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  • Martin Castle

"...This is their democracy and this is their election fiasco"

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Like many, I sat both transfixed and aghast at what unfolded in Washington DC live on my TV last week. Family in America have hinted at violence that might follow the election (whatever the outcome) and their predictions seemed to be coming true. Whilst I've giggled, along with many, at the antics of their current president, the instability and division he has encouraged seemed to be turning into something extremely dangerous. I know that people will support those with power to maintain their own sense of power and control but I had become increasingly concerned that the cavalry of common sense and decency was not coming over the horizon any time soon. It seems that the next few weeks may have some semblance of normality to them, but beyond that ...???

Being English, (home to the "Mother of Parliaments") I don't consider the buildings that house the elected officials of the USA to be the home of democracy and my Manx friend will want to say "Tynwald" at this point. However, such structures have become important visual symbols of an organised political society and, as such, have become, in some sense, sacrosanct ground, where the rule of reason conquers the rule of physical violence - although I think all have a role for a 'Sergeant at Arms" to protect those inside the building from the unpleasantness that lurks outside!

After the conflagration

Democracy has faced many attacks upon its existence, some successful and others repelled. The U.S. has seen a handful of other alarming incidents of violence at its Capitol. Perhaps most famously, just 14 years after the building opened, British forces tried to burn it down in 1814. The invaders looted the building first, and then set the southern and northern wings ablaze, incinerating the Library of Congress. Apparently, only a heavy storm prevented more damage.

painting by Tom Freeman

A popular myth exists that the White House was first painted white to cover the scorch marks left after British soldiers set fire to the house during the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. On August 24th 1814, British troops entered Washington, D.C. and burned the White House in retaliation for the American attack on the city of York in Ontario, Canada, in June 1813. When the British arrived at the White House, they found that President James Madison and his first lady Dolley had already fled to safety in Maryland. Soldiers reportedly sat down to eat a meal made of leftover food from the White House kitchen using White House dishes and silver before ransacking the presidential mansion and setting it ablaze and basically burning it down to the ground.

Actually, the White House first gained a lime-based whitewash in 1798 to protect the exterior stone from moisture and cracking during winter freezes. The term “White House” was occasionally used before the War of 1812, with the phrase appearing in newspapers in the first decade of the 19th century. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt officially named the Executive Mansion the “White House”. Before that, the White House had been called several names, including the “President’s House”, and the “Executive Mansion”. Since nearly every U.S. state had an “executive mansion” for its governor, President Roosevelt believed the name “White House” would distinguish it as the official residence of the President of the United States.

Three sticks of dynamite — July 2, 1915

Newspaper headlines across the U.S. blared about the frenzied attack of a suspect identified as a professor at Cornell University, Frank Holt, described by the New York Times as "an educator with a reputation among his associates as an easygoing man."

The suspect had smuggled three sticks of dynamite in a suitcase into the Capitol on July 2, 1915. Finding the Senate chamber locked, he settled on an area in the Senate's reception area. The bomb went off hours later, causing damage. The attacker had sent a letter to a Washington paper under the moniker R. Pearce, expressing opposition to the U.S. selling arms and munitions to Germany's enemies as the First World War progressed. A day after the D.C. attack the same suspect proceeded to the Long Island home of financier J.P. Morgan Jr., — who he rated as a war profiteer — injuring him with two shots before being subdued by Morgan's butler. The man was neither Holt nor Pearce, but Erich Muenter, a German who was a Harvard professor suspected in the poisoning death of his wife in 1906. He had fled to Mexico and returned with an alias. Muenter was dead by July 6, 1915, killed by a fall in prison. It was ruled a suicide.

March 1, 1954

Mostly a forgotten history now. the drive for Puertorican independence led to attacks on the island and in New York City, all the way up to the Fraunces Tavern bombing in 1975, which killed four people. There was even an assassination plot that targeted then president Harry Truman in 1950.

Nationalists Lolita Lebrón, Irvin Flores Rodríguez, Rafael Cancel Miranda and Andres Figueroa Cordero, carried out their attack on March 1, 1954, from the gallery of the House of Representatives, where members were debating a bill concerning migrant Mexican workers. Five congressmen — Republicans Alvin Bentley and Ben Jensen, and Democrats Clifford Davis, George Hyde Fallon and Kenneth Roberts — were injured by gunfire. Bentley was the most seriously injured and required numerous surgeries, but he returned to work seven weeks later.

At a subsequent trial, Lebrón received a 50-year sentence, while the men received 75 years in prison for attempted murder and other charges. President Jimmy Carter commuted all four sentences during his presidential term in the late 1970s. Cancel Miranda, the last surviving member of the group, died in March 2020. He continued to campaign for the independence of Puerto Rico and participated in marches and demonstrations after his release. In 2016, he told a New York Times reporter, "62 years later I'm not sorry."

Bullet holes from the attack are still present in the chamber to this day. So, what we witnessed was not a one off event - there are further examples you can research for yourself. After all that mayhem it is time for a little sustenance. More than one commentator has noted that Congress (like many such institutions - you only have to watch Prime Minister's Question Time from Westminster to appreciate this) is often full of hot air. This may well be, in the US, due to the restaurant of the Congress!

Since 1903 a particular soup has been a staple. Bean soup is on the menu in Senate restaurants every day. There are several stories about the origin of this. According to one story, the Senate’s bean soup tradition began early in the 20th century at the request of Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho. Another story attributes the request to Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota, who expressed his fondness for the soup in 1903. The recipe attributed to Dubois includes mashed potatoes. The recipe served in the Senate today does not include mashed potatoes, but does include a braised onion.

Knute (1843-1923) was born in Evanger, near Voss, Norway. Various theories persist about Knute's paternity, including one involving a famous outlaw - Gjest Baardsen.

Gjest Baardsen

He was an American attorney and politician active in Wisconsin and Minnesota. A Republican, he served in state and national positions: he was elected to the Wisconsin and Minnesota legislatures and to the U.S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate from Minnesota, and served as the 12th governor of Minnesota from 1893 to 1895. Having served in the Senate for 28 years, 55 days, he is the longest-serving Senator in Minnesota's history.

Nelson is known for promoting the Nelson Act of 1889 to consolidate Minnesota's Ojibwe/Chippewa on a reservation in western Minnesota and break up their communal land by allotting it to individual households, with sales of the remainder to anyone, including non-natives. This was similar to the Dawes Act of 1887, which applied to Native American lands in the Indian Territory.


Senate Restaurant Bean Soup

Serves 8


2lbs dried navy beans

4 quarts hot water

1½lbs smoked ham hocks

1 onion, chopped

2 tbsp butter

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Wash the navy beans and run hot water through them until they are slightly whitened. Place beans into pot with hot water.

2. Add ham hocks and simmer approximately three hours in a covered pot, stirring occasionally.

3. Remove ham hocks and set aside to cool.

4. Dice meat and return to soup.

5. Lightly brown the onion in butter. Add to soup.

6. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper.

Word of the Day is ...

Cockalorum [kok-uh-LOHR-uh m]

(n.) A boastful and self-important man with an exaggerated idea of his own importance.

Bragging or boastful talk; crowing.

Pseudo-Latinization of “cock” Influenced by Dutch “kockeloeren” (to crow). From Middle English “cock” from Old English “cocc” cognate with Old Norse “kokkr”.

ps: Fred Thomas Dubois (May 29, 1851 – February 14, 1930) was a controversial American politician from Idaho who served two terms in the United States Senate - one as a Republican; one as a Democrat! He was best known for his opposition to the gold standard (as a Silver Republican) and his efforts to disenfranchise Mormon voters.

pps: The title is taken from a speech about the events in Washington DC by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

ppps: "The mother of parliaments" is a phrase coined by the British politician and reformer John Bright in a speech at Birmingham on 18 January 1865. It was a reference to England. His actual words were: "England is the mother of parliaments". This was reported in The Times on the following day. The expression is often wrongly applied to the Parliament of the United Kingdom because of the adoption of the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy by many countries of the former British Empire and elsewhere.


John Bright - (1811-1889) MP for Durham and later Birmingham; originator of the saying "flogging an dead horse".

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