On this day in 1814 the Supreme Court was torched by British troops. The United States was at war with Britain in what became known as the War of 1812.
At the time, the Supreme Court chamber was on the first floor of the north wing of the Capitol building. It had been located here, along with the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Library of Congress, since 1810.The chamber, which Benjamin Henry Latrobe had designed as part of his north wing reconstruction in 1808-1810, was considered an architectural masterpiece because of its semicircular shape and its unusual ceiling of nine lobed vaults.
It was around 8 p.m. on August 24, 1814, and the sun was setting when British troops, fresh from defeating the American militia in Bladensburg, Maryland, reached Washington D.C. The town was partly deserted as many residents fled on foot or horseback upon hearing that the British were coming. The Supreme Court’s law clerks had taken with them important documents, including the Declaration of Independence. By invading Washington, the British forces were seeking to humiliate the Americans and extract revenge for the American torching of the Canadian city of York (now known as Toronto).
British Troops gathered furniture from nearby rooms to create a bonfire in the Supreme Court chamber. They put gunpowder paste on the wood around the doors and windows of the building’s main rooms before igniting them. Within minutes of the troops’ entering the Capitol, flames were shooting from the building’s windows and roof. The British went on to burn various other government buildings, including the executive mansion.
French Minister Louis Serurier watched the Capitol building burn from his temporary residence at the Octagon House. He remarked, “I have never beheld a spectacle more terrible and at the same time more magnificent.”
A severe storm the next day, along with Latrobe’s use of fireproof materials such as sheet iron, marble, sandstone, zinc and copper, prevented the Capitol building from being completely destroyed. It would not be until 1819 that the justices would return to a restored Court chamber. They would hear cases here until 1860, when the Court moved to new chambers upstairs in the Capitol. In 1935 the Court relocated to its current building, across the street from the Capitol.