Trouble at the Capitol? It has a long history

Jan 20, 2021, 5:00 AM
history of trouble u.s. capitol...
The unfinished US Capitol building on the day of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, March 4, 1861 (Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

Thousands of National Guard troops and police officers surround the U. S. Capitol as the nation prepares for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Threats made toward the building and government officials since the protests on January 6th are on everyone’s minds.

But it’s far from the first time there’s been trouble on Washington’s Capitol Hill.

History of trouble at the Capitol

In March 1861, sharpshooters were stationed around the unfinished dome of the U. S. Capitol to guard Abraham Lincoln as he took the oath of office for the first time. There were even cannons on the Washington Mall.

Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer said the comparison to that troubled time is unfortunate. “You hate to have to compare a current inauguration to a Civil War-era inauguration,” Zelizer told KSL Newsradio. “It’s not a good thing, because that instantly shows how fraught the situation is, how frail our civic ties are.”

RELATED: Utah man charged for alleged involvement in violent U.S. Capitol rally

There have been other threats to inaugurations, in 2009 with President Obama and in 2005 with George W. Bush after the 9/ attacks. Through the years, the Capitol has seen a lot of trouble, even between members of Congress.

“Before the Civil War, there was a lot of violence on the floor,” said Zelizer. “There were fights, there were weapons brought to the floor. And so there have been moments when physical violence was something we’ve seen between members.”

In the 2oth century, there were other violent incidents. Puerto Rican nationalists wounded members of the House of Representatives in 1954. Bombs went off in 1971 and 1983. Two Capitol police officers were shot and killed in 1998.

A Utah connection

University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless has been to the U-S Capitol many times, working as a Congressional staff member and giving tours to hundreds of student interns and others. He remembers what it was like just twenty years ago.

RELATED: Latter-day Saint leaders condemn violence at the US Capitol

“I was the only one in the rotunda, looking at these beautiful, huge works of art. And there were only security people there, standing appropriately against the wall. They were almost invisible. And myself. Well, those days are gone.”

Even so, both Chambless and Zelizer expressed hope that citizens will once again be welcome in the People’s House.

Prof Tim Chambless at the U.S. Capitol

University of Utah Political Science Professor Tim Chambless at the U.S. Capitol

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Trouble at the Capitol? It has a long history