INSIDE THE STEPHENSON HOUSE - May 14, 2003
Henry here had been thinking too much about Col. Ben and
the bills he succeeded in having passed in Congress. I needed a break!
So, I took a stroll over to see the new road on South Main. You know,
that land was part of Col. Ben's original 182 acres and great-great-great
grandfather Samuel spent a lot of time in those fields. Great-great-great-grandfather
Samuel!! All of a sudden some stories Ol' Samuel told about Col. Ben as
a delegate in Washington came back to me.
Great-great-great-grandfather Samuel was at Kaskaskia when Col. Ben left
there for Congress in October, 1814. Since Illinois was not yet a state
Col. Ben was delegate, a non-voting participant who represented the Illinois
Territory in the U.S. House of Representatives. To get the important bills
passed for the Illinois settlers, Col. Ben needed many friends who had
a vote in the House. Col. Ben knew he had to convince his friends of the
importance and necessity of the bills he introduced. Ol' Samuel knew Col.
Ben was the right man for this job, and he was right!
Hey guys, the War of 1812 did not end in the year 1812! On August 24,
1814, the British burned Washington, D.C! They burned the public buildings,
the Capitol and the White House, home of Pres. James Madison and his wife,
Dolley. The city was a smoking ruin. And, Col. Ben's first day as a delegate
was November 14, 1814. What a difficult time for Col. Ben to begin his
work as a delegate.
Ol' Samuel had heard Col. Ben tell about the British burning Washington
and the rebuilding of the city. He told about Col. Ben arriving in Washington
and seeing what some called a "naked city." He told about the
buildings being built far apart and the few streets being little more
than paths. The farmers were even fencing in and planting places meant
to be streets. Everywhere Col. Ben looked the public buildings had been
burned. The treasury, navy and state departments, the Library of Congress
and the executive offices were burnt out. By the time Col. Ben arrived,
the government had found temporary quarters in private buildings around
town for most of these departments. Some private Washington homes were
loaned to be used for executive offices.
Ol' Samuel recalled that Col. Ben was happy to tell that the Patent Office
had been spared the torch because the British finally agreed with the
Americans that its contents belonged to all civilizations. The Post Office
was spared because it was in the same building as the Patent Office.
On Sept. 19, 1814, less than three weeks after the burning of the capitol,
Pres. Madison called a special session of Congress. At this session Congress
voted to restore the burned out capitol and to pay for the repairs. It
was decided that Congress would be temporarily housed in the Post Office
Building. At the same time a group of 38 citizens offered to build a brick
hall as a temporary Capitol. Within 6 months the building was erected
and Congress met for the next four years in the "Old Brick Capitol".
When Col. Ben arrived, there were some citizens who felt the city was
in a defenseless position and they urged the moving of the capitol to
Philadelphia, Lancaster or Georgetown. Col. Ben felt that the group of
private citizens who were building the temporary capitol showed a united
spirit that helped keep the government in Washington.
When Col. Ben accepted the appointment as delegate in 1814, he knew he
was taking on a big responsibility to the people of the Illinois Territory.
And, this also involved personal hardships for Col. Ben. His travel time
was 35 days to Washington. The Congressional sessions lasted 140 days.
He was away from his family in Kaskaskia for almost six months at a time.
For all this, Col. Ben was paid $8.00 per day and mileage. Many considered
Washington an unattractive city, with buildings and houses so far apart
it was called "the city of magnificent distances." Ol' Samuel
said he heard that people had to travel four, five and six miles to a
home to attend dinner parties.
Col. Ben had entered a burnt-out city after at least 35 days travel. What
did he think? Ol' Samuel said it really didn't matter to Col. Ben, because
he had come to serve the Illinois people and would continue to serve under
Ol' Samuel said there were 176 Congressmen in town for each session. Where
did they live? Over the years the Stephenson House mouse family had learned
about the hotels, boarding houses and taverns where the Congressman stayed
in Washington. The average charge per night was $16. for a hotel room.
Many of the congressmen stayed in boarding houses rented only by Congressmen
that were called "messes." These boarding houses mostly clustered
around taverns, probably because the taverns were the social center and
the place for many gatherings including birthday balls. In 1822, there
were 31 boarding houses and certainly fewer in 1814 when Col. Ben was
in Washington. Great-great-great grandfather Samuel said he thought about
40 of the congressmen stayed in boarding houses during Col. Ben's time.
Col. Ben arrived in Washington to find the city in ruins. A story came
back to Kaskaskia about the visitor to Washington who said the appearance
of our public buildings is enough to make one cut his throat! Washington
must have been a pitiful sight! When the British burned Washington they
also unwittingly succeeded in uniting the Americans to defend their country
and national pride was revived! Historians Morison and Commanger said:
"The destruction of Washington only showed that invading a country
like the United States is like hurling a hammer into a bin of corn. A
few kernels were hurt, but the hammer had to be withdrawn quickly or lost."
Col. Ben was proud to be a part of the rebuilding of Washington and at
the same time serving his fellow people in the Illinois Territory. Colonel
Benjamin Stephenson was a true public servant and Illinois was fortunate
to have him. You know, Henry thinks he was really good!
Mary of The Friends and her committee have been working hard on something
called "A Taste of Downtown Edwardsville." From what I hear
it will happen at the Madison County Transit Center on June 14, and will
benefit The Stephenson House. Sounds like fun to me! There will be food
donated from the downtown restaurants, music, flags, dancing to our own
Joey James and a cash bar. Tickets are $25.00 each and will be available
soon. From what I hear, there are only 400 tickets and that will be available
from Board Members or at The Bank of Edwardsville. Sounds to me like I
better get my ticket soon!! Wonder if they will they have cheese?
See ya' later, Henry