The US Capitol

I’m going to detour again into American history.

The US Capitol is a familiar, iconic part of Washington, DC’s monumental landscape of. It’s dome is featured alongside the obelisk of the Washington Monument and Greek temple of the Lincoln Memorial in brochures and on the sides of buses. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, or London Eye, it’s a symbol of the city and–ultimately–the nation. It wasn’t always quite this way.

The East Front of the Capitol, facing towards Maryland and the sight of presidential inaugurations until Ronald Reagan.

The East Front of the Capitol, facing towards Maryland and the sight of presidential inaugurations until Ronald Reagan.

The West Front of the Capitol, facing towards the National Mall and then Virginia. This has been the sight of Presidential inaugurations since Ronald Reagan.

The West Front of the Capitol, facing towards the National Mall and then Virginia. This has been the sight of Presidential inaugurations since Ronald Reagan.

Keep reading…..When the country declared its independence in 1776, the site of the future city of Washington, DC was privately owned and rural. It was a wet patch of land at the furthest navigable point of the Potomac River. The Capitol still wasn’t there in 1787, when the Constitution was ratified, and it wasn’t there in 1789 when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president. The capital, built on land given by Maryland, was begun that same years (1789).¬† In the meantime, New York and Philadelphia served as temporary capitals. A design competition was undertaken in 1792, and a design by William Thornton was chosen the following year. In September of 1793, George Washington laid the cornerstone.

Congress began moving in in 1800, about the same time the White House–just down Pennsylvania Avenue–was being inhabited for the first time by the Adams family. Neither the White House nor the Capitol were actually quite ready for habitation, but given the generally half-finished state of the new capital, it didn’t seem to matter much. The Adams family lived in a leaky house, and Congress met in a leaky Capitol.

The Capitol, like the White House, was partially burned by the British in 1814, during the War of 1812. The White House was rebuilt, whitewashed, and thereafter known as the White House (previously, it was the Executive Mansion, and it was still called that by many people after the rebuilding). The Capitol was repaired, and a shiny new copper dome added. But this isn’t the dome we see today; it was a smaller, more rounded dome. In fact, it looked just like this:

The Capitol in 1846.

The Capitol in 1846.

Yes, that is the same building as the one above, the Capitol we see today. By the 1850’s, Congress was beginning to outgrow the Capitol building. Picture it: the House of Representative on one side, the Senate on the other, ladies and gentlemen in the visitors galleries, the Supreme Court in the basement, lobbyists in the–uh–lobby . . . . Something had to be done. It was decided that two wings would be added onto the north and south. The new wings, however, wrecked the proportions of the dome, which suddenly seemed woefully small. So, the dome was lofted up to 288 feet. No longer vaguely round, the new dome was designed by Thomas U. Walter to be wedding-cake shaped (or “ellipsoidal”).

But the construction, begun in 1855, was not particularly fast. And that, perhaps for me, is the most interesting part of the Capitol’s story: In 1861, as the nation was beginning to disintegrate in front of President-Elect Abraham Lincoln’s eyes, he stood before a half-finished Capitol dome to give the oath of office. This was a nation still on unsure footing after 85 years. It was a nation still in the process of turning itself from a muddy dream into a stately reality (just like Washington City and the Capitol). The symbolism is almost overpowering, which is why it’s so incredibly moving to me.

The Capitol dome under construction [through Wikimedia Commons, posted on flickr by USCapitol].

The Capitol dome under construction [through Wikimedia Commons, posted on flickr by USCapitol].

Lincoln's first inauguration, on the steps on the East Front. "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." [Photo from Library of Congress.]

Lincoln’s first inauguration, on the steps on the East Front. Notice the scaffolding. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” [Photo from Library of Congress.]

We like to think of the United States as stable, and we are. After 236 years, we’re peaceful and, though not perfect, strive to set a moral example for the world. It’s easy to forget that, 150 years ago, it was much less obvious that these United States would remain united. Indeed, they fractured, and it took 600,000-plus lives to put it back together. As President Lincoln said, America was a proposition, nothing more than an idea.The Capitol, from its early days as one of the few buildings in the boggy, mosquito-riddled new capital city, to its half-finished dome during the great crisis of civil war, to its current image of grandeur and permanence, has been a symbol of America.

It’s easy to forget just how divided this nation really was–easy to forget that slaves helped build that grand dome, that Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to death by proslavery men on the Senate Chamber floor; that a long series of compromises (the 3/5 Compromise, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act) were passed here but failed to avert war; that the failure of compromise led many of the men who served here (such as Jefferson Davis) to renounce the United States and become rebels. But of course, we shouldn’t forget.

Links:

Architect of the Capitol’s “History of the US Capitol Building”

Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

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