Capitol Architect Thomas U. Walter had not slept well in days. The painstaking process required to mount the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol’s unfinished new Dome had kept him awake at night. But on December 2, 1863, clear skies and a gentle breeze greeted Walter as his team of workers adjoined the final piece to the 19-foot, six-inch statue.
Huge crowds had gathered on the Capitol grounds that morning despite Walter’s attempt to understate Freedom’s completion. Earlier he had vetoed plans for a grand celebration with speechmaking, and had instead authorized a sober 35-gun salute, one cannon report for each state including those in rebellion—first from Capitol Hill and then from each of the dozen U.S. Army encampments encircling the capital. A worker draped a flag across Freedom’s shoulders when the work was finished. “Freedom now stands on the Dome of the Capitol of the United States,” wrote Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin B. French, “may she stand there forever not only in form, but in spirit.”
Except for a few months in 1993 when it was removed for restorations, the Statue of Freedom has, as French hoped, stood atop the Dome as both a physical and allegorical reminder of America’s most fundamental principle. It also would have reminded everyone who attended the modest ceremony 150 years ago just why, exactly, they were fighting a Civil War.
Freedom’s story begins in 1855, when Montgomery C. Meigs, the engineer overseeing the massive Capitol expansion, wrote to Thomas Crawford, an American sculptor based in Rome. Meigs requested sketches for a statue at the apex of a new dome, and Crawford replied with “Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace,” a stately woman with an olive branch in her left hand and a sword in her right. As Crawford’s concept evolved, Freedom wore Phrygian headgear—a soft, conical cap given to freed Roman slaves.
Ironically, the man with ultimate authority over the Capitol project was Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War. Davis rejected Crawford’s cap for Freedom as too provocative an allusion to contemporary debates about slavery, calling it “inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved.” Crawford’s subsequent revision replaced the cap with an eagle headdress, feathers pointed along the center, evoking Native American culture. Critics panned the new design, but it satisfied the future Confederate president.
For nearly a year after Crawford executed the final design in plaster, Freedom’s mold, which had been disassembled in five pieces, transited the Atlantic, diverted and delayed because of foul weather and other shipboard mishaps. When it finally arrived in Washington, D.C., in March 1859, Clark Mills’s foundry started casting the statue in bronze. Philip Reid, a slave whose artistic skill had won Mills's lucrative government contracts in the past, devised a delicate method to prepare the statue for casting. Reid replaced an Italian artist, who had refused to work unless he was paid more money.
Reid, who had been freed by the District of Columbia Emancipation Act of April 1862 and was self-employed in Washington, undoubtedly heard the cannon fire that signaled the installation of his greatest professional achievement. “Was there a prophecy in that moment when the slave became the artist, and with rare poetic justice, reconstructed the beautiful symbol of freedom for America?” asked a New York Tribune reporter who, like others, could not escape the incongruence of a slave casting the Statue of Freedom.
The nervous architect Walter, meanwhile, returned to his office as ceremonial cannon fire punctuated his remaining workday. His Capitol expansion plans were still unfinished—like the larger work of the nation struggling to end a fratricidal war and fulfill the promise Freedom’s statue represented.Follow @USHouseHistory