© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A History Of Violence At The U.S. Capitol

Win McNamee
Getty Images
Rioters supporting U.S. President Donald Trump break into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington, DC.

On Jan. 6, Americans watched as a mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building and tore through the halls of Congress.

While this event was unprecedented in many ways, this is not the first time the U.S. Capitol has been the site of violent acts.

John Savagian is a professor of history and program director for the history department at Alverno College. He says the first attack on the U.S. Capitol was by the British in 1812 after the American army had burned down the British Capitol in Canada.

“It was not a strategic decision; it was really done to punish the Americans and it was quite effective, the Capitol was burned,” he says.

Credit Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras / Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
The British burning the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Just as staff members on the senate floor  grabbed the official electoral college counts sent by states on Jan. 6, during the British attack on the Capitol many people had to work to save documents and other artifacts in the building from the British.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln there was an attempted attack on the Capitol by a Virginia militia that was thwarted before attackers could reach the building. Threats about attacking the Capitol or assassinating Lincoln were rampant and thus, security in D.C. was taken extremely seriously. The army was mobilized to close off the entire Capitol to prevent anyone from coming in. 

“The attack on the Capitol in that instance was eerily similar to what happened with the Biden count because that was an attempt to stop the counting of Lincoln’s electoral votes, very similar,” he says.

Credit Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., [LC-F82-1234] / U.S. Library of Congress
U.S. Library of Congress
Eric Muenter bombed the U.S. Capitol building in the summer of 1915 as a way to make a statement to keep America out of World War I, although the United States had not officially entered the war at that time.

In the summer of 1915 Eric Muenter, a German born professor from Harvard,  detonated a bomb inside of the Capitol building.  

"He was caught the next day trying to kill J.P. Morgan, Jr. ... and then he committed suicide. And apparently what he was trying to do was  to make a message for world peace ... he was very concerned about [World War I] ... and he wanted to make a statement to try and keep America out of the war," Savagian explains.

"You can see that it's really hard to make logic out of what [Muenter] was doing," he adds.

Credit United States Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Puerto Rican assault leader Lolita Lebrón under arrest in Washington D.C.

The next act of violence wouldn’t happen until 1954. An attack by four Puerto Rican nationalists who brought a banner calling for Puerto Rican independence and opened fire on U.S. Representatives, injuring six people. They were captured and sentenced to life in prison, eventually the four received pardons and returned to Puerto Rico.

In the Senate chamber in 1983, a bomb was detonated by a group called the Weather Underground — a Marxist based, anti-capitalist far-left group according to Savagian. No one was injured and seven people were charged in the attack. 

As Savagian has laid out, the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 is not the first time the building has seen violence, but that there are stark differences in this attack — especially the fact that this was, in part, instigated by the president of the United States.

“To have a president sitting in office who was going to try to prevent the successful peaceful transition of power, which is one of the hallmarks of American democracy, that is what makes this quite unique and, um, chilling for many people,” he says.

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.