December 6, 2021

The U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Capitol

In 1791, President George Washington selected land ceded by Maryland and situated along the bank of the Potowmac River (now called the Potomac) to be the new home for the seat of the United States government. At the time the area was largely made up of waterways, forests and farm land. One of the landscape’s prominent waterways was a tributary called Tiber Creek (named after a river in Rome). According to Mallhistory.org “the creek raced through the city from the base of Capitol Hill to the Potomac River. In the early 1800s, it was about 800 feet wide…Swimmers, boaters, and fishermen navigated its waters. Kingfishers, herons, muskrats, and turtles lived on its marshy banks.”

Early drawings by Pierre L’Enfant, the planner for the new “Federal City”, showed Tiber Creek flowing from the St. James Creek, which connected to the eastern branch of the Potowmac River (the Anacostia River), before veering west and running parallel along the planned national Mall. It was at this westerly crux that the planned U.S. Capitol was to be built. In L’Enfants own words, the large grassy hill was “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” President George Washington laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol on September 18, 1793. 

Since its beginning on that fall day, construction of the U.S. Capitol has been an ongoing affair spanning over two centuries. Throughout its existence it’s been devastated by fire, rebuilt, extended, and in some ways re-imagined. Now it’s your turn to explore the evolution of the U.S. Capitol and dive into the beautiful pictures and fascinating stories below. It’s sure to be a curious ride.

U.S. Capitol – Did you know…

Statuary Hall is a large amphitheater style room in the U.S. Capitol that was originally known as the Old Hall of the House. It was the meeting place for the House of Representatives for 50 years. Decorating the chamber are colossal columns with Corinthian capitals and a black and white marble tiled floor. Also, in this chamber Presidents James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Millard Fillmore were inaugurated.

Despite its elegant design there was one significant flaw that rendered the hall ineffective for use. According to the Architect of the Capitol, “the smooth, curved ceiling promoted annoying echoes, making it difficult to conduct business.” Though attempts were made to fix the design flaw, the Hall was vacated in 1857, when the House moved into its new and still present chamber. In 1864, the Old Hall of the House was renamed National Statuary Hall and each state was offered the opportunity to select two individuals to commemorate as statues for permanent display.

The National Statuary Collection is comprised of 100 statues, 35 of which reside in the National Statuary Hall. The statues are of men and women who have played a role in shaping the history of the United States. However, among those commemorated in the collection are eight members of the Confederacy:

Alabama – Confederate cavalry leader Joseph Wheeler

Georgia – Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens

Mississippi – Confederate President Jefferson Davis

Mississippi – Confederate colonel James George

North Carolina – Confederate captain and North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance

Florida – Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith

South Carolina – Confederate brigadier general Wade Hampton

Virginia – Confederate general Robert E. Lee

Virginia’s selection of Robert E. Lee sparked the most outrage and was denounced throughout much of the country. Despite the protest, in 1934, the confederate general was chosen to be commemorated alongside fellow Virginian President George Washington. It should be noted that Lee was chosen over seven other U.S. Presidents from Virginia: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson.

On December 23, 1799 the United States Congress, with the approval of Martha Washington, passed a resolution to place her late husband in a marble monument inside the U.S. Capitol. According to the Architect of the Capitol, “a chamber for the remains of the first president and his wife was added to the plans for the center section of the building and constructed two stories below the Rotunda. Directly above the tomb was to be placed a marble statue of Washington, and overhead a 10-foot circular opening was left in the center of the Rotunda floor so that visitors could view it from above.”

While construction of the new Capitol Building began in September of 1793, the central part that housed the rotunda and the planned tomb wasn’t completed until 1827. The biggest delay in construction occurred during the War of 1812, when the British seized Washington D.C. and burned the partially completed Capitol. This meant the initial focus was rebuilding the Capitol’s two wings before the rotunda and the tomb could be completed.

Despite the resolution twenty-eight years earlier and the construction of the tomb, George Washington’s remains were never placed in the U.S. Capitol. His will directly stipulated that he was to be buried at his home estate Mount Vernon in Virginia and that is where he still rests today. A year after the entire building was completed, the 10-foot circular viewing area was sealed.

The Phrygian cap, also known as a Liberty cap, was a symbol commonly used during the 18th and early 19th centuries to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty. The cap is a soft headdress with its apex curled forward. The cap, similar to the Roman pileus cap worn by emancipated slaves, became an emblem of liberty during the late 1700s and was popular in the American and French Revolutions. Many continental soldiers wore the red iconic Phrygian caps, with the motto "Liberty" or "Liberty or Death" knitted into the band. In fact, throughout the 1800’s U.S. presidential candidates would use the symbol to market themselves as a man of the people.

Today the cap as a symbol is largely forgotten. It’s only true relevance in popular culture is its resemblance to the white and red floppy hats worn in the 1980’s cartoon the Smurfs. Despite its overall disappearance in the modern era the Phrygian Cap can still be seen on the official seals of the United States Army and the U.S. Senate, as well as the state flags of West Virginia and New Jersey.

One place you won’t see it is on the Statue of Freedom standing tall on the dome of the United States Capitol. According to the Architect of the Capitol, “Thomas Crawford, the American sculptor commissioned to create the Dome’s statue, did propose a female figure wearing a liberty cap in his second design, but Captain Montgomery Meigs, who was in charge of the construction of the Capitol extension and the new Dome, rightly feared that his superior, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, would not like it.” The infamous Jefferson Davis would later go on to become the president of the Confederacy.

The final design of The Statue of Freedom has stood atop the dome since 1963. She wears a Roman style helmet with nine stars and a crest of eagle feathers. In her right hand is a sword pointed downward and in her left is a laurel wreath. And on her pedestal are the words E Pluribus Unum, which means “One out of many” in Latin.

Less than two months after Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election South Carolina announced its secession from the United States of America. The contentious issue over slavery had finally reached its boiling point. When Independence was declared back on July 2, 1776, Thomas Jefferson had sought to add a passage admonishing the King of England over his role in the slave trade.

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery… This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.”

Jefferson’s passage was ultimately removed to appease the delegates of South Carolina and Georgia. And now South Carolina had turned its back on the young nation over the same issue. During the first months of 1861, six more states would follow suit, including the state of Georgia. The Confederate States of America was established on February 4, 1861 one month before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president on March 4, 1861.

By April, only a month into Lincoln’s presidency the nation had fallen into a full-fledged Civil War. As hostilities increased throughout the divided country, Abraham Lincoln ordered Union troops to Washington D.C. to protect the nation’s capital and its Federal institutions. According to the Architect of the Capitol, inside the U.S. Capitol “the House and Senate Chambers were used to house troops for a month, the Rotunda became a makeshift hospital and bakeries were created in the basement and terraces in the center of the building.”

A February 15, 1862 issue of Harpers Weekly went into great detail about the large ovens baking nearly a thousand loaves of bread a day for army regiments. It even urged its readers to stop by. “If you should happen to go to Washington during the war do not fail to see the bakery at the capitol. It is by no means the least interesting of the public institutions. It is certainly not the least useful…And the bread, the result of all this labor, is so good and palatable that you can not help but wishing that the work and the results, in every Department of the Government, might be modeled upon those of the Capitol Bakery.” While the bakery was a delight for the hungry regiments, the damage from the smoke to the other areas of the Capitol in time became of serious concern and by October of 1862 the last loaf of bread was baked and the Capitol Bakery was ordered to close its doors.

According to Garnett P. Williams the author of Washington’s Vanishing Springs and Waterways, “Bridges began to be built over the Tiber as early as 1795. Construction of wharves, culverts, and arches gradually increased in the decades of the 1800’s.” And It was between 1809 and 1815, under the authorization of President James Madison, that much of the creek was transformed into a fully functional canal system that served as a mode for transportation for the city’s commerce. It was called the Washington City Canal.

While the ultimate goal was to help make the city become economically self-reliant and to serve as a key gateway for the nation’s capital; the canal system was never truly commercially viable. The primary issue was the sediment caused by the tidal nature of the rivers and creeks - dredging was never able to keep the canal at a depth that attracted the commerce needed to maintain its sustainability. However, this wasn't the only impediment. Garnett Williams wrote that “for years, it received much of the downtown area’s sewage. Fishmongers and other proprietors in the old Centre Market threw the offal and refuse from their stands into the adjacent canal.” In addition, this meant that a cesspool of putrid water flowed just steps away from the U.S. Capitol. By the middle of the 19th century, as the stench from the waterway continued to emanate throughout the city, the nation’s fascination with canals was also beginning to wain due to the advancement of the railroad industry.

By the time of the 1860’s and with the nation enthralled in a Civil War, the canal’s future demise was all but set. According to an 1862 report to congress by Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin B. French:

“The Washington canal, constructed at so great an expense, and which was at the time it was made regarded as one of the greatest possible improvements to the city of Washington, is now nothing more nor less than a public nuisance. It is the grand receptacle of nearly all the filth of this city. The waste from all the public buildings, the hotels, and very many private residences is drained into it … Unless something be done to clear away this immense mass of fetid and corrupt matter, the good citizens of Washington must during some hot seasons, find themselves visited by a pestilence!”

Beginning in 1871, as a part of a larger city-wide improvement project by the Board of Public Works, the Tiber Creek portion of the canal was officially abandoned and converted into an underground sewer system for D.C. residents. The part of the canal that ran along the nation’s Mall was turned into Constitution Avenue and new buildings were constructed atop the former waterway. However, it wasn’t until one hundred years later that the area on the west side of the U.S. Capitol, where the canal once ran, finally received a true make-over. The U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool was completed in 1971.