History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 11 -- Dr. Thornton Saves Blodgett's Hotel from British

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American independence had only recently been achieved when, in 1793, England began stopping American ships at sea, seizing any seamen who could not prove that they were not born in England and impressing them into service on British ships. England refused its subjects the right to become citizens of other nations. In this impressment operation, England seized many native-born American seamen, including at least one black seaman. Things escalated until war was declared in June 1812, which thus became the War of 1812. Much of the land war was fought around Lake Erie, and in April 1813, American troops burned the Canadian town of York (now called Toronto). At least partly in retaliation for the burning of York, the British sent an army of 3,500 under Major General Robert Ross to threaten Washington.

[Page 64 illustration: Portrait of Admiral Cockburn]

On August 20, 1814, British troops under the naval command of Admiral Sir George Cockburn landed at Benedict, Maryland, thirty five miles from Washington, and began marching toward Washington. It was obvious that the city could not be well defended with the few untrained militiamen from the area. All over Washington, government officials were attempting to pack up government papers and move them out of Washington and thus out of danger.

Dr. William Thornton still owned several pieces of land in the Washington area, including his farm of about one square mile in area, located in what is now downtown Bethesda, Maryland. This farm was eight miles from Blodgett's Hotel in the center of Washington. When Dr. Thornton learned of the approach of the British, he decided to move the Patent Office papers to this farm. Dr. Thornton, his clerk George Lyon, and his messenger and model maker Thomas Nicholson bought 402 feet of 3/4 inch wooden lathe and 100 feet of sheet iron for strapping, [footnote 1] then hired two men to assist them and made boxes for all of the papers and books of the Patent Office. [footnote 2] They filled the boxes with the papers, commandeered privately owned wagons and hired teamsters to haul the loaded boxes to the farm. They obtained wagons or teamster services or both from Burgess Willett, Charles Lemon, and Richard Fenwick. [footnote 3] The name of Richard Fenwick will appear again in Chapter 12 of this narrative.

[Page 65 illustration: Portrait of Gen. Robert Ross]
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Most of the time on August 22 and August 23 was spent packing and moving the Patent Office papers. But papers are relatively compact. Dr. Thornton had no way to move the patent models to safety. Models were as large as one cubic foot, and Thornton said there were then "hundreds" of them. [footnote 4] The patent models were left to their fate in Blodgett's Hotel. Dr. Thornton and his model-maker had been building a musical instrument which Dr. Thornton invented. It is unclear what this instrument was supposed to do, but apparently it imitated a wide variety of traditional instruments. The model, in whatever state of completion it had achieved at the time, was also left to its fate in Blodgett's Hotel.

Dr. Thornton wrote that on Tuesday, August 23, after securing all the public papers committed to his care and sending them to a place of perfect safety, he left his own papers unattended to and accompanied the Secretary of State Colonel James Monroe in reconnoitering the surrounding country, and returned home at midnight. While it seems odd that such an expedition should be led by the Secretary of State, Secretary of War John Armstrong was generally believed to be incompetent for the job, refused to admit that the British might invade Washington, and resigned soon after the British invasion of Washington. James Monroe then became both Secretary of State and Secretary of War. The rapid departure, shall we say rout, of the local militia from the engagement with the British at Bladensburg, Maryland, on Wednesday, August 24, was derided by the local residents as the Bladensburg Races. Only Navy and Marine troops under Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished themselves.

On August 24, Thornton moved his family with the retreating army from the city of Washington to Georgetown. That night, he observed the fires set by the British burning the public buildings of Washington. While having breakfast in Georgetown on Thursday, August 25, he was told that the British were preparing to burn the War Office and Blodgett's Hotel. He rode over to Washington to try to save his musical instrument. He arrived in time to see the War Office burned. Along with Thomas Nicholson, George Lyon and two others, Thornton approached Major Waters, who was awaiting the command of Colonel Timothy Jones to burn Blodgett's Hotel. There were 150 [Pg 66] soldiers [footnote 5] marching toward Blodgett's Hotel to do the job. Thornton asked Major Waters if he could remove his musical instrument and was told that it was not the British intention to destroy any private property and that he could remove any private property from the building.

Here, Dr. Thornton hit his stride. The generation in the Patent Office after Thornton's death would magnify this incident until it bore only the faintest resemblance to the incident as it happened. Thornton himself reported in a newspaper account that he told Major Waters there was nothing but private property in the building of any consequence and that he should remove any public property that he objected to from the building and burn it in the street. He said that the building contained hundreds of models of the arts and that it would be impossible to remove them. He said that the models were useful to all of mankind, not just to Americans, and that anyone who burned them would be condemned by future generations as were the Turks who burned the Library at Alexandria.

Dr. Thornton, in his impassioned speech given despite a very noticeable tendency to stutter or stammer, confused Major Waters sufficiently that the major asked Thornton to accompany him and present his request to Colonel Jones. Thornton went with the major and found Colonel Jones supervising the destruction of Joseph Gales' printing establishment. Mr. Gales' newspaper, the National Intelligencer, had been printing articles which were derogatory to Admiral Cockburn, and the admiral had given orders that special care should be taken to destroy all type for the letter C so that Gales could not take his name in vain again. (Mr. Gales borrowed type and printed his newspaper again in one week. The admiral was mentioned.)

After Dr. Thornton presented his case, Colonel Jones ordered the men away and spared Blodgett's Hotel. At least, that was Thornton's version. Washington's Mayor James H. Blake, apparently feeling libeled by Thornton's newspaper account of their respective actions during the invasion, wrote in his own newspaper account that he would give Thornton credit for saving the building, notwithstanding there were many who think the building was saved by the storm which happened later that day. Indeed, a hurricane visited Washington City that afternoon. The oldest residents said they could not recall a storm so intense. The storm extinguished those fires that were still burning and prompted the immediate withdrawal of the British from the city. It also blew part of the roof off Blodgett's Hotel. [footnote 6]

Sometime later, while he was a prisoner on a ship in Baltimore Harbor, Dr. William B. Beanes (1749-1828) of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a colleague and friend of Dr. Thornton, overheard British soldiers discussing the actions of Thornton in saving Blodgett's Hotel. [footnote 7] It was while negotiating to secure [Pg 67] the release of Dr. Beanes that Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer, was forced to spend the night aboard this same ship, witnessing the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry. On the next morning, before Key and Beanes left the ship, Key noticed with pride that the American flag still flew over Fort McHenry, and in a burst of inspiration that morning, September 14, 1814, Key wrote the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. The words were immediately set to the music of an old song, and the song was performed in Baltimore before the British had finished leaving the Chesapeake Bay.

As the British left Washington City, Congress was due to arrive for a session in two weeks. The Capitol had been destroyed, and Congress needed a place to meet. The only undamaged government building left in Washington City was Blodgett's Hotel. The Patent Office and most of the Post Office were told to seek other quarters, [footnote 8] clear the building, and make it available as a meeting place for Congress. This they did, and for over a year the Congress of the United States met in the Patent Office [footnote 9] and Post Office quarters.

There was much agitation to move the seat of government to some large city where there was sufficient population to protect it from invasion, and, incidentally, sufficient accommodations so that Congressmen did not feel like they were camping out during legislative sessions. It is clear that if Blodgett's Hotel had not been available to provide sufficient space for Congress to meet in Washington City, there would have been enough votes to move the seat of government. However, those who wished to move the government failed, barely, to obtain enough votes while in their new temporary quarters.

It could be said that on the morning of August 25, 1814, Dr. William Thornton set forth to Blodgett's Hotel to save a musical instrument, and in the course of the day saved first Blodgett's Hotel itself and then the seat of government. Congress continued to meet in Blodgett's Hotel until a group of local citizens invested their own money to build the Old Brick Capitol on the present site of the Supreme Court Building.

During their exile from Blodgett's Hotel, the staff of the Patent Office conducted business from the "Den" in a private house. [footnote 10] It has been suggested that the Den was the home of George Lyon. [footnote 11] During this period, rent of $120 per year was being paid to William Cocking [footnote 12] for the house occupied by the Patent Office. The Patent Office papers were returned from William Thornton's farm to the Den about September 12, 1814. [footnote 13] By December 1815, the Patent Office was preparing to move back to Blodgett's Hotel, and Thomas Nicholson was paid for tearing out the remains of the old lobby to the Congress Hall and for doing other work to prepare the building for Patent Office occupancy. [footnote 14] In early January 1816, the boxes, cases, books, firewood and coal of the Patent Office were moved back to Blodgett's Hotel. [footnote 15]

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