By Tom Lamia
On January 6 of this year, during the course of the chaos taking place below, one can only think that the saddest vision that day was in the eyes of the bronze figure atop the Capitol dome. That figure was commissioned by the government of the United States in the early 1850s and was designed by the American sculptor Thomas Crawford in his studio in Rome, Italy. The statue design came under the purview of Jefferson Davis, U.S. Secretary of War who had charge of the construction of the Capitol. This was before the 1861 secession of the southern states that formed the Confederacy, of which Davis became the first and last President. Davis (whose Mississippi plantation was worked by hundreds of slaves) and Crawford had several significant differences over the statue’s design, resulting in changes made to placate Davis.
The statue was to stand on a globe encircled by the nation’s motto: “E pluribus unum.” There are several allegorical features to the statue—sword, shield, military helmet with feathered crest, a “U.S.” inscribed central brooch, a Native American style blanket thrown over the shoulder—all to capture the essential character and history of America. The allegories inherent in a few of such features in Crawford’s design did not pass muster with War Secretary Davis, who required changes. Those changes had an effect on the appearance from ground level of this national symbol when it was hoisted into place on the Capitol dome in 1863. Perhaps because of its magnificent height (19 feet 6 inches) and colossal bulk (15,000 pounds), the specific features at the center of the design controversy went unrecognized when seen from below. The changes made, however, did give the figure the appearance of a well-known figure in American history; one who led forces opposed to the United States of America in its earliest days.
I wonder how many of you, like me, have seen this towering figure, with sword and shield at the ready, chest thrust forward, jaw firm, gaze steady in readiness to defend the nation, and marveled at what a comforting historical symbol it makes? That visage and warlike stance of the figure atop the central building of our government is an appropriate symbol of our strength and readiness to defend our values and traditions. Jefferson Davis had no quarrel with this final, revised appearance. Allegorical features in the original design that linked to who we are as a people: the motto “E pluribus unum” etched around the supporting globe; the Native American blanket draped over a shoulder, were uncontroversial and went unchanged. The changes were to the headdress (eliminating the Phrygian cap—a soft conical cap symbolizing liberty from slavery since Roman times) and to the dark shading on one side of the statue (meant to show the composite makeup of the American people). As a slaveholder, Davis was understandably sensitive to any suggestion that slavery was not part of our national makeup. The perhaps unintended result of these changes was to have the figure appear to be male and Native American.
Thomas Crawford entitled his creation “Freedom” and gave it the female features long identified with the search for individual freedom and liberty. Gender was not the issue for Davis; slavery and race were. Many believe this figure to be Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who united several Native American nations to resist the western expansion of American settlement.
The features that can be seen from below do appear to be those of a warrior Chief: the feathered crest, the flowing robe, and the bared shoulder. Tecumseh would be a fine representative for resistance to American authority (Tecumseh was killed while fighting on the British side in the War of 1812). As a symbol of democracy, however, there is room for criticism.
To mistake Freedom for Tecumseh is, apparently, a common one, brought about by what appears to the viewer far below to be a Native American warrior chief. Of course, it would be fitting if a Native American were to be featured in this honored spot. Also fitting would be the incorporation of some aspect of African American culture atop our Capitol. Therein is where Jefferson Davis and Thomas Crawford had their differences.
A statue of Freedom in the mold of Minerva, Roman Goddess of War, or Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, was a logical artistic image for a mid-19th Century heroic figure. Not long before Crawford’s assignment, Saint-Gaudens created his gold-plated Diana to stand with drawn bow atop Madison Square Garden (only to have her suffer the indignity of being removed to storage by her insurer to avoid destruction in a bankruptcy proceeding). Restored to her original elegance, she now stands in the Great Stair Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, continuing her persistent heroic female presence.
Race and slavery were the pre-eminent issues at the core of our politics in the 1850s. Their resolution, in a way that would allow continuation of Southern slavery, was existential to men like Jefferson Davis, for whom any suggestion of slavery’s moral wrong or political vulnerability could not be accepted in a public construction, especially not of the Capitol. So, Crawford’s design of Freedom wearing a cloth Phrygian cap in the manner of freed Roman slaves and of the “Libertas” symbol of the French Revolution, was massaged to a point that a mythological female figure, a symbol of freedom and liberty, is now often taken to be a Native American warrior who died in the cause of our Colonial master.
Perhaps most telling now, following the January 6 insurrection, is that this figure atop our principal government building stands as a symbol of the nation’s resolve to defend its democracy. The motto inscribed on its base (“from many, one”) was applicable when it was commissioned almost 170 years ago, and remains so today.