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The History of Violent Attacks on the U.S. Capitol

While the building has seen politically motivated mayhem in the past, never before has a mob of insurrectionists tried to overturn a presidential election

An illustration of the British burning Washington in 1814 (Library of Congress via Wikicommons)
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On Wednesday, far-right insurrectionists stormed and occupied the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. The mob forced lawmakers to flee for safety, smashed windows, vandalized offices and posed for photos in the House chambers. One woman died after being shot by law enforcement, an officer with the U.S. Capitol Police died from injuries sustained during the fighting, and three other people died from medical emergencies during the riot, reports CNN.

Images from the scene show attackers waving the Confederate battle flag in the halls of the Senate. Judith Giesberg, a Civil War historian at Villanova University tells Business Insider’s Aria Bendix that the flag was appropriated in the 20th century, and continues to this day, to perpetuate the system of white supremacy in America. Wednesday was a grim first: During the entire Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the flag never entered the U.S. Capitol. (In fact, Confederate troops never took Washington at all. When Confederate General Jubal A. Early launched an attack on Fort Stevens, Union reinforcements arrived in the nick of time to save D.C. from Confederate invasion.)

A man holds the Confederate battle flag in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday. To his right, a portrait of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts; to his left, a portrait of John C. Calhoun, the seventh U.S. vice president and a staunch defender of slavery. (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images)

Although Wednesday’s attempted coup failed, historians also pointed out that the U.S. has witnessed one successful coup d’état before: in Wilmington, North Carolina. As Gregory Ablavsky, associate professor of law at Stanford University, notes in a statement, during the Wilmington Massacre or Coup of 1898, white supremacists overthrew the government of the then-majority-black city and killed as many as 60 black people.

And while the attack on the Capitol shocked many, it was also predictable: Plans to invade the Capitol building have been circulating on various social media platforms for weeks, as Sheera Frenkel and Dan Barry report for the New York Times.

Since President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in 1793, assailants with a range of motives have launched attacks on the building with varying levels of success. Most notably, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was likely intended for the Capitol Building, per the National Park Service. A group of passengers overtook the hijackers and crashed the aircraft into an open field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing all 44 people onboard.

A number of “lone wolf” attackers have also thwarted Capitol security: in 1835, Richard Lawrence attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson as he exited the building’s east portico. In 1915, a former Harvard professor successfully exploded three sticks of dynamite in the Senate Reception room, and an armed assailant in 1998 shot and killed two Capitol police officers.

But Wednesday’s mob joined the ranks of just a handful of groups with political motivations that successfully carried through with their plans. Here, Smithsonian takes a closer look at three instances of coordinated political violence against the U.S. Capitol.

1814: British forces burn the Capitol

British Burn the Capitol, 1814, painted by Allyn Cox in 1974 on the corridor fo the Capitol building House wing, first floor (Architect of the Capitol)

Flames leapt from unfinished wreckage of the U.S. Capitol on August 24, 1814. British forces set fire to this building, the White House and much of Washington in retaliation for Americans’ burning of the Canadian capital at York the year prior. Britain and its young former colony were embroiled in the War of 1812, a conflict that ignited over the Royal Navy’s practice of “impressing” American soldiers into British service by wrongly accusing them of being British subjects, among other causes, reports Joel Achenbach for the Washington Post.

At the time, the Capitol building housed the House, Senate, Supreme Court and Library of Congress, per the Architect of the Capitol. British forces burned the 3,000 or so books in the collection in the Library of Congress and piled furniture together in the Supreme Court Chamber to create a huge bonfire. The Capitol building was still under construction and did not yet have its famous dome, reports Gillian Brockwell for the Post.

Nature happened to save the day. A huge storm, possibly a tornado brought on by the previous day’s 100-degree heat, struck Washington and put out the fires, sending British forces packing earlier than planned. Some interior structures and much of the Capitol’s exterior survived the blaze, and after some debate, officials decided to rebuild the federal government’s building where it stood. As Cassandra Good reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2016, just one casualty was reported from the fires: John Lewis, the grandnephew of George Washington himself.

1954: Puerto Rican nationalists open fire

“Guard Congress After Gunfire,” Boston Daily Globe, March 2, 1954, p. 1 (Library of Congress)

On the morning of March 1, 1954, Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores Rodriguez boarded a train from New York City to Washington, D.C. With little to no security measures in place at the Capitol, the group walked into the building with concealed handguns and entered the gallery overlooking the House floor, where Congress was in session.

Around 2:30 p.m., Lebrón shouted her support for Puerto Rican independence, and the group shot indiscriminately at lawmakers from the gallery. They managed to wound five Congressmen before being overtaken by visitors and police officers, per a House of Representatives oral history of the event.

The group designed their violent attack to draw attention to the cause of Puerto Rican independence. Their grievance dated back to the Spanish-American War, when in 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico and established it as an “organized territory.” At the time, this meant that Puerto Ricans were subject to American imperial rule but were not considered full citizens. Even after Puerto Ricans achieved citizenship in 1917, the territory still has no voting representation in Congress and little political autonomy. More than a century of U.S. imperialism and its adverse effect have led some Puerto Ricans, such as these nationalists, to argue that their territory should be completely independent of American rule.

“Bullets whistled through the chamber in the wildest scene in the entire history of Congress,” Speaker Joseph W. Martin, who was presiding that day, would later recall. According to the Office of the Historian of the House of Representatives, the police had sealed off the Capitol within minutes of the shooting and conducted a thorough search of the grounds until they captured Rodriguez, who had narrowly managed to slip away in the mayhem. The four attackers were tried and sentenced to federal prison with sentences ranging from 16 to 75 years. They remained imprisoned until President Jimmy Carter, responding to international pressure, granted the shooters clemency in 1979.

1983: Far-left extremists bomb the Senate Chamber

The resulting damage from the November 7, 1983, bombing outside of the Chamber of the United States Senate (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Leftist groups had attacked the Capitol directly before: In March 1971, for instance, members of the extremist group Weather Underground set off a bomb in a bathroom on the Senate side of the Capitol, harming no one, reports Brockwell for the Post.

But the most serious terrorist attack took place a decade later, when a group of women split from the group to form the May 19th (M19) Communist Organization. Just before 11 p.m. on November 7, 1983, a member called the Capitol switchboard to announce that a bomb was about to explode.

Minutes later, M19 detonated a bomb in the Capitol’s north wing, blowing a hole through a wall and knocking the Senate majority leader’s office door off its hinges. Luckily, the area was already deserted and nobody was harmed, but the attack resulted in $250,000 worth of damage and shredded a portrait of Daniel Webster, per the U.S. Senate.

Members of M19—named for civil rights icon Malcolm X and Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh—coordinated the attack to protest U.S. military involvement in Grenada and Lebanon. Broadly, the group argued that violence was a necessary ingredient in the fight for “revolutionary anti-imperialism,” and its members would go on to bomb other high-profile buildings such as an FBI office. Some of the women involved were later arrested and charged with lengthy sentences, Brockwell writes for the Post.

National historian security expert and historian William Rosenau, who wrote a book on the bombings, told Smithsonian’s Lila Thulin last year that the group is the only documented terrorist group run entirely by women. They were “a group of essentially middle-class, well educated, white people who made a journey essentially from anti-war and civil rights protest to terrorism,” he says.

Rosenau added that in his view, people should tread cautiously when comparing militant leftist organizations of the 1970s to extremism of all political stripes today.

“Historical context is absolutely paramount,” he says. “We kind of lump terrorism together, like groups as disparate as Students for a Democratic Society, Al Qaeda, Red Army Faction, Aum Shinrikyo, but these are all products of particular times and particular places.

Rosenau continues, “The important thing is just to realize that there are some similarities, but these are very different periods in time and each period of time is unique.”

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