Monday, February 12, 2024

Statue of Freedom (U.S. Capitol)

“Affixed at the top of the United States Capitol, “Statue of Freedom is a classical female figure with long, flowing hair wearing a helmet with a crest composed of an eagle's head and feathers. She wears a classical dress secured with a brooch inscribed “U.S.” Over it is draped a heavy, flowing, toga-like robe fringed with fur and decorative balls. Her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sheathed sword wrapped in a scarf; in her left hand she holds a laurel wreath of victory and the shield of the United States with 13 stripes. 

The helmet is encircled by nine stars. Ten bronze points tipped with platinum are attached to her headdress, shoulders and shield for protection from lightning. She stands on a cast-iron pedestal topped with a globe encircled with the motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one). The lower part of the pedestal is decorated with fasces (symbols of the authority of government) and wreaths. The pedestal is 18-1/2 feet high and almost doubles the total height. The crest of Freedom’s headdress rises 288 feet above the East Front Plaza. 

Statue of Freedom does not wear or hold a knitted liberty cap, as would have been expected in nineteenth-century art. The knit cap provided to freed slaves in ancient Rome had been adopted as the symbol of liberty or freedom during the American and French Revolutions and was usually shown as red. The Statue of Freedom's crested helmet and sword, suggesting she is prepared to protect the nation, are more commonly associated with Minerva or Bellona, Roman goddesses of war. The history of the statue's design explains why she wears a helmet rather than a liberty cap. The story of her casting reveals that some of the people who worked to create Freedom were not themselves free. 

Background & Design Process 

A monumental statue for the top of the national Capitol was part of Architect Thomas U. Walter's original design for a new cast-iron dome, which was authorized by Congress in 1855. Walter's first drawing showed a 16-foot statue holding a liberty cap on the long rod with which a slave would be symbolically touched during a ceremony bestowing his freedom in ancient Rome. 

Construction Superintendent Captain Montgomery Meigs, who was overseeing the artistic decoration of the Capitol extensions, had already engaged American sculptor Thomas Crawford to create other sculptures for the building, including the Senate pediment. He also had Crawford make models for the two bronze doors and for the figures of Justice and History over the Senate door. Born in New York City, Crawford had established a studio in Rome. His portrait statues and groups of classical and historical figures had earned him a reputation as both talented and prolific. 

On May 11, 1855, Meigs wrote to the artist at his studio to commission the statue for the dome. Regarding its subject, Meigs wrote, "We have too many Washingtons, we have America in the pediment. Victories and Liberties are rather pagan emblems, but a Liberty I fear is the best we can get." 

Crawford ended up creating a series of three maquettes (preliminary small models) several feet high and sending photographs of them to Meigs for approval. He described his first design with a female figure wearing a wreath of wheat and laurel as "Freedom triumphant—in Peace and War." 

However, when Meigs sent him a copy of the drawing for the dome, Crawford realized that his statue needed to be taller and stand upon a more prominent pedestal. He then sculpted a graceful figure in a classical dress wearing a liberty cap encircled with stars, holding a shield, wreath, and sword, which he said represented Armed Liberty. It was sent to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who was in charge of the overall construction at the Capitol. Davis objected to the liberty cap, the symbol of freed slaves, because "its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and should not be enslaved." Davis suggested a helmet with a circle of stars. In response, Crawford designed a crested version of a Roman helmet, "the crest of which is composed of an eagle’s head and a bold arrangement of feathers, suggested by the costume of our Indian tribes." This third design was approved by Jefferson Davis in April 1856. 

Crawford executed the full-size clay model in his studio in Rome. It was then cast in plaster in five major sections. He died suddenly in 1857 before the model left his studio, and his widow shipped the model, packed into six crates, in a small sailing vessel in the spring of 1858. During the voyage the ship began to leak and stopped in Gibraltar for repairs. After leaving Gibraltar, the ship began leaking again to the point that it could go no farther than Bermuda, where the crates were left in storage until other transportation could be arranged. Half of the crates arrived in New York in December, but all sections were not in Washington until late March 1859. 

Beginning in 1860, the statue was cast in five main sections by Clark Mills, whose bronze foundry was located on the outskirts of Washington. Work was halted in 1861 because of the Civil War, but by the end of 1862, with the help of the slave Philip Reid, the statue was finished and temporarily displayed on the Capitol Grounds… Late in 1863, construction of the dome was sufficiently advanced for the installation of the statue, which was hoisted in sections and assembled atop the cast-iron pedestal. The final section, the figure's head and shoulders, was raised on December 2, 1863…”[1] 

The Celebration

“A large crowd stood on the U.S. Capitol’s East Plaza, heads tilted back as they looked skyward, 288 feet above them. Even amid the Civil War and frigid temperatures, hopes ran high as the last piece of a massive new bronze statue, Freedom, was deposited on top of the U.S. Capitol’s dome. As the final piece swung into position, the raising of a Union flag signaled — success! 

The crowds cheered, and [thirty-five] cannons [of the twelve forts positioned] around Washington thundered a deafening salute. “Let us indulge the hope,” wrote the National Intelligencer, “that our posterity to the end of time may look upon it with the same admiration.” 

After eight years of construction during an unprecedented national crisis, the Capitol’s dome, a symbol of Union and republican government, was crowned with a monumental statue personifying freedom. Although President Abraham Lincoln did not attend the ceremony (he had a mild case of smallpox) his symbolic presence at the event was undeniable. 

Just weeks previously, Lincoln spoke about a “new birth of freedom” during his famous Gettysburg Address. The statue carried his imprint; the engineer who installed it stamped “A LINCOLN PRESIDENT” on its feathered headdress, where it remains today.”[2] 
[1] Architect of the Capitol, Statue of Freedom 

[2] Blake Lindsey, A Tale of Two Symbols: Lincoln and the U.S. Capitol Dome, 

First photo: Andreas Praefcke - Self-photographed, CC BY 3.0, 
Second Photo by Architect of the Capitol

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Founders and Slavery

        The New York Times’s 1619 Project was launched in 2019 – the 400th anniversary of the colonization of Jamestown. Their bold claim was that: “the moment [America] began,” was in August 1619 when about twenty enslaved Africans were brought ashore in Virginia and sold as a form of property. “This incident, the Times writers said, ‘is the country’s very origin.’ Although the nation’s ‘official birthdate’ came long after, it is really ‘out of slavery—and the anti‐black racism it required’ that ‘nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional’ grew.”[1] They also assert that “our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” Shortly thereafter, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit (unaffiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes), released lesson plans and reading guides aimed at bringing the 1619 Project into classrooms.[2] Occurring almost in synchronization with this, Critical Race Theory and its progeny have become “hot button” topics in education and politics. As a result, much discussion and debate has occurred about the American founding, the U. S. Constitution, and the Framers’ attitudes towards slavery and the natural rights of all mankind.[3] 

        To ascertain the intentions of the Founders with respect to slavery, we may examine original source documents such as James Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, the correspondence and speeches of the leading Framers of the U. S. Constitution, as well as pamphlets, broadsides, and newspaper editorials of the time. Bernard Bailyn’s book “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”[4] (awarded both the Pulitzer and the Bancroft prizes) synthesized hundreds of pamphlets, letters, newspapers, and sermons from the founding era to ascertain both the historical roots and the primary philosophical ideas of the Founders and their fellow colonists. Somewhat surprisingly, Bailyn observed that as the pending revolution progressed, “[n]ew, and difficult, problems, beyond the range of any yet considered, unexpectedly appeared … No one had set out to question the institution of chattel slavery, but by 1776 it had come under severe attack by writers following out the logic of Revolutionary thought. The connection, for those who chose to see it, was obvious. ‘Slavery’ was a central concept in the eighteenth-century political discourse. As absolute political evil, it appears in every statement of political principle, in every discussion of constitutionalism or legal rights, in every exhortation to resistance.” (emphasis added, p. 232) However, he notes that, “[t]he presence of an enslaved Negro population in America inevitably became a political issue where slavery had this general meaning. The contrast between what political leaders in the colonies sought for themselves and what they imposed on, or at least tolerated in, others became too glaring to be ignored ….” (p. 235) He continues, “[a]s the crisis deepened and Americans elaborated their love of liberty and their hatred of slavery, the problem posed by the bondage tolerated in their midst became more and more difficult to evade.” (p. 241) Possibly then, in one way of looking at their intentions, in the Declaration of Independence the founders declared that “all men are created equal” and that they are each “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” but the natural consequences of these statements were more portentous than what they thought or realized in July of 1776. Human slavery had to be confronted. 

        We may possess an advantage in looking back in time with many such historical records, but such perceived advantage can also serve a stumbling block when we view the past through a modern lens. Current societal attitudes and prejudices may jade and skew both our thinking and judgment concerning the founders and their generation. Another method to evaluate and judge the past is to read and study the thoughts and opinions of others who were well-known and who took significant time to review, ponder, and analyze the writings and actions of the Founders with respect to the treatment of slavery under the U. S. Constitution. Preeminent among these is Abraham Lincoln. 

        From his youth through his adulthood, Abraham Lincoln read about and studied the lives and writings of the Founders, especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.[5] Additionally, when Lincoln served as a U. S. Congressman, he spent significant time in the Library of Congress and archives reading documents and letters of the Founders, including the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution and the seventy-six members of the first U. S. Congress.[6] 

        During the Illinois senate campaign of 1858, Lincoln engaged in a series of formal debates with the incumbent Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, in a contest for one of Illinois' two United States Senate seats. Although Lincoln lost the election, these debates launched him into national prominence which eventually led to his election as President of the United States. The main theme of the Lincoln–Douglas debates was slavery, particularly the issue of slavery's expansion into the territories. Preceding the debates, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Taney, held that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”[7] 

        The question of the equal rights of “all men” was on the mind of almost all citizens. The long-held and simmering disagreements related to this question, and to slavery itself, led not only to great debates, but to great divisions among the American people (as it does today). In these “Great Debates” with Douglas, Lincoln frequently referred to the language in the Declaration that “all men are created equal” and effectively placed those lofty words in historical context: 

I think the authors of that notable instrument [the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”[8] 

Lincoln understood and believed that the Founders meant what they said, but did not have power to miraculously change their society and culture to adopt the divine standard. Achieving such equality would require faith, labor, sacrifice and time. “They [the Founders who issued the Declaration] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all,—constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”[9]  In the candidates’ debate held on October 7, 1858 at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln replied, 

The judge has alluded to the Declaration of Independence, and insisted that negroes are not included in that Declaration; and that it is a slander upon the framers of that instrument to suppose that negroes were meant therein; and he asks you: Is it possible to believe that Mr. Jefferson, who penned the immortal paper, could have supposed himself applying the language of that instrument to the negro race, and yet held a portion of that race in slavery? … I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence; I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any President [including Jefferson] ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party in regard to slavery had to invent that affirmation. 

Lincoln, through his own lengthy research in the records and archives in Washington D.C., could emphatically state that no Founder, no signer of the Declaration, and no member of the first U. S. Congress, ever said or wrote that “all men” did not include negroes or blacks. In this case, what they didn’t say may carry as much weight as what they did say. 

        As President of the ‘United’ States, now divided, Lincoln’s first object in the Civil War was to preserve the Union and the Constitution. But, as he so eloquently stated in his Gettysburg Address, he came to the conviction that the greater cause of the war was human equality: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”[10]  To Lincoln, “all men are created equal” constitutes the main proposition and dedicatory cause of the nation of America, and the antitheses of slavery. Throughout his life and in his speeches, particularly the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln stood for the proposition that the Declaration’s bold affirmation of human equality represents the soul of America. As he said, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”[11] 

        Immediately following Lincoln’s election as President in 1860 the force of events moved very quickly towards secession. South Carolina acted first, calling for a convention to secede from the Union. State by state, conventions were held, and the Southern Confederacy was formed. Within three months of Lincoln's election, seven states had seceded from the Union. On March 12, 1861, few weeks preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, the new Confederate States’ Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, in his “Cornerstone Speech,” in Savannah, Georgia, declared that the Confederacy stood for the proposition that Jefferson and the Founders were fundamentally wrong in declaring that “all men are created equal” and that the white and black races are fundamentally unequal. Remarkably and sadly, Stephens proclaimed: 

The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right... The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition....”[12] 

Thus, in seceding from the Union, the Confederate states actually stood against Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration, basing their constitution on the philosophy of human inequality with a right to sell and enslave men and women as property. Over a period of 80 years, this fundamental difference in philosophy with respect to the natural rights of all men led to the complete division of the country. As Professor Thomas West significantly noted, “Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and Alexander Stephens agreed on one thing: the cause of the civil war was slavery.” [13] 

        While the Founders had their faults and prejudices, in stark contrast to the world at large in the 18th century, they believed in natural law principles and universal human rights. They pledged their lives, fortunes, and scared honor to the truth that “all Men are created equal.” They lived, fought, and labored to form a new nation based on principles of individual liberty and equality. To do so they were compelled to compromise between two, vested coalitions. If they had intended to promote and preserve slavery, they could have done so by enshrining it in an unmistakable manner for their own and future generations. Instead, they wisely and carefully crafted a government of delegated and separated powers designed to limit slavery’s status and restrict its future under the provisions of the Constitution, which they believed one day would eventually bring the abhorrent institution to its deserved end. Of course, the troubling history of slavery and racial prejudice in America should be acknowledged and taught, and we should all work to eliminate injustice, but those who write and teach that the Founders of our republic did not believe what they said in regard to our Creator endowing us with liberty and equal rights do a great disservice to our nation and to our children. 
1. Timothy Sandefur, “The 1619 Project: An Autopsy” (Cato Institute, October 27, 2020),, accessed July 28, 2022. 
2. Naomi Schaefer Riley, “The 1619 Project Enters Classrooms” (Education Next, News Vol. 20, No. 4), accessed July 28, 2022.
3. Alexander Hamilton stated, “Natural Liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator to the whole human race.” Address to the People of Great Britain,” Journals of the Continental Congress, Ford, Worthington C., ed. (Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1904-37) 1:82, 89. 
4. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; Enlarged edition (1992) 
5. Ronald D. Rietveld, “Abraham Lincoln’s Thomas Jefferson” (White House Studies, Nova Science Publishers, 2005). 
6. Address at Cooper Institute, New York, February 27, 1860, Roy P. Blaser, ed., “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings,” (Da Capo Press, Cleveland, 2001), pp. 517-524. 
7. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857). 
8. Debate at Alton, October 15, 1858, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1953), Volume III, p. 283-325. (“CWAL”). 
9. Ibid. 
10. Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, in CWAL, 7:22-23. 
11. Speech at Independence Hall, February 21, 1860, American Patriotism, S. Hobart Peabody, ed. (American Book Exchange, New York, 1880), p. 507. 
12. Alexander H. Stephens (Cornerstone Speech), March 21, 1861, In Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, And Since The War, Cleveland, Henry, ed. (National Publishing Co., Philadelphia, Chicago, 1886), pp. 717-729. 
13. Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), p. 35.