Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil Warby Guy Gugliotta
The history of the modern U.S. Capitol, the iconic seat of American government, is also the history of America’s most tumultuous years. As the majestic new building rose above Washington’s skyline, battles over slavery and secession ripped the country apart. Ground was broken just months after Congress adopted the Compromise of 1850. Workers began to
The history of the modern U.S. Capitol, the iconic seat of American government, is also the history of America’s most tumultuous years. As the majestic new building rose above Washington’s skyline, battles over slavery and secession ripped the country apart. Ground was broken just months after Congress adopted the Compromise of 1850. Workers began to bolt the Capitol’s nine-million-pound cast-iron dome into place in 1856. The Statue of Freedom was placed atop it in 1863, five months after the Battle of Gettysburg. Little known is the greater irony: America owes the building’s scale and magnificence to Jefferson Davis, who remained the Capitol’s staunchest advocate up until the week he left Washington to become president of the Confederacy. Davis’s protégé and the engineer in charge was army captain Montgomery Meigs, who as Lincoln’s quartermaster general of the Union Army would never forgive Davis’s betrayal of the nation. The Capitol’s brilliant architect, and Meigs’s longtime rival, was Thomas U. Walter, a Southern sympathizer who would turn fiercely against the South and all who had betrayed the Union.
Guy Gugliotta, an award-winning journalist, science writer, and author, has captured with impeccable historical detail the clash of personalities behind the building of the Capitol and its extraordinary design and engineering.
The Washington Post
“[A] meticulously detailed history . . . Ironies abound.” Abigail Meisel, The New York Times Book Review
“The construction of the [United States] Capitol as the world has known it since ‘Freedom' was put in place in the late autumn of 1863 is a story unto itself . . . and Guy Gugliotta tells it superbly in Freedom's Cap . . . With this book, he joins that estimable group of non-professional historians who have revived the practice of narrative history, one cherished by serious readers . . . Gugliotta writes lucidly and engagingly, he brings to life a huge cast of characters, he captures the physical setting of Washington in the mid-19th century and the mood of a city where ‘every transaction seemed to be poisoned by the issue of slavery,' and he has done a stupendous amount of research . . . Gugliotta has paid the great building, and the people who did so much to bring it into being, handsome tribute indeed.” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Guy Gugliotta, in his splendid new book . . . gives us a fascinating tale of the struggles to design, fund and construct the new Capitol . . . Gugliotta deftly weaves a narrative of the difficult and massive construction project and the politics surrounding it.” Al Kamen, The Washington Post
“[A] painstakingly researched, thoroughly intriguing historical detective story . . . [Gugliotta] adeptly orchestrates the intricate re-creation of a stormy episode in a particularly tempestuous era . . . Freedom's Cap is a classroom model of historical investigation and writing, the narrative colorful and captivating in its minutest detail.” Dale L. Walker, The Dallas Morning News
“[A] fascinating new book . . . A tale of political intrigue, famous personalities, technological innovations and bitter feuds, all under the pervasive shadow of slavery and the threat of secession and Civil War . . . Gugliotta tells the story well.” Steve Raymond, The Seattle Times
“Excellent and exhaustive . . . Mr. Gugliotta deftly demonstrates . . . how everything--everything--was political, from the shape and size of the dome that ultimately capped the building to the statuary, paintings and furnishings inside it.” Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[An] intensely researched historical gem . . . Gugliotta has turned out a superb mixture of mid-19th-century American culture and technology with the turbulent history of the period.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A prodigiously researched, generously illustrated account of the transformation of the U. S. Capitol from a cramped, cold, noisy, inadequate and ugly structure into today's massive marble symbol of democracy . . . There are surprises on virtually every page . . . Impressive research underlies a well-told story.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An engrossing and surprising chronicle that shifts between the rebuilding of the Capitol and the slow disintegration of the Union . . . This is a superbly written account.” Jay Freeman, Booklist
“Wonderfully detailed . . . Gugliotta's research and narrative are outstanding, and one of the best aspects of Freedom's Cap is the side alleys and byways of the story that he uncovers.” William C. Davis, History Book Club
“In this fascinating and well-written narrative, Guy Gugliotta tells the story of the rebuilding of the U.S . Capitol, an enterprise that occupied more than a decade before and during the Civil War. Combining the history of politics, art, and engineering, it shows how the monumental project's party, personal, and sectional rivalries reflected the crisis, and triumph, of a divided nation.” Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
“In this splendidly researched and engagingly written new book, Guy Gugliotta deftly tells the intimately connected stories of the construction of the Capitol and the destruction of the Union. This is an original and compelling tale of how history really happens.” Jon Meacham, former editor of Newsweek and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
“This fascinating narrative ties together America's preeminent architectural symbol and its most wrenching struggle. The building of the Capitol dome, an expression of unity, occurred as the nation was tearing itself apart in the lead-up to the Civil War. Guy Gugliotta's deeply researched tale features Montgomery Meigs and Jefferson Davis, whose partnership and subsequent clash mirrored their turbulent times.” Walter Isaacson, former chairman and CEO of CNN and author of Steve Jobs
In this splendidly researched and engagingly written new book, Guy Gugliotta deftly tells the intimately connected stories of the construction of the Capitol and the destruction of the Union. This is an original and compelling tale of how history really happens.
This fascinating narrative ties together America's preeminent architectural symbol and its most wrenching struggle. The building of the Capitol dome, an expression of unity, occurred as the nation was tearing itself apart in the lead-up to the Civil War. Guy Gugliotta's deeply researched tale features Montgomery Meigs and Jefferson Davis, whose partnership and subsequent clash mirrored their turbulent times.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt
In 1850, the city of Washington was almost sixty years old. It had a population of 40,001, of whom 26 percent were classified as "colored" and 5 percent were slaves.1 Congress had 233 House members and sixty-two senators from thirty-one states. Democrats held a plurality in the House and a solid Senate majority, but the president was a Whig. He was General Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," hero of the Battle of Buena Vista in the recently concluded Mexican War. The most important political question facing Taylor and the Congress was how to divide up the immense piece of territory that the United States had won in this unequal struggle. How many new states would there be? How would their boundaries be drawn? How many of them would be free, and how many slave? None of these questions had easy answers, and slavery was a topic so poisonous that it threatened disunion or even civil war. Stalling, a favorite congressional tactic to avoid unpleasant tasks, would not work. Prospectors had discovered gold in the new territory of California; ninety-five thousand fortune hunters, speculators, settlers, and former Mexican citizens were already there, and more were on the way.2 California needed to become a state, and quickly. The problem of the "Mexican Cession" would not wait.
Debate began as soon as the 31st Congress convened in December 1849, and lawmakers, lobbyists, diplomats, townspeople, tourists, vendors, and vagrants converged every day on the U.S. Capitol, Washington's largest and tallest building. It commanded the city, even definedit, for the luminaries who worked there eclipsed most of the lesser-known transients who held the presidency. Congress was always the best show in town, and visitors to the Capitol could climb the steps of the eastern entrance, walk into the cavernous Rotunda, and choose: the Senate on the right-hand, or northern, side, or the House of Representatives on the south side. On any given day they had a chance to hear, among others, Clay, Webster, and perhaps even the ailing Calhoun.
Or even speak with them. An interesting mix of formality and informality reigned in the Capitol. Lawmakersespecially senatorsdressed elegantly, for the most part, and those visitors who watched the debates from the Senate and House galleries were expected to dress well themselvesand to behave accordingly. Apart from debates, however, the public mingled freely with their elected officials. No senator or House member had an office of his ownthey were all menand all of themconducted the majority of their official and personal business at their chamber desks or out in the hallways, where they chatted with constituents, visitors, lobbyists, news reporters, and whoever else might be in the building.
But by 1850, the Capitol had many defects. Walls were cracking, roofs sagged, timbers rotted. The Senate sweltered in the summer but was so cold in winter that the inhabitants wrapped themselves in quilts or blankets. Sam Houston, wearing a multicolored Indian poncho, a cougar skin vest, and a Mexican sombrero, would whittle wooden hearts during debate, sending pages to deliver them to pretty ladies seated in the gallery. 3 Older senators, in particular, stayed close to the hickory stoves and had to be pried away when debate began.4 In the House, the acoustics were so bad that members could not hear each other unless they stood next to whoever was speaking or found one of the sweet spots that allowed them to eavesdrop on a colleague in conversation halfway across the room. Serious people had suggested more than once that the bedlam imposed on the House by its peculiar physics was a key reason why members always seemed to be at each other's throats.5
Yet the worst flaw was that the Capitol was not big enough. In addition to Congress, it also housed the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the vice president's office, and the office of the commissioner of public buildings. It was crowded and crampedmore so every year. Committees needed more meeting rooms. Maybe the Senate heating and the House acoustics could be fixed, although this was doubtful. But there was no fix for the space problem. The country was only going to get bigger, and the government had to keep pace.
The Capitol began in 1790 as the centerpiece of a plan hatched by President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to transform a ten-mile-square chunk of farmland and bucolic wilderness on the border between Maryland and Virginia into a federal district. With impressive wooded bluffs and flatland thickets, it would straddle a lovely stretch of the Potomac riverfront below Great Falls. In time, it was thought, the new capital would flourish as a commercial metropolis linking North and South to promote national unity and economic prosperity.6
Certainly, the site had drawbacks. The weather in summer was dreadful, and would-be residents risked losing loved ones to dysentery, malaria, yellow fever, smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, and other deadly diseases. And there was nowhere to buy much of anything beyond basic foodstuffs, lumber, hand tools, plug tobacco, whiskey, and tack for the horses.
Yet these shortcomings were no worse on the Potomac than in most places. Disease was ubiquitous, and the District, green and pretty in 1790, probably seemed at the time to be healthier than Philadelphia, the biggest city in the United States and the temporary seat of government. And anyway, Philadelphia was relatively close by for those who needed to send away for a book, a set of wineglasses, or the dress for a daughter's wedding.
Washington and Jefferson must have known that the capital's early development would be attended by political carping, sectional controversy between North and South, and a callous disregard for the city's needs. But they probably would not have predicted that these headaches would persistin one form or another for six decades. Before 1850, the story of the U.S. Capitol and the city it commanded is in many respects one of grand conception, questionable judgment, and spotty execution. Every good idea was matched by a corresponding mistakecaused by indifference, bad taste, or a ruinous compulsion to do it on the cheap. The Capitol should have been a source of pride to the lawmakers who worked there, but just as often it was a source of irritation.
The French-born engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant, hired by Washington to design the city, divided the District into a grid, with public plazas and squares connected by wide diagonal avenues.7 The city's principal building, and the center of the grid, would be called "Congress House" and was to be built at the city's highest point, on "Jenkins Hill," so named by L'Enfant after the farmer who owned it even though no one named Jenkins had ever lived there. And when Jefferson reviewed and edited L'Enfant's plan before publication, he crossed out the words "Congress House" wherever they appeared and instead inserted the word "Capitol," endowing the building with the primacy it would never relinquish.8
From the foot of Jenkins Hill, on the Capitol's West Front, L'Enfant drew the Mall, a large open space intended as a park, stretching more than a mile to the Potomac. The "President's House" would be placed above the Mall's northwest corner, away from the river. Along the northern edge of the Mall, although it was not part of L'Enfant's vision, engineers would eventually dig a canal to facilitate the economic boom that was expected to accompany the city's development. The Capitol and the executive mansion would be connected by a wide boulevard, named Pennsylvania Avenue as a sop to the northerners who had lobbied hard to keep the capital city where it was. These opponents had been worried about locating the country's new center of gravity between two southern slave states, but President Washington, whose family home at Mount Vernon overlooked the Potomac, ultimately prevailed.9
L'Enfant's plan was grandiose, even vainglorious, for a "city" that had 3,210 inhabitants when it became the capital in 1800.10 This was a blessing in that the city's basic design was majestic and arresting and never changed, enabling both the city and the federal government to expand, consolidate, and ultimately dignify the surroundings simply by creatively filling in the blanks. L'Enfant, who was fired in 1792 for being temperamental and dogmatic, would surely have felt vindicated had he returned two centuries later to view his handiwork.
But the plan was also a curse. The city had a difficult youth as it tried to cope with its emptiness, and the pretensions forced upon it by L'Enfant attracted frequent and often derisive attention from visitors. Alexis de Tocqueville decided that the limitless horizons reflected a national nervousness. This feeling of inferiority, he remarked in his 1835 opus Democracy in America, caused "people living cramped lives in tiny houses" to "conceive their public monuments on a gigantic scale." Thus, "they have erected a magnificent palace for Congress" and have "given it the pompous name of the Capitol."11
And it was not just foreigners who regarded "Washington City" with contempt. The capital chronically suffered from inattention and outright neglect. Many lawmakers saw no reason to spend taxpayer money for improvements in a hot, disagreeable town where they bivouacked in boardinghouses during legislative sessions and bolted for the hinterlands as soon as the gavel dropped. Government was generally regarded as a necessary evil, not an investment to be encouraged with displays of decadent European-style architecture.
With L'Enfant gone, President Washington in 1792 was left with a plan for a new city but nothing to put in it. Construction of the Capitol and the President's House were top priorities. Both were big government projects that would dwarf anything else that was going on along the Potomac. The federal government, at the beginning and forever, would be the District's chief source of income.
Late in 1792, Washington sponsored a contest to design the Capitol, but he saw nothing he liked. Early the next year, however, he allowed a late entry by William Thornton, a physician, amateur architect, and part-time resident of the West Indies. Thornton's design captivated both Washington and Jefferson, an architectural savant in his own right. At the center was a massive Corinthian-style eastern portico and a rotunda surmounted by a low dome. Wings on either side offered a more traditional Georgian treatment, but the overall effect was both handsome and imposing. Nothing like it existed in the United States at the time. Thornton won the $500 first prize. The building was to be finished by 1800, when the government would depart Philadelphia for good.12
Bad blood followed immediately. Stephen Hallet, an immigrant from France like L'Enfant and the only trained architect in the 1792 competition, had tried but failed to land the Capitol job. In recognition of his efforts, Hallet was awarded $500 and asked to evaluate Thornton's plan, which he of course contemptuously dismissed as expensive and unbuildable. After more discussions, the president kept Thornton's design for the exterior but adopted Hallet's plan for the interior and put him in charge of construction. This ill-advised arrangement benefited neither man.
And the pattern would repeat. Architects and engineers, anxious to leave their mark on the most important structure in the country, would undercut rivals and routinely overpromise results in order to win the contract. Once hired, they would move forward unimpeded as long as their patrons lingered in office and liked what they saw. But anyone who ran afoul of the boss could expect to be quickly sacked. L'Enfant needed only five months to fall out of favor. Hallet, never Washington's first choice, lasted nine months.
The president's interest in the project, however, never wavered. Washington chose the cream-colored sandstone of Aquia Creek, Virginia, for the exterior, and personally laid the cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony on September 18, 1793.13 And it was Washington who installed a newBoard of Commissioners to oversee the project and who made Thorntonhis mana member.
Construction limped toward the deadline. Washington left office and John Adams succeeded him. Washington died on December 14, 1799. Two more building supervisors came and went. Workmen focused on finishing the Capitol's northern wing, to be used by the Senate, and ended up with a temporary building, which became known as "the Oven," on the south side for the House. The center section was left vacant for the moment, since it served no legislative function. On April 24, 1800, Adams transferred the seat of government, and in November, the Senate met on Capitol Hill for the first time. The House occupied the Oven in 1801.
The original Capitol offered only a hint of what it might in time become. The Senatewhat would be the Senate wing in 1850was built to last. The chamber was on two levels, a semicircle located on the East Front, as it would be in 1850. But the main floor was the first, not the second, while the Library was located on the West Front, but on the second story. The building was finished in sandstone on three sides, but the fourth side was naked brick. It awaited the arrival of the as yet unbuilt central section and the Rotunda.
On the south side of the empty space was the oval House chamber, which looked like a cross between a brick igloo, a beehive, and a Dutch oven. This was one reason it acquired its name. The other was that it was horribly ventilated and had a tendency to bake the members during the hot months. A narrow covered passage connected the House with the Senate across the empty lot.14
It was left to Jefferson, who became president in 1801, to complete the Capitol, or at least to set the process firmly in motion. With Washington, he had overseen the original design, and as vice president under Adams, he had served as presiding officer in the Senate's new home. Nobody had a bigger stake in the success of the new building.
In 1803, Jefferson invited the British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to supervise constructionto transform the Oven into a permanent House of Representatives chamber. Latrobe thus seemed to have everything: he was handpicked by the president, all but guaranteed a permanent position, and apparently impervious to outside attack.15
Congress could not stand him. It criticized him constantly for insubordination and wastefulness. This, too, would become a permanent feature of Capitol construction, enduring long after Latrobe was gone.Congress's homespun populism warred incessantly with its equally ingrained compulsion to always have the "biggest and best." Lawmakers wanted a fabulous building, but they also wanted to look humble to their constituents by refusing to pay for it. This did not work in 1803, and it would never work. Latrobe, in particular, had to spend excessive amounts of money and time fixing shoddy mistakes made by predecessorsleaky roofs, junky masonry, and timbers consumed by dry rot.16
He also feuded publicly and incessantly with Thornton, now a Jefferson-appointed official, over proposed changes to Thornton's original design. Jefferson wanted his two favorites to get along, but they loathed each other.17 To build the U.S. Capitol waspotentiallyto fulfill the dream of a lifetime. No one who controlled the project was interested in sharing the glory or taking someone else's advice.
It took Latrobe four years to build the south wing and the House of Representatives. He put the chamber on the second floor and the gallery on the third. The chamber was racetrack-shaped, with semicircular colonnades on either side of the Speaker's desk. It was, by most accounts, a beautiful room. But by all accounts, the acoustics were terrible. The House appointed a committee to figure out what to do about the din, and it decided to hang draperies to soak up the sound. This did not work.18
Latrobe continued. Ceilings in the Senate wing sagged, pieces of plaster fell off, and timbers and wooden columns were cracked and rotting. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, had no permanent headquarters, and while it kept its records in the Capitol, it heard cases in several nearby locations, including a tavern.19 Latrobe decided to put the Senate on the second floor, and redesign its chamber. The Supreme Court would take over the old first-floor Senate space down below.
Latrobe over the years learned nothing about cultivating Congress. He underestimated expenses and missed deadlines, and by early 1809, when Jefferson departed, his fate appeared to be sealed. His new second-floor Senate chamber opened in early 1810, but funding ran out in 1811. Congress failed to make a new appropriation, and Latrobe was out of a job.
And then came the War of 1812, mooting whatever plans anyone had for Capitol construction. Instead, on the night of August 24, 1814, British troops entered Washington, made their way to Capitol Hill, and set fire to the building, destroying Latrobe's Hall of the House, the new Senate, and most of the Library. The President's House was also torched. Jefferson's successor, President James Madison, escaped to Virginia.
In the aftermath of this debacle, Washington-haters in Congress urged colleagues to move to another city, but the effort failed. In the end, lawmakers authorized borrowing $500,000 to restore the gutted buildings exactly where they had been. The exteriors of both the Capitol and the President's House were in decent shape, and both could be renovated completely for $460,000. Up until the war, Congress had spent $1,215,111 on public buildings in Washington, and they did not want to start again from scratch.20 Here was one instance where the cheap alternative worked in the District's favor.
Latrobe had abandoned Washington during the war, but he petitioned Madison to be reinstated, and against the odds he was invited back. He redesigned the interiors of both the gutted Capitol buildings. The new House Chamber would be a half-domed semicircle with a marble colonnade, an arrangement Latrobe insisted would finally silence the complaints about ventilation, lighting, and acoustics. The Senate would be enlarged, and committee rooms would replace the Library of Congress,which would move into the Capitol's still-to-be-built center section. The plans were all approved, and Latrobe went to work.
He did not last long. He had no friends in Congress, and Madison had always kept him at arm's length. When Madison appointed Samuel Lane, a disabled veteran and crony of Secretary of State James Monroe, to oversee construction, Latrobe's already fading sun began to set. Latrobe and Lane never got along, but Latrobe fought him to a draw until Monroe took office as president the following year. During a meeting with Lane and Monroe at the President's House in late 1817, Latrobe's wife recalled, Latrobe attacked Lane, "seized him by the collar, and exclaimed, 'were you not a cripple I would shake you to atoms, you poor contemptible wretch.'" Monroe, astounded and furious, turned to Latrobe: "'Do you know who I am, sir?'" he asked. Latrobe went home and wrote his resignation.21
Even before Latrobe's departure, Monroe had been angling for a replacement. He had focused on Boston's Charles Bulfinch, a sophisticated Harvard graduate with an upper-class family background and a city full of monuments to his architectural prowess, including the Massachusetts Statehouse and its golden dome. Bulfinch also ran Boston as chair of the Board of Selectmen, a testament to his political savvy and easy confidence in dealings with the rich and powerful. It was an almost perfect résumé, and Bulfinch had enhanced it further as host and chief greeter for Monroe's visit to Boston in the summer of 1817. Monroe hired him at the end of the year, and he arrived in Washington in January 1818.22
Bulfinch's job was to finish off Latrobe's House and Senate chambers and to build the Capitol's center section. The Capitol at that moment consisted of two buildingsstill unfinished, but well alongwith nothing in between. The task in constructing the central section was not only to retain the large ceremonial Rotunda conceived by Thornton, but also to provide Congress with new committee rooms. Accomplishing both goals posed a problem.
The Rotunda was a given. Congress in 1817 had commissioned the artist John Trumbull to provide the Capitol with four large historical paintings of the American Revolution with life-size figures. These gigantic canvasesThe Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of Burgoyne, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and George Washington Resigning His Commissioncould only be displayed in a gigantic settinglike the Rotunda.23 To find new space for committee rooms, Bulfinch decided to use the Capitol's geography. He would put the rooms in a lower fourth story that he would build for the central section on the West Front, where Capitol Hill began to spill downward toward the Mall. The addition would protrude beyond the existing western boundary of the Senate and House.24
Progress came quickly. Bulfinch's Rotunda plan was approved in March 1818, and the next year, the House and Senate moved back into the building they had abandoned for five years after the British invasion. Throughout this part of his tenure, Bulfinch enjoyed a cordial and even warm relationship with Monroe, his cabinet, and Congress. Like Latrobe, he moved more slowly than advertised, and also as with Latrobe, things frequently ended up costing more than Bulfinch had predicted. But appropriations marched out of Congress each year with handsome regularity. Bulfinch's social credentials undoubtedly contributed to his success, as did his political acumen, but his chief advantage, of course, was that he was Monroe's man.
The effectiveness of this rule became apparent once Congress was reinstalled in the Capitol. The new accommodations played to generally favorable notices, but the House quickly ascertained that the acoustics in its new chamber were worse than ever. Everything from historic speeches to procedural announcements bounced off the smooth, arched ceiling to settle all but unheard somewhere in the chamber's nether reaches. Latrobe likely would have been pilloried for this, but Bulfinch simply offered three bad solutions: raise the floor (which would do nothing to compensate for the curved ceiling); close off the chamber with a glass partition (in which case nobody in the gallery would be able to hear); or put in a flat glass ceiling (too unsightly). In the end, the House did nothing, hoping the Chamber would improve with use.25 It did not.
Bulfinch also understood the corollary to the basic rule: to stay in good grace, always do what the boss wants. Charged with building a dome for the Rotunda, Bulfinch made a model of what it might look like and showed it to the president, the cabinet, and Congress. The design was approved, "but there was one universal remark," Bulfinch wrote much later. "The dome is too low." A bit later he prepared drawings of a number of domes, including one that was "of a greater height than the one I should have preferred." This was the United States, so of course that was the one everybody liked, and there was "even a wish expressed that it might beraised higher."26 Bulfinch managed to quash this last extravagance. In the end he built both an inner and an outer dome. The inner dome, of stone, brick, and wood, was well proportioned and thus attractive to anyone who stood in the Rotunda below. The outer dome was made of wood and covered with copper sheathing. It towered above the more elegant inner dome and, at least at first, gave the Capitol the impressive presence that Congress thought it needed. The novelty quickly wore off, however, and by 1850 the dome had long been an object of ridicule. It swelled skyward like a thumb that had been whacked with a hammer, and was so tall that it gave the rest of the Capitol a stubby appearancea tasteless statement of outsized aspirations.
The Rotunda opened in 1824, and the Eastern Porticothe Capitol's central entrancewas completed in 1826. Bulfinch managed to weather the transition to John Quincy Adams in 1824, probably because he had a good relationship with Secretary of State Henry Clay and because Adams was a fellow Bostonian, but Andrew Jackson got rid of him three months after taking office in 1829. There was nothing personal in the decision, Jackson told Bulfinch, but the Capitol was finished, so the job was over.27 Also, Jackson detested Adams and Clay, whom he had accused of forging a "corrupt bargain" to deny Jackson the presidency in 1824. Bulfinch stood no chance.
The Capitol he left behind was the same one that greeted lawmakers in 1850. Considering the number of engineers, architects, builders, politicians, and British soldiers who had laid hands upon it, the building looked surprisingly handsome. It was imposing351 feet 71/2 inches long at its base and 282 feet 101/2 inches wide, with the Senate and House chambers on either side of the East Portico. The elegant Rotunda was the biggest indoor space in the country, at 70,000 square feet.28 The exterior Aquia sandstone was grand and impressive, as long as it was periodically painted to keep it from eroding in the weather. This precaution, unfortunately, would not be faithfully carried out. When Bulfinch left, Congress had 48 senators and 213 House members from twenty-four states. The Capitol had cost $2,432,851.34, but it was a huge building, and on the day Bulfinch left, it was huge enough.29 And at that moment, it was in good repair.
Attitudes toward the District of Columbia began to changenot all at once and not always dramatically, but Congress began to take steps towardtransforming the capital into both a fitting seat of government for a great nation and, perhaps not incidentally, a fitting showcase for the elected officials who worked there.
This effort began inauspiciously in 1832 when Congress appropriated $5,000 for a centennial statue of George Washington and hired sculptor Horatio Greenough to create it. Congress left it up to Greenough to decide on a design for the statue, which in hindsight was probably a bad mistake. Washington arrived nine years later. He weighed 20 tons and was half-dressed, wearing a Roman toga. Congress originally installed him in the Rotunda, but Greenough did not like the lighting and had him moved outdoors to a pedestal in front of the East Portico two years later. Washington's departure from his original spot was later ascribed either to the inability of the Rotunda to support his bulk or to Greenough's phenomenal misjudgment of public taste for an unclothed icon.30 In the first half of the nineteenth century, George Washington was the only unquestioned hero the United States had. Nudity did not become him.
The Washington Monument Society fared better. Formed as a nonprofit fund-raising organization in 1833, the Society limped along for years trying to get enough money to build a monument to the first president, eventually settling on the obelisk that the architect Robert Mills first proposed in 1836. Finally, in 1847, Congress offered to donate any piece of public land the Society chose. A site on the Mall west of the Capitol and south of the President's House was staked out, and the cornerstone was laid with great fanfare in a Masonic ceremony on July 4, 1848.31
The biggest change, however, was in the way Congress began to regard its own place of business. This adjustment, too, began slowly. After Jackson got rid of Bulfinch, the Capitol languished for more than twenty years without a full-time architect, and very little happened to the building except that it got older.
Gas lighting was installed. More history paintings were commissioned and hung in the Rotunda. Mills, the Washington Monument architect, earned $30 for designing the Capitol's mahogany toilet seats.32 In the mid-1830s, Congress bought a fresh spring on a farm three miles north of the Capitol and built a private aqueduct to pipe in drinking and cooking water. This meant that the Capitol could at last have its own restaurants. Up to then the only source of sustenance in the building was the so-called Hole in the Wall, a Senate hideaway tucked in a tiny room behind the PostOffice and close to the Rotunda. Senators coming off the floor could grab a ham sandwich and "other simple eatables," according to the Senate doorkeeper, Isaac Bassett. More important, "the supply of liquor was quite liberal." The Senate, as Bassett had cause to know, paid for the Hole in the Wall out of the Senate contingency fund, listing it under the heading "horse hire."33
A couple of whiskeys probably went down very well on cold winter days. The Senate chamber was served by fire grates in a lobby behind the vice president's desk and by two hickory stoves on either side of the chamber entrance. But the air was dank, cold, and smoky, and "it was a common sight to behold the revered dignity of the Senate wrapped head and all in ... big shawls, and comfortably retaining them in the chamber."34
It was no surprise that little was done about either the Senate's draftiness or the Capitol's other shortcomings. Ever since Washington and Jefferson had huddled with L'Enfant, the executive had been approving the designs and making the rules for Capitol construction. Congress could raise a certain amount of stink if the plans involved something or someone it simply could not stomach, but the political drive had always emanated from the president. Jackson did not particularly care about the Capitol, and neither, apparently, did his successors.
But by the 1840s, Congress was under no illusions about its building. The House commissioned a study by the Army's Bureau of Topographical Engineers on the possibility of building an "Extension" for "the better accommodation of the sittings of the House of Representatives." At that point the nation consisted of twenty-six states, with Florida and Texas looming on the horizon. Fourteen years after Bulfinch's departure, space was at a premium, and Chief Engineer Colonel John James Abert, in his report delivered early in 1844, spoke of the growing need for more committee rooms, rooms for the clerk of the House, and space for public documents.35
Also important, of course, was the House chamber's enduring flaw. Army lieutenant A. A. Humphreys, who did the Engineers' actual survey, summarized the acoustical mysteries of the House chamber in exquisite detail: "A person speaking in this hall, from some positions, even in a low voice, can be heard with perfect distinctness in a few other positions, although distant," Humphreys said. "In other positions in the hall, a speaker will exhaust himself in vain efforts to make himself heard, and his auditorsfind themselves also exhausted in efforts to hear him."36 Despite Bulfinch's optimism, House acoustics had not improved with age.
Humphreys wanted simply to abandon the chamber and build a new square room in the proposed Extension, for a total cost of $296,248.86. Abert seconded the idea, but he recommended not one, but two new extensionsfor symmetry. The House piece would go up first, and the Senate side could be delayed "until increased accommodations for the Senate and the Supreme Court may render it necessary." Abert also raised another unpleasant subject: "Viewing the present Capitol from any point, it evidently wants length, having in its present condition a disproportionate height. To increase its length, would therefore relieve it from this defect, and increase its beauty." Fifteen years had done nothing to make the dome look any better.37
In May 1844, the House Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds offered its conclusions on the Abert report. Here the main purpose of the remodeling was stated baldly: to remedy "the defects of the sound in thisHall."38 The committee said it could do the job for only $55,000 simply by converting the Library into a new House chamber. Abert was uninterested in this plan, worrying that the conversion would not work and would create an unnecessary fire hazard. New construction was needed.39
And there the proposal died. It was an election year, never a good time for new projects. Florida was admitted to the union the day before James K. Polk took office in early 1845, and by the time the new Congress met in December, Texas had also been admitted, infuriating Mexico and making another war all but inevitable. Congress had little time to prepare or pay for a Capitol Extension.
Interest revived immediately almost as soon as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848. There were now twenty-nine states in the union, and Wisconsin was waiting in line. More important, Mexico had ceded 525,000 square miles of land to the United States55 percent of its prewar territoryin exchange for a payment of $13 million. The Mexican Cession included all of what would become California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as most of Arizona, about half of New Mexico, a third of Colorado, and a slice of Wyoming. A flood of new congressmen and senators would soon descend on Washington.
With the end of the war, the House Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds hired the Savannah-based architect Charles B. Cluskey to survey Washington's public buildings and make recommendations. Cluskey had moved north a few years earlier in hopes of getting more commissions in public architecture, so he had an obvious interest in finding fault with the Capitol. The report was predictably devastating.
Cluskey noted that the Capitol "should compare with any other [building] of like character in the world," but it was "in many respects, very defective, and its general condition is very bad." He succinctly condemned the House chamber as "a perfect Babel of sounds," suggested a new glass ceiling to kill the worst of the echoes, and recommended extensions, either on the wings or on the Eastern Front, both to increase the size of the building and to provide a way out of the House's acoustical dilemma.
The Aquia sandstone used on the exterior facing and for some interior surfaces needed to be painted more often. It absorbed four to five pounds of water per cubic foot, depending on the weather, creating "continualdampness" throughout the building as it continued "mouldering away" with the change of seasons.
Plaster walls and ceilings needed patching. The brick floors of hallways between committee rooms of the Senate and House on the Capitol's third floor created "continual dust." Wooden roofing was rotting, the copper sheathing over the dome and the Eastern Portico was a mess, chimneys were broken, mounds of garbage were piled in every nook and cranny. The roof platforms "should be taken up," and the basement was packed with junk.40
Cluskey's report clearly had an effect. In December, Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing said in his annual report that painting and renovation of the Capitol were under study. He was especially worried about the porous sandstone, predicting that if it were not protected from atmospheric moisture, "this noble edifice would become a mound of sand."41 Whether Ewing had made his own assessment or had simply put his department's stamp on Cluskey's work, the two reports marked a sea change in the Capitol's fortunes. The executive was still making the pronouncements and still controlled the building, but Congress for the first time had taken the lead in demanding changes and recommending construction. Congress, apparently, had finally decided that the United States had become too powerful to conduct its business in a tumbledown Capitol.
Washington, D.C., itself was also beginning to feel intolerably behind the times. Charles Dickens, during an 1842 visit, had dismissed the city in his American Notes with a couple of sneering sentences: it is "sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions"; Washington had "spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament."42
By 1850 there were some improvements. The brand-new Smithsonian Institution was on the northern edge of the Mall, and the stub of the rising Washington Monument poked up from the Mall's flatlands directly in front of the Capitol's West Front Portico. Albeit unpaved, Pennsylvania Avenue had several blocks of handsome homes, and all the good hotelsWillard's, Brown's, Kirkwood House, the National, the St. Charles, and the Washingtonstretched along it from the foot of Capitol Hill almost to the President's House, better known by this time as the White House.
Unfortunately, the hoped-for transformation from country village to commercial juggernaut had never materialized, and the symbol of this failureand the defining feature of the midcentury downtownwas the ill-maintained and virtually useless Washington Canal, a fetid ditch dammed up with silt and filled with sewage, garbage, and other unmentionables. 43 Eventually this eyesore would be paved over and renamed Constitution Avenue, but in 1850 the canal effectively cut off a large southwestern chunk of the city to create an urban hellhole known as "the island." 44 The Mall itself was part of the island, noted principally for its mosquito-infested standing water, its feral dogs, and Washington's two slave markets.
And the admirable features of Pennsylvania Avenue, or simply "the Avenue," as it was known, were offset, depending on the season, by choking clouds of dust and knee-deep mud holes. The strip of zoned land between the Avenue and the Washington Canal to the south was known familiarly as "Murder Bay," a maze of alleyways, saloons, clapboard sheds, and shanties. It was peopled by whores and their pimps, delinquent youths, muggers, gunmen, and other marauding lowlifes.45 There were "great gaps" between the houses along the Avenue, noted Virginia Clay-Clopton, the wife of Alabama senator Clement Clay. "The greatest contrasts in architecture existed, hovels often all but touching the mansions of the rich." Across from the fancy hotels, sprawling open-air markets sold foodstuffs and pigs wallowed in the leavings.46 The St. Charles Hotel, at Northwest Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, encouraged guests to keep their slaves "well-cared for" in basement pens outfitted with iron doors, iron wall rings, and chains.47
Vast areas of the city were still unpopulated, but its center was bursting at the seams, and the shortcomings of earlier decades, largely ignored as minor discomforts, had become objects of community disgust. Population during the 1840s grew by 42 percent.48 Crime, in the early years largely confined to petty thievery and the burglary of homes abandoned by lawmakers during the summer, intensified. Armed robbery, stabbings, and shootings could turn nighttime travel into a harrowing and sometimes fatal adventure.49
City services were virtually nonexistent. Houses had no numbers,neighborhoods were connected by rutted tracks. The Avenue had gas lamps, but these were lighted only on moonless nights. There was no sewage system, no garbage collection, and no running water. As the city began to fill up, fires became more common, but the engine companies were staffed by rival gangs of thugs suspected of deliberately lighting the blazes to encourage mayhem and enable their own vandalism and theft. Not infrequently the firefighters set off false alarms on Sunday evenings so they could watch panicked church congregations bolt for the doors.50
And lots of open space offered lots of places to hide things. Many residents emptied their privies in open fields and stagnant ponds. The hotels flushed sewage directly into vacant lots. Sewage from the White House and the cabinet offices spilled into a marsh above the canal. Residents pulled dead animals off the roadside into bramble thickets where they could rot in peace, out of sight but unfortunately not out of mind. Carcasses, garbage, sewage, horse droppings, and slaughterhouse offal combined to create a fearful stench. In dry times, clouds of dust choked unfortunate pedestrians. Wisconsin congressman Charles Billinghurst, confronting this phenomenon for the first time, wrote of winds "lifting the sand and dust of the streets and fouling the whole atmosphere, sometimes for hours." Pedestrians covered their faces with handkerchiefs, but even so, he confessed, he had on occasion been "nearly suffocated and blinded."51
The city had always had what seemed like a disproportionate number of poor people. In an area that began with virtually no local population, the labor force, both skilled and unskilled, had to be imported. By the 1830s, large numbers of immigrant laborers also began to arrive. The only business to speak of in the city was government, and government's most labor-intensive enterprise was construction. The earliest projectsthe Capitol, the President's House, and the principal streetswere built by transient free labor brought mostly from the North, and by contractors who used slaves. When each building "season" ended in late autumn, or when government funding ran out, or when projects were completed, workers were laid off and had to fend for themselves.
So the unemployed idled away the off-season in ramshackle houses on the island, waiting for spring. This confusion was muddled further by the large number of freedmen in town8,158, according to the 1850 census, or more than 20 percent of the total population.52 The free blacks worked as laundresses, handymen, freelance carpenters, draymen, andhack drivers, turning casual labor into a respected profession and crowding out many of the idle whites who needed jobs during downtime. Freedmen and immigrants worked just as well as free whites, and more cheaply, while contractors with slaves worked even more cheaply per capita than that, pulling down the wages for everyone.
Still, the percentage of slaves actually living in the city dwindled steadily, and the decline, coupled with the large number of freedmen, suggested that a free black could make a living in Washington and that slavery, by 1850, was not popular.53 Washingtonians, however, were not audibly involved in the debate over slavery's future. The city was surrounded by slave states and straddled two worlds, and the District's prosperity, perhaps even its continued existence, depended upon the ability of the politicians to resolve their disputes.54 Washington had to end up on the winning side of the slavery debate.
At the dawn of 1850, that outcome was far from clear. Zachary Taylor, like Jackson, was a crusty popular hero, a slave owner and a westerner. He had been born in Virginia but lived in southern Louisiana. He was bowlegged, with a short, thick physique and a leathery complexion from a lifetime outdoors. He neither smoked nor drank, but he chewed tobacco and was reputed to be an expert at hitting a spittoon.55 He rarely wore a uniform, and during battle sat sidesaddle on his horse, "Old Whitey," watching his troops through a spyglass. Taylor was sixty-four when he took office and had the aura of a simple, homespun grandfather. This, too, was part of his attraction.
Taylor had never been involved in politics before he joined the Whig Party to become its candidate. He said virtually nothing regarding his views on slavery, but he owned 118 slaves, making him one of the top two thousand slave-owning planters in the country, according to his biographer Holman Hamilton.56 His background gained him all the southern support he needed, and with erstwhile Democrat and Free-Soil candidate Martin Van Buren stealing northern antislavery votes from Democrat Lewis Cass of Michigan, Taylor won a comfortable victory.
"Old Zack" was a political amateur, scorned as an unlettered, slave-owning hayseed in the antislavery North and regarded by Washington's pundits, at least at first, as little more than chum for the sharks on Capitol Hill.57 Some of this criticism was justified. Taylor was not much of a publicspeaker, and his letters frequently displayed a reluctance to lift pen from paper. This habit, along with an affinity for commas and ampersands and a disdain for full stops, gave his correspondence a disconcerting stream-of-consciousness it did not entirely intend.
But anyone who thought Zachary Taylor was a blank slate made a grave error, for no one could mistake his meaning when he wanted to be understood. "No man of ordinary capacity can believe for a moment that if we annex the whole or any part of Mexico to the U. States that Congress will ever permit a state made from it to enter our union with the features of slavery connected with it," he wrote in a July 27, 1847, letter from Mexico to his confidant and former son-in-law Jefferson Davis. But "we of the South must throw ourselves on the Constitution" and defend slavery there "to the last, and when arguments will no longer suffice, we will appeal to the sword, if necessary to do so, I will be the last to yield one inch."58
Taylor's viewsopposing slavery in new states while upholding it in the South where it already existedwould never change. His position remained largely unknown during the 1848 campaign, but by the beginning of 1850 he had made it crystal clear. Many onetime political allies had already branded him a turncoat, and his refusal to moderate his position was stripping the gray shades from the slavery debate and replacing them with either-or choices that Congress did not want to make. "Northern members were determined not to be driven from their 'free soil' position, while the representatives from the South clamorously insisted upon being allowed the right of carrying their slaves into all the territories of the United States," wrote the journalist Lawrence Gobright. "The issue had been fairly joined; neither side was disposed to yield anything."59
Copyright © 2012 by Guy Gugliotta
Meet the Author
Guy Gugliotta covered Congress for The Washington Post for six years and for the last five years has been a freelance writer. He has writtenfor The New York Times, National Geo- graphic, Wired, Discover, and Smithsonian. He is the coauthor of Kings of Cocaine
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