In his report to George Washington on June 28, 1791, the city planner Pierre L'Enfant described the site of the Capitol building as "a pedestal waiting for a monument." An architectural competition was then held to determine the design of the 'monument' which would then grace the area, then known as Jenkins Hill. William Thornton, who envisioned the Capitol as a simple sandstone building topped with a low, wide dome, won the competition and the building was begun according to his plans. George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol on September 18, 1793.
On November 22, 1800, the first session of Congress in the new Capitol was called to order. Construction was still underway but John Adams insisted that Congress make the move to Washington. The building, just like the White House in its early years, lacked much in comfort. However, it had much aura about it. L'Enfant had even designed the Capitol to be the center of the city. The city's four quadrants all originate at the U.S. Capitol.
In 1803, Bejamine Latrobe took over as architect of the Capitol, when Thomas Jefferson appointed him surveyor of public buildings. Over the next fourteen years, Latrobe clashed frequently and publically with Thornton. Latrobe erected a second wing to the Capitol, which provided the House with its own building, and altered Thornton's original low dome by raising it up to a more commanding position.
The British burned the Capitol in 1814, using the books of the Library of Congress as kindling. While waiting for the Capitol to be rebuilt, Congress met first at a hotel in downtown Washington, and then in a temporary building behind the destroyed Capitol, approximately where the Supreme Court stands today. Congress inhabited this building for five years, while the Capitol was rebuilt.
Charles Bulfinch took over the rebuilding process from Latrobe in 1817. Bulfinch began rebuilding the Capitol on a grander scale, beginning with the installation of a new, more stately dome surfaced with copper. He also added a number of ornamental touches to the Capitol grounds, including a pair of guardhouses, which have now been moved to the Ellipse.
In 1819, Congress again moved into a Capitol that was unfinished, but inhabitable. In 1851, architect Thomas Walter was authorized by Congress to enlarge the building through the extension of new wings for the House and Senate. A new dome, to replace Bulfinch's pretty, but small, dome, was also planned. However, this nine-ton iron dome would not be completed until after the Civil War. Once completed, the building would take on the appearance of the modern Capitol today.
The Capitol has been the sight of many celebrations. It's East Terrace has been the traditional site for inaugural events, from John F. Kennedy's 1961 famous inaugural speech which included, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country", to Franklin Roosevelt's second inaugural address with "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." It was the inauguration on March 4, 1841, in an icy cold rain, which caused the death of William Henry Harrison exactly a month after his swearing in. Andrew Jackson had to sneak into the Capitol through the basement, to avoid the mob of people that had gathered to witness his inauguration. Abraham Lincoln, in 1961, had to sneak into the city, because of rumors of an assassination. His inauguration still followed the tradition of taking place outdoors, though. It was held in the East Front on a special podium made to separate him from the crowd. The tradition was finally broke on January 21, 1985 when a snowstorm forced Ronald Reagan's second inaugural into the Great Rotunda.
The Capitol has also been the site of many great debates. Many Congressmen, from the "Great Compromiser" Henry Clay, to James G. Blaine, have filled the halls of the Capitol with their speeches or filibustering. The Capitol was also the site of the "Great Debate" of 1830 over states' rights, between Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John Hayne of South Carolina. Many have believe that the "Great Debate" alone helped postpone the Civil War by three decades.
Although the Capitol has been home to dozens of inaugural events and debates, it has also been the site of many scandals. President Harding, while Senate Majority Leader, reportedly fathered a child in the Capitol. Bobby Baker, legislative assistant to then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, used his influence to make certain deals which eventually landed him in jail for charges which included tax evasion and theft. On May 23, 1976, the Washington Post revealed an affair between typist Elizabeth Ray and Congressman Wayne Hays from Ohio. In more recent years, John Jenrette, who's wife later featured in Playboy Magazine, made headlines when he took a bribe from undercover federal agents seeking Congressional favors.
Finally, the Capitol has been the site of several violent incidents as well. One of the strangest happened in 1835 on the steps of the eastern portico. A disgruntled painter named Richard Lawrence approached President Andrew Jackson as he was descending the steps. Lawrence attempted to fire two pistols at the president only to have them misfire. Enraged, Jackson leapt at Lawrence and would have caned him to death if his friends hadn't physically restrained him.
Despite such incidents, the Capitol remains highly respected as the home of the American system of government. It is one of the most remarkable and most memorable of sites in the nation's capital. For more information on the Capitol, visit the United States Capitol Homepage, developed and maintained by the Architect of the Capitol
Places Inside the Capitol