During the War of 1812, British troops marched into Washington, DC, burning the US Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings around the National Mall. As buildings went up in flames, a violent thunderstorm and tornado further damaged the city. Demoralized by the massive destruction of the 14-year old capital, Congress debated whether to move the seat of government from Washington. The burning of Washington in August 1814 awoke arguments that began in the 1790s opposing the relocation of the national capital from Philadelphia to its present site on the Potomac.
Why did Congress almost leave Washington in 1814?
The US Congress declared war on Britain in June 1812, angered at British interference in American international trade. The British were already fighting in another war with France. After defeating the French Emperor Napoleon in 1814, the British turned their full attention to the war in America. By August, British troops marched into Washington, DC, burning the US Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings and occupyied the town of 8,000 residents for 26 hours. A deserted city awaited them, because President James Madison and most government officials had fled.
On August 24, around 9 pm, British troops arrived at the Capitol. Although at least one British junior officer expressed regret at destroying the "elegant Houses of Parliament," the British piled furniture in the House of Representatives chamber to create a large bonfire. Flames destroyed government records and the entire Library of Congress, then housed in the building. The fire was so intense in some rooms it melted the glass lamps and caused extensive structural damage. Burning public buildings only, the British burned no private property.
President James Madison called Congress back to Washington on September 19 to work in temporary offices. Within ten days, the House of Representatives began debating whether to move the federal government to a new location because of the destruction. Some suggested returning to Philadelphia, while others proposed nearby Georgetown. Competition began between northerners who wanted to move the seat of government back to an established northern city and southerners who fought to keep the capital in a more centralization location, south of the Mason Dixon line. Investors with financial interests in rebuilding Washington, DC, argued against moving the capital.
In October, the final bill to move the seat of government to Philadelphia came before Congress containing 2 important provisions: money would eventually be appropriated to rebuild the city, and Congress pledged to return to Washington after the war. In a close vote, Congress defeated the bill 83 to 74. Influential Washington residents who knew their businesses and investments in the city depended on the federal presence raised $25,000 to construct a temporary building for Congress at First and A Streets, NE. Congress moved in during December 1815 and remained there until 1819.
It took 5 years to rebuild the Capitol. President James Madison rehired architect and designer Benjamin Latrobe, who served as Architect of the Capitol from 1804-1813, to oversee the restoration. Latrobe worked steadily and improved on his earlier designs where he could, but was frustrated by delays in construction and criticism for running over budget. He resigned in November 1817 and Charles Bullfinch took over in January 1819. When Congress convened in December 1819, they returned to the Capitol building, still under construction but inhabitable once more.