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Gilbert: New US Capitol

With a desperate civil war raging, the major expansion of the US Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was an inspiring symbol of national confidence in the perpetuation of the Union. Ironically in the years before the Civil War, the ambitious plan to expand the Capitol from a modest statehouse-like building into a large, stately seat of government with separate, marble wings for the House and Senate, and a massive new dome was led by none other than Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

Author Guy Gugliotta tells us that the future president of the Confederacy had practical and philosophical reasons for promoting the project. First, the enormous amount of land that the US had acquired in 1848 in the Mexican War meant that more states were sure to join the Union soon. That would mean more Senators and Congressmen. More space would be needed. Moreover, the House and Senate chambers were both woefully inadequate. The acoustics in the House were so poor that members literally had to scream at each other to be heard. The Senate was too cold in winter and too hot in summer, and it lacked sufficient gallery seating for the public to watch the towering, silver-tongued senators of the day debating the issues.

This future Mississippi leader of the Confederacy’s weak central government also argued, ironically, that, as Gugiliotta writes in an article in Humanities magazine, “a great nation needed a great seat of government, not a glorified statehouse.” Surprisingly, in those days, Davis supported a strong nation: a larger army, a Smithsonian Institution that would be a great national center for learning, and greater emphasis on liberal arts education at West Point because, he wrote, “Leadership to maintain the honor of our flag requires a man above sectional prejudices, and intellectually superior to fanaticism.” Davis was, in short, “a national citizen long before he became a Mississippian.”

Only once, Gugliotta asserts, did parochialism affect Davis’s plans for the Capitol building: the initial design for the statue to stand atop the Capitol dome called for a female figure wearing a brimless felt “liberty cap,” which in ancient Greece and Rome signified a freed slave. Davis objected, arguing that “we” (meaning of course white Americans) weren’t slaves who’d been released; we had always been free. The liberty cap on the sculpture was replaced with another kind of headdress. The sculpture is entitled Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace.

On December 2, 1863, nearly three years after Davis resigned his Senate seat and headed south, and a hundred and fifty years ago today, that statue was placed atop the Capitol dome. When the war was over, Davis was jailed in a military prison, indicted for treason, but never tried. He was released after two years. He never returned to Washington and never saw the magnificent building he did so much to build or the seat of government he strived so hard to bring down.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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