some government agents were already doing what they could:
At the Department of State, clerks John Graham, Stephen Pleasanton, and Josias King took up the task of saving the valuable archives in the department’s custody. The clerks bought coarse linens to make bags into which they stuffed the archives and then loaded the bags onto carts. The documents they packed included the books and papers of the State Department, unpublished secret journals of Congress, George Washington’s commission and correspondence, the Articles of Confederation, the papers of the Continental Congress, and treaties, laws, and correspondence dating back to 1789. Along with these early records, the clerks also bagged up the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights.5
At the under-construction Capitol Building, less had been saved. The clerks of the House of Representatives and Senate took what they could to places out in the countryside outside of the city, but a lack of available transport meant that so much more was left behind — including the entirety of what was then the Library of Congress.6
Just about everything that didn’t make it onto the carts these government agents were able to secure was destroyed or removed by the British.
But because of the efforts of a few, so much was saved.
It was indeed one of the most important rescues in the history of the United States.
The rescue of our history itself.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Rescuing history,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 24 Aug 2020).
Image” George Munger, The President’s House; watercolor 1814-1814; via Wikimedia Commons.
- See generally Jessie Kratz, “Rescue of the Papers of State During the Burning of Washington,” Journal of the White House Historical Association 35 (Summer 2014); reprinted online, White House Historical Association (https://www.whitehousehistory.org/ : accessed 24 Aug 2020). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “To James Madison from James Monroe, (22 August 1814),” Founders Online, U.S. National Archives (https://founders.archives.gov/ : accessed 24 Aug 2020). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Kratz, “Rescue of the Papers of State During the Burning of Washington.” ↩
- See ibid. ↩