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This Week in History
December 2-8, 1863:
The Statue of Freedom Is Bolted to the New Capitol Dome

December 2012

When the District of Columbia became an armed camp at the start of the Civil War, many of the public buildings had to be used for military purposes. One of these was the Capitol building itself, where soldiers camped in the halls and bread ovens were installed in the basement. The ongoing construction project for enlarging the Capitol into the building we recognize today ground to a halt for about a year, but President Lincoln recognized that during war you must also plan for peace. He convinced Congress to provide the funding for finishing the construction, saying that, "if people see the Capitol going on ... it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on."

Senator Solomon Foot of Vermont agreed, and told the Senate that leaving the Capitol incomplete would be "a humiliating confession, to the country and to the world, of a national weakness and imbecility, of a national impoverishment and bankruptcy. We are strong enough yet, thank God, to put down this rebellion and to put up this our Capitol at the same time."

The enlargement of the Capitol was necessary to accommodate the growth of the legislative branch and the nation, as the growing number of states sent a growing number of Senators and Representatives. Before the War of 1812, the Capitol had consisted of a north and south wing, joined by a temporary wooden arcade. After the British burned the Capitol during their 1814 attack on Washington, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe had redesigned parts of the interior and enriched the building with details such as his Greek columns carved with American capitals of corn plants and tobacco leaves.

Latrobe was succeeded by Charles Bulfinch, who finished rebuilding the chambers for the Senate, House, and Supreme Court in 1819. Then, he followed President James Monroe's idea of adding a copper-clad wooden dome somewhat higher than the original design. This building was completed in 1826, but only 20 years later it was insufficient for the representatives of the 30 states of the Union, and more were soon to come. Therefore, in 1850 an architectural competition was held for plans to enlarge the Capitol.

Congress could not choose between the designs, so the prize was divided among five architects. President Millard Fillmore finally made the decision, choosing the plans of architect Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia. Walter designed two large extensions of the building, each almost as large as the original building. He also proposed to replace the wooden dome with a magnificent dome made of cast iron which was more than twice the height of the original.

The cornerstone for the new construction was laid on July 4, 185l, and the stone was laid with the same trowel that had been used by President George Washington at the original ceremony. In his invocation, the Senate Chaplain called the Capitol the cornerstone of the Union, which held the states together. Daniel Webster, in his oration, said that were Washington at the present ceremony, he would remind his listeners of the importance of preserving the Union, "cemented as it was by our prayers, our tears, and our blood." Webster promised to heed Washington's words and to allow no "ruthless hand" to "undermine that bright arch of Union and Liberty which spans the continent from Washington to California."

In 1855, Congress approved Thomas Walter's plan to construct a massive dome made of cast iron. There were several domes constructed in Europe during the 1850s and 1860s which utilized cast iron, but Thomas Walter designed one which was unique. An inner shell was connected to the larger outer dome by trusses and girders. The dome weighed approximately 9 million pounds, but at that weight it was still much lighter than a masonry dome, and could, therefore, be assembled much faster. The parts of the dome were manufactured in a foundry and lifted into position by steam-powered derricks. Then they were bolted into place.

The design of the dome utilized the symbols of the American nation. The drum on which the dome rests has a ring of 36 columns, representing the number of states at the time it was constructed. The topmost lantern has 13 columns, which represent the 13 original states. To crown the lantern, Walter had sketched the statue of a woman, an "Armed Liberty." The commission for designing that statue was awarded to sculptor Thomas Crawford, who proposed an allegorical figure of "Freedom triumphant in War and Peace."

Raised in New York City and apprenticed to a monument-making firm, Crawford had sailed to Italy in 1835 to study sculpture in Rome. As he learned his art, his expenditures for books, casts, and materials plunged him into poverty and ill-health. He was rescued by the American consul at Rome, and he began to receive small commissions for busts, including those of Commodore Isaac Hull and Charles Sumner, the future Senator from Massachusetts.

Sumner gathered funds in Boston to further the sculptor's work, and in 1849, Crawford returned to America to find that the City of Richmond, Va. was holding a competition for the design of an equestrian statue of George Washington. He won the competition, and his design came to the notice of Congress, which awarded him several commissions for the reconstruction of the Capitol. These included the pedimental group called "The Past and Present of America" and the bronze doors for the Senate wing. Crawford returned to his studio in Rome to produce the plaster models, which were then shipped to America. The pediment for over the Senate doors was carved by Italian workmen out of Massachusetts marble on the Capitol grounds.

But the statue for the Capitol dome was to be cast in bronze. Crawford finished the plaster model, but died in 1857 before it could be shipped to America. The next year, the sections of the model were packed up in six crates and left Italy in a small sailing vessel. The journey was fraught with danger, for the ship encountered severe storms and had to keep putting in for repairs. After a stop at Gibraltar, a long layover in Bermuda, and final landfall at New York, the crates eventually reached Washington in March of 1859.

The next year, architect and sculptor Clark Mills was given the contract for casting the statue. Mills had served as the official in charge of public buildings for almost a 20-year period beginning in the 1830s, and had himself submitted several plans for the extension of the Capitol during the 1840s. He had also established an experimental bronze foundry on the outskirts of Washington, and had succeeded in casting several monumental statues for the city.

Mills was a slaveowner, and when his foundry foreman demanded more money, Mills turned to Philip Reid, one of his slaves, to supervise the casting. Reid was skilled and diligent, but he was paid only for his work on Sundays, which was his own time. But in 1863, when the statue was raised to the top of the Capitol, Reid was a free man, for the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln, had gone into effect on April 16, 1862.

The statue which Reid had helped to create is 19-and-a-half feet tall and weighs almost 15,000 pounds. Freedom's right hand rests on the hilt of a sheathed sword, symbolizing readiness to defend liberty, but a preference for peace. The statue's left hand holds a wreath of laurels and rests on the shield of the United States. A broach inscribed "U.S." holds her fringed robes. On her head, Freedom wears a helmet bordered by stars and crested with an eagle's head and feathers.

As the work on the Capitol went forward, Americans did come to view it as a harbinger of better times to come. And interest in the construction was not limited to the North. Even Confederate generals and officials, many of whom had served in Washington before the war, asked their northern counterparts during negotiations or other meetings how work on the Capitol was progressing.

Finally, on Dec. 2, 1863, the final section of the statue of Freedom was raised to the top of the Capitol lantern and bolted into place. A huge crowd assembled for the noon ceremony, and a 35-gun salute by the 22nd Army Corps was answered by the guns of the 12 forts around Washington. The Sacramento Daily Union reporter described the salute as an expression of respect for "this material symbol of the principles on which our Government is based."

Just six days later, on Dec. 8, President Lincoln delivered his Annual Message to Congress, and described his "Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction" issued on the same date, which would allow the reunification of the states on a humane and charitable basis, and thus bring to realization the values for which the Capitol stood.