- - Friday, March 30, 2012

FREEDOM’S CAP: THE UNITED STATES CAPITOL AND THE COMING OF THE CIVIL WAR
By Guy Gugliotta
Hill and Wang, $35 486 pages, illustrated

Most visitors to Washington take the Capitol dome for granted. It is a graceful structure, with a statue on top that - because of its elevation - defies close examination. All in all, the Capitol seems less interesting than the White House.

For Guy Gugliotta, however, the Capitol dome embodies the political stresses and personal conflicts that led to the Civil War. His account of its construction, richly detailed and engagingly written, puts a vast construction project in a political context.

There had been an earlier dome over an earlier Capitol, but its copper-green hue was unpopular, and the building below showed its age. By 1850, Mr. Gugliotta, a longtime reporter for The Washington Post, writes, “walls were cracking, roofs sagged, timbers rotted. The Senate sweltered in the summer but was so cold in winter that the inhabitants wrapped themselves in quilts and blankets.” The building was also much too small.

In October 1850, the Senate Committee on Public Buildings invited plans and estimates for an extension of the Capitol and the construction of a new dome. Winner of the $500 prize was Thomas U. Walter, a respected Philadelphia architect with more than 300 buildings on his resume. He would be responsible to one of the most influential legislators in Congress, Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis, who would fight the political battles and keep the money flowing.

Walter started by laying foundations for two new wings. On occasion he had as many as 800 men at work, but skilled labor was scarce. “Washington in 1851 was underpopulated, underdeveloped … and could not supply the requisite craftsmen,” the author writes. “Skilled workers were either deliberately imported or simply flowed into the capital when they heard that Walter was hiring.” In the end, the new building would be constructed almost entirely by white labor.

In 1853, the third member of the Capitol triumvirate arrived on the scene. To fill the post of engineer in charge, Davis chose Capt. Montgomery Meigs, a 36-year-old officer whose junior rank belied his ego and his reputation as an engineer. He arrived at the Capitol site filled with ideas. He designed a boom derrick to hoist pieces of cast iron into position in the dome. He proposed skylights for the two chambers to improve lighting. Fans would blow fresh air, heated in wintertime, into the chambers.

Meigs had a number of suggestions about decoration that intruded on Walter’s role as architect. Meigs liked American themes, but he liked them in a classical format. As a result there were complaints about Meigs’ “European” artwork and how it was corrupting “republican” virtue. Although Walter had designed the Capitol project, and Davis had approved it, it was left for Meigs to cajole Congress into voting the necessary funds. For him, Mr. Gugliotta writes, “the Capitol was less a meeting hall than a cathedral - an enduring and unforgettable monument to the greatness, not only of God and the Republic, but also of Montgomery C. Meigs.”

Gradually, the public began taking an interest in the project. Sectionalism and slavery were poisoning political debate, but the Capitol and its dome were seen as an enterprise that unified the country. Nevermind that the new Capitol had abandoned simplicity in favor of a new idea - “that a great nation needed and deserved a seat of government emblematic of its greatness.”

The statue of Freedom, planned as the crown on the dome, posed a problem. The maiden, as designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford, wore a “Liberty cap” emblematic of America’s emergence from slavery, that is, British rule. Davis the slaveholder was unimpressed. He thought the cap inappropriate for “a people who were born free and would not be enslaved.” The cap disappeared, replaced by the eagle that appears from afar to be merely a bundle of feathers.

As the project approached completion, its three “fathers” - Davis, Walter and Meigs - fought over who would receive “credit.” Walter fought with Meigs, and as a result was excluded from most artistic decisions after 1858. But Walter’s attempts to have Meigs removed were fruitless.

On Dec. 2, 1863, a small crowd applauded as the statue of Freedom took its place atop the Capitol. But the country had been at war for nearly three years, and the crowning was eclipsed by news from the Army of the Potomac. Jeff Davis was long gone, along with any unifying effect that the Capitol might have provided.

• Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean

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