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I am a Denver-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Taking a Tour of the U.S. Capitol

Outside the U.S. Capitol

Outside the U.S. Capitol

I was fooled into booking a standard tour of the U.S. Capitol. After calling my U.S. Representative’s office to arrange all of the details, I thought I was getting the best option. But I was wrong, and didn’t find out until I was already halfway through a tour of at least two dozen people. And it wasn’t until I returned to the Capitol’s ticket desk to ask for a different tour option that I learned the trick.

Like the White House, I was excited to see the U.S. Capitol. The two chambers – the House of Representatives and the Senate – are the basis for America’s republic. It’s the foundation of our government. To see it in person, something I don’t recall doing on a childhood trip to Washington, D.C., was near the top of my list of things to do while in town. But when I walked out of the auditorium where I saw an introductory film, I was disappointed like I didn’t expect.

Statues in the U.S. Capitol

Statues in the U.S. Capitol

It took only a moment to happen, the disappointment. I was handed a headset by an attendant and asked if I could hear her just fine. I could, but with a sinking heart. I was in such a large group that the only way we could understand our guide was through the use of headphones. I understand in the more popular summer months such intimacy may not be possible, but I was visiting Washington, D.C. during the lowest of the low seasons and hoping for a much more personal experience.

Emancipation Hall, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

Emancipation Hall, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

Thankfully I got it when I returned from the first tour, which I would consider all but a waste, and signed up for a second tour highlighting the Capitol building during the Civil War. There were other tour options, like one highlighting the artwork in the building, but I was more interested in one about history. Besides, I chuckled to myself while considering my options, if I don’t take one on the Civil War, my father, a Civil War fanatic, would likely put me over his knee and use his belt on my backside.

A map of the U.S. Capitol's Emancipation Hall

A map of the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall

The Civil War tour, which was free just like the general tour, followed the same route. The thing of it was, though, there were only three of us – the guide, me, and another solo traveler. So as we wandered the hallways and popped in and out of the rooms, we were able to slow down, ask a lot of questions, and learn more about the things we were seeing – whether it was related to the Civil War or not. It didn’t matter. The guide was knowledgeable past what I could expect when it came to the building’s history, funny, and friendly all at the same time.

Inside the Old Supreme Court Chambers in the U.S. Capitol

Inside the Old Supreme Court Chambers in the U.S. Capitol

After going upstairs from the upper level of the visitor center, we hung a right and walked into the Old Supreme Court chambers. This is where, most notably in my opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney cast the deciding vote in the decision on the Dred Scott case in 1857, declaring African Americans are not citizens and that Congress cannot exclude slavery from the territories. Obviously this was a monumental decision, one precipitating the start of the Civil War only a few years later in 1861.

The Supreme Court moved a few other times, and is now across the street in a separate building. Today the Old Supreme Court Chamber, restored to its 1850s appearance, is used on tours and for the current Supreme Court Justices to change into their robes for events like an inauguration or State of the Union addresses.

Inside the U.S. Capitol's Old Senate Chambers

Inside the U.S. Capitol’s Old Senate Chambers

Our guide next lead the two of us up into the old Senate, which was where the Supreme Court first moved after leaving the previous room. A lot of historic issues were debated and decisions made, and the guide briefly discussed those. But the two of us begged for a more appealing story, a funny one. And he was only happy to oblige in telling us the story of Sam Houston’s Heart.

Apparently bored with the proceedings, Sam Houston would sit with his boots up on his desk and whittle away at a piece of wood. He would later have it delivered to one of the ladies sitting in the gallery. This became a very popular occurrence, and many people would fill the gallery in an attempt to get the object or see who did. Because of this, the efforts used by some ladies to attract Sam’s attention became inappropriate for the times and a modesty guard had to be installed. And it was all because the women wanted what Sam Houston was whittling – a wooden heart, Sam Houston’s heart as it was called.

Paintings in the U.S. Capitol's Rotunda

Paintings in the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda

We laughed about it as we walked back through the hallways to the rotunda, another important spot in the Civil War. Not only was it, like many public buildings, used as a hospital, but it was also completed during the Civil War. Some argued the efforts should be spared, but construction went ahead so as to prove that the Union was still strong. Inside the results are spectacular, outside they’re iconic as the dome dominates the east end of the National Mall.

The rotunda's ceiling

The Rotunda’s ceiling

Testing the acoustics in Statuary Hall

Testing the acoustics in Statuary Hall

I could have spent hours in the rotunda examining the paintings and statues, asking questions of the guide, and just taking it all in, but we had to move on as our small tour was already running well behind schedule. Passing by the office of John Boehner, Speaker of the House, we continued into the old House Chamber. In this very spot the 13th Amendment, the one abolishing slavery, was passed. Now it is known as Statuary Hall.

I admired the statues, learned a little about the history of each – one from each state is on display somewhere throughout the capitol building, likely here – and marveled at a trick in the acoustics. Apparently, because of the way the ceiling is designed, a whisper on one side of the room can be heard on the other. So while one party may be plotting and scheming in their seats, whispering to their colleagues, their opponents on the other side could pick up and act on their plans.

At this point the Civil War tour was over, but my time in the U.S. Capitol not nearly so. I didn’t have much time left, but enough to run across the street to the office building for my U.S. Representative and grab two tickets – one each to get me into the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Photographs aren’t allowed in either chamber, even though they weren’t in session, so I simply took in and admired the sometimes forgotten ideals behind the two rooms.

Ticket to the House of Representatives

Ticket to the House of Representatives

Ticket to the U.S. Senate

Ticket to the U.S. Senate

It was something else to be in both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, just as it was to be in the White House. Both were rooms I had seen on television so often. Both have experienced great, albeit sometimes sad, moments in history. And both, as I said before, are the backbone of the Republic. And they were the highlight of my time at the U.S. Capitol.

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  1. The Ghosts of Christmas 2013 | Jason's Travels - December 24, 2013

    […] spent several other days wandering the Smithsonian Museums, touring the U.S. Capitol, heading out to the Arlington National Cemetery, and popping around to all kinds of other […]

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