June 26, 2012 8:20:26 AM
According to polls, the American public's opinion of Congress is at an all-time low. The structure that holds the Congress, however, remains high among Americans' favorite buildings. It's not hard to see why; the soaring dome epitomizes hand-over-the-heart patriotism, no matter what sort of foolishness might go on beneath it. The political battles and stresses now within the building are nothing, though, compared to the ones before and during the Civil War, and those were the years in which the dome and the extensions that house the Senate and House of Representatives were planned and built. The enormous construction project is put into historical and political context in Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (Hill and Wang) by Guy Gugliotta. It is a detailed story that includes the engineering and artistic feats which led to the Capitol looking the way it does, inside and out, but is mostly a story of the often bitter feuding over the construction and the surprising overall cooperation that got the job done. Gugliotta, better known as a journalist whose previous book was about world-class cocaine dealers, has done a superb job describing in engaging prose a complicated, angry period in our history by looking at the Capitol as a product of its times.
Although the improvements and enlargements of the Capitol from 1850 - 1863 involved extensions to make bigger the two meeting halls for the officials, the big story here is about the dome. There had been a dome on the Capitol before, but it was low and covered in copper which gave it a green hue that no one liked much. Not only were the meeting halls too small, and also uncomfortable in the cold or the heat, walls were cracked and roof and dome timbers were rotting. In 1850, architects were invited to bring forth plans for improvements and for a new dome. Thomas Walter was a respected architect from Philadelphia and his plans were approved. He won the $500 prize, although there would be many changes in his plans before the improvements were complete. When there was a fire in the library, he would propose rebuilding it using cast iron, a medium he had not previously used, but he was to go on with great success to employ it in the dome.
Walter would report to Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, one of the most powerful legislators in Washington. "From April 1850 until the day he abandoned Washington to become president of the Confederacy eleven years later," writes Gugliotta, "Davis would be the new Capitol's political champion, benefactor, and shepherd. Without him the modern Capitol, recognized throughout the world as an enduring symbol of republican democracy, would never have existed." Of course there is irony that a man who was to fight so hard to destroy the Union should have had such devotion to making the imposing building that would symbolize the federal government, but Gugliotta explains that it is wrong to think of Davis just in terms of his eventual place in history. Davis was a graduate of West Point and he had served the US Army with valor in the Mexican War. He believed in America, and he fervently felt that his nation's increasing importance should be reflected in the building that housed its legislatures. He was, writes Gugliotta, "a loyal ally, but a vicious enemy," and he knew how to navigate the especially treacherous political waters of his time.
There was one point on which Davis's interest in maintaining slavery impinged upon the construction of the Capitol. Atop the dome is a statue of Freedom, a woman bearing various symbols of liberty and of America. The sculptor Thomas Crawford originally placed a "liberty cap" on her head, the sort of narrow soft cap originally worn in classical antiquity by slaves who had been freed. Davis didn't like the implication. Of course, as owner of over a hundred slaves, he was not at all interested in making them free or of topping the Capitol with a symbol of emergence from slavery. Americans, he said, were "a people who were born free and would not be enslaved." The cap was not included on the final design for the statue, replaced by an eagle that looks more like a rooster.
Davis communicated his remarks about the statue, and about much else, to Captain Montgomery Meigs, an officer who at only 36 years old had a fine reputation as an engineer. Davis made him engineer in charge of the changes to the Capitol in 1853. Meigs, according to Gugliotta, seldom saw an innovation he didn't like. He designed the boom derrick rising from the middle of the Capital's rotunda to hoist the huge pieces of cast iron into place for the dome. (The dome was expected to weigh fifteen million pounds, and one of Meigs's jobs was to convince those who would work below it that it would not crush the current Capitol walls. He had the figures to show that the sandstone could bear it by a huge margin, but it still caused worry.) He proposed skylights for the two legislative chambers and he had arranged for fans to bring in fresh air, heated on cold days. Meigs was obsessed with literally leaving his mark on any of his projects, and he stuck copper plates bearing his name into the masonry, as if archeologists would find them when the buildings crumbled centuries hence. Meigs would bear most of the responsibility of getting money for the huge project through the years.
Initially, Meigs and Walter worked fairly well together, but given that both knew how grand this project was and how it would be their great mark in history, there were conflicts that resulted in a bitter split between them. They would argue over things like who should be credited with the design of the extensions, climaxing with Meigs issuing blueprints listing himself as the architect, not Walter. Then, too, the men clashed over interior decoration, and this proved to be a theme that faultfinding congressmen could bite into. Meigs certainly had no objection to American themes, but he liked them based on the classics, like Rome or Pompeii; this sort of artistic corruption of true republican principles was just the sort of thing for overblown oratory. A similar theme was struck by congressmen who hated the prospect that foreign artists might be hired, and they didn't like the prospect of immigrant workers, either. There was huge bitterness over these controversies, and Gugliotta covers them in detail, often quoting from the speeches and diaries of the time.
Walter attempted an overthrow of his enemy Meigs, who eventually left the project to serve in the Union Army and to become a member of Lincoln's inner circle. Jefferson Davis, having been a champion of the new Capitol, was to leave it to become President of the Confederacy, and he was never to return to Washington to see the magnificent building complete. When his wife implored Meigs for news about Davis during his imprisonment after the war, Meigs ignored her. There had been big arguments among the triumvirate which eventually made our Capitol. There were larger conflicts of the nation; Gugliotta tells how, for instance, Bleeding Kansas and the Dred Scott decision affected congressional tempers and why there was cast iron available for the dome when it was going otherwise to cannonballs. There were the petty battles over funding. It is amazing that the building was completed and was such a brilliant success. No matter what your politics, if you have any sense you will fret over how well our nation is handling today's issues, but here is an optimistic story of an admirable outcome during our most divisive years.