Rokeby House Becomes Nation's Capital

Rokeby House Becomes Nation's Capital

Was Leesburg really the U.S. capital in 1814?

Fact or Fiction? Leesburg was once capital of the United States. According to local tradition, the historic town where important Civil War battles were staged and Gen. George C. Marshall resided held the cradle of democracy for a brief period of time. Though the story has its skeptics, the story — begins, at least — steeped in facts.

According to the tradition, The Rokeby House, located just south of Leesburg, housed the most important government documents while the British invaded Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, making it the capital for the duration of the documents’ stay.

ACCORDING TO Kathryn Coughlan’s book "Rokeby: A Page in History," written in 1992, the residence was built in 1757 by Charles Binns II, first clerk of the Circuit Court of Loudoun County. The home would eventually come under William Rokeby’s ownership and remained a typical home for years until the War of 1812 broke out.

According to the book, in the summer of 1814, as the British were advancing toward Washington, D.C., Secretary of State James Monroe grew worried that the documents that were the nation’s foundation would be destroyed in the invasion. So, Monroe ordered State Department clerk Stephen Pleasanton to bag up the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, George Washington’s Revolutionary War correspondence and the secret diaries of Congress and get them to safety.

While initially placed at an unused gristmill, Pleasanton feared the documents were still too close to the fighting. In response, he procured wagons from local farmers and made his way to Leesburg, which itself provided sanctuary, being 35 miles away from the District.

Searching for a secure location, Pleasanton found the Rokeby House, with assistance from town official Charles Rokeby, brother of the owner. The documents were stored in an iron-door vault in the home’s cellar and kept under the watch of the Rev. Littlejohn, a local minister, who was the sole tenant of the house while the documents were there. The papers remained there for several weeks until the British sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay, at which time they were safely returned to Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, this is where the truths end and the tales begin.

THOUGH PROPONENTS of the tradition claim that since the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were kept in Leesburg it technically made the town capital of the United States, local historian Childs Burden rebuffs this notion. The former president of the Loudoun County Historical Society and founder of the Mosby Heritage Area Association said that while it is an interesting thought, it is fiction.

"The capital of the U.S. is where the president and three arms of the government retire to [to do their jobs]," Burden said. "I can see why people would say that, but it is a little far-fetched."

Today, The Rokeby House is privately owned and not open to tourists. For supporters looking for some consolation, it should be noted that its time holding the documents was the only instance in American history where those papers were stored in a private residence. Though the greater myth may not be true, rest assured that Leesburg may not have been the capital, but it certainly played a significant role in the evolution of our nation.