By Mark Tooley @markdtooley
Reputedly the British officer set to torch the U.S. Capitol in 1814 rhetorically exclaimed to his troops while bestride the Speaker of the House’s rostrum: “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?”
The Capitol has long been the chief icon of American democracy and its main temple of civil religion. Formerly a much smaller and squat if still stately structure with a wooden dome, the current sprawling marble palace and soaring dome emerged just before and during the Civil War. Ironically, the new majestic Capitol, fit to rule a great nation, arose just as America was shattering over slavery. The story is told in a new book Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War by Guy Gugliotta.
Paradoxically, this new grand edifice was primarily the achievement of future Lincoln confidant and Union Army Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, the engineer who oversaw the Capitol extension, and his patron, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who later was President of the Confederacy. Right up through 1860, Davis, by then a U.S. senator from Mississippi, championed the expansion, no matter the cost. He was supported by future Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, then U.S. senator from Georgia, as well as the abolitionist senator from New York, future Secretary of State and Lincoln advisor William Seward.
They all likely hoped that an enlarged and completed Capitol would symbolize the Union’s endurance despite divisions over slavery. Even after war began, Davis and other southern congressmen having quit the Union, work on the Capitol remarkably persisted after only a brief pause. The grand new dome gradually encased the construction crane, finally crowned with a bronze goddess festooned with eagle feathers called “Freedom.” It was completed in time to serve as a magnificent backdrop for Lincoln’s momentous Second Inaugural, in which he suggested the war as divine judgment upon the nation for the sin of slavery.
The Capitol’s almost religious symbolism surely was not lost on Meigs, a devout Episcopalian who attended St. John’s Church near the White House, nor on Davis, also an Episcopalian who attended Church of the Epiphany a few blocks away. And no less mindful was Capitol Architect Thomas Ustick Walter, a “hardheaded, fire-eating Baptist” who had designed dozens of churches. It was Meigs’ idea that the new Senate and House chambers would have no windows, creating a hushed atmosphere almost similar to worship.
Walter and Meigs collaborated and resented each other, ultimately ending all communication to the exasperation of others, then reconciling as old men decades later. They were more similar to each other than either cared to imagine, both passionately committed to a new colossus befitting an empire and yet still a democratic symbol of popular rule.
Both raged against the secessionists, which included former friends, and became ardent abolitionists, despite previous indifference, Walter having even bought a slave while Capitol architect. Walter, although a Pennsylvanian, had one son who fought for the Confederacy, whom he disavowed. Meigs lost one son to the war. War Secretary Edwin Stanton, usually gruff, touchingly delivered the news in person, asking Meigs to step outside his house, out of earshot of Mrs. Meigs. For his part, Meigs helped to ensure that the estate of Robert E. Lee, his former commander, became Arlington Cemetery, thousands of Union soldier graves forever precluding the owner’s return.
During Davis’s imprisonment after the war, his wife sought help from Meigs, their former friend. Upon Stanton’s counsel, Meigs ignored her. Lincoln’s casket had lain in state under the new Capitol dome not long before, the first to do so, and Meigs was unforgiving. Davis apparently never saw the finished Capitol that was the fruit of his earlier exertions.
The statue atop the dome, “Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace,” had been personally approved by Davis. But he had objected to her wearing a “liberty cap,” worn by freed slaves in antiquity. Instead the goddess wore an eagle’s head topped with feathers, which many thought odd. But the whole Capitol ultimately became a symbol of freedom for all and the main stage upon which the priestcraft of American civil religion is still performed.