Speaking of Statues

Atop the U.S. Capitol Dome stands a 19 ½-foot, 15,000-lb bronze woman in a classical Roman chiton. Workers hoisted her up there in five pieces, completing her installation in December 1863. Not a good year for national unity.

She’s unusual for her era. “Armed Freedom,” as she’s known, bears a sword and wears a helmet at a time when a knit liberty cap would have done.

Why a cap? The ancient Romans handed these out to freed slaves; centuries later our American Revolutionaries, the patriots who threw off tyranny to establish a nation based on principles of personal freedom, regarded the red knit cap as a symbol of liberty. The trend pervades 19th century art.

According to the Architect of the Capitol, part of the dome’s original design included a drawing with 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.”

Commissioned for the project in 1855, artist Thomas Crawford sculpted a few early models, including “A graceful figure in a classical dress wearing a liberty cap encircled with stars, holding a shield, wreath, and sword.” Crawford described his work as a representation of “Armed Liberty.”

But the man in charge of overall construction at the time, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, objected. Including a symbol of freed slaves, Davis said, would be “inappropriate to a people who were born free and should not be enslaved.”

Years later, while Davis was busy leading the Confederacy in war against the United States, an American slave named Philip Reid would help complete work on the statue at a bronze foundry just outside Washington DC.

Watch this space in the coming weeks for more on Armed Freedom — and capitol design.

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