Honoring Martin Luther King in Stone: The John Wilson Sculpture in the Capitol Rotunda


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by Ronald M. Johnson

On January 16, 1986, Coretta Scott King unveiled a memorial bust of her husband in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The unveiling, a moving event unto itself, helped inaugurate the larger observance of the first federal holiday honoring his life. Resting on a black marble base, the bronze sculpture reflected the strength that Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied throughout his short life. The day marked a major step forward in advancing the legacy of a man who Congress and President Ronald Reagan had honored just three years earlier with legislation establishing a national holiday in his honor.


Courtesy Architect of the Capitol

The King sculpture immediately became an important part of the large grouping of federal statuary that is on display in the Rotunda, a room with the feel of sacred setting for those who visit. In this space, art and politics merge. There are statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight David Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, among others, as well as the Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. The lives represented by this statuary remind all Americans of the nation’s long and illustrious history.

At the same time, each of these works of art had brought recognition to the artists who created them. The artistry of Antoine Houdon, Vinnie Ream, Jim Brothers, Franklin Simmons, Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, Horatio Stone, and Adelaide Johnson, among many others, reflect a wide and diverse array of sculpture stretching back to the early nineteenth century. In this space, at the very center of the U.S. Capitol, artists sought to portray in stone individuals who had played critical roles in the shaping of American society.

The King memorial bust added a new artist to this group. Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1922, African-American sculptor John Wilson brought a unique perspective to his work. Initially trained at Tufts University and then an art student in both Paris and Mexico City, he had been a professor at Boston University since 1964. His work could be found in major museums and galleries throughout the nation, such as the DeCordova Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. He pursued his art with a strong sense of purpose. “Essentially, he felt that his main objective as an artist was to deliver a message to people about black dignity, about racial justice, about poor people trying to get a better deal in life,” his wife Julie Kowitch noted.

In early 1983, John Wilson joined the competition with other sculptors in response to House Concurrent Resolution 153, which sought to memorialize the famous civil rights activist. In 1985, the selection committee, including Coretta Scott King, chose John Wilson’s submission and awarded him a commission to cast his winning model for the memorial bust in bronze.

Over the next year, Wilson steadily worked on this task. His son Roy remembered that he “moved with tremendous energy. Each stroke seemed decisive.” Finally, by year’s end, the bust was completed. Then in early 1986, before the unveiling, he covered his work with an old sleeping bag, placed it in the back of his car, and headed to the Capitol Rotunda.


This 1997 Boston Globe photo by Barry Chin shows John Wilson with one of his sculptures.

Up to this point, he had never visited the U.S. Capitol. “Somehow it seemed like the epitome of the seat of power, and it alienated me,” he later recalled. “I never felt part of it. But when I delivered the sculpture, that changed. I felt,

‘A piece of me is in that building.'” The King memorial bust continues to both convey the greatness of King and the creative effort of the sculptor, which he hoped would “stimulate people to learn more about King, to perpetuate his struggle.” At the bust’s unveiling, Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias, Jr. noted that the sculpture assured that “Martin Luther King Jr. takes his rightful place among the heroes of this nation.” (New York Times, Jan. 17, 1986)

When John Wilson died in January 2015, almost thirty years had passed since the bust took its place in the Rotunda. In a review of his life, Boston Globe writer Bryan Marquard wrote about Wilson and the King bust. He noted that like “much of his most important work, the bust brings viewers to the intersection of art and politics, of pure creativity and the desire to examine social injustice.” These words help us understand that in creating the memorial bust, John Wilson invites the viewer to see Martin Luther King as both a man of protest and a great American patriot.

Note on Sources: The Architect of the Capitol website provides ample information on the Martin Luther King Memorial Bust. Regarding John Wilson’s remarkable life, see Bryan Marquard’s summary of his life and work in the Boston Globe (January 26, 2015). All unattributed quotations used in this blog can be found in the Marquard obituary. Robin Toner authored the New York Times article, “Best of Dr. King Joins Others of Nation’s Heroes” for the Jan. 17, 1986 edition.



Montgomery Meigs’ Vision of Arlington Cemetery


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–by  Ronald M. Johnson

Among the individuals who played prominent roles in the building of the United States Capitol was Montgomery Meigs (1816-1889) who, as a Captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, served as the financial and engineering supervisor of the Capitol extension between 1853 and 1859. That effort, and others on his part before the Civil War, would lead President Lincoln to appoint him as the Quartermaster-General of the Army after hostilities broke out. He served long and honorably in that critically important assignment. One of his lasting accomplishments was the founding, in 1864, of the Arlington National Cemetery. During the last year of the conflict, and in the initial years after it ended, Arlington became a major burial site for thousands of the fallen dead, many of them unidentified remains.

As the numbers increased, and as the years passed, Meigs sought to elevate the site to a special status. Essentially, he proposed to broaden Arlington National Cemetery into a “national public burial ground.” In his 1879 Annual Report to the Secretary of War, he urged that “the attention of Congress be invited to the propriety of making this [site] the National Public Cemetery, and authorizing the interment therein of any public officer, Senator or Member of Congress dying in office in the vicinity or elsewhere . . .” Over the next two years, he more forcefully declared that Arlington should “be declared by law a national public cemetery” and that it “be used for the burial of officers of the United States, legislative, judicial, civil, and military . . .” He envisioned that Arlington become a national shrine for all who had served in the national government.

Gen. Montgomery Meigs during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Gen. Montgomery Meigs during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Where did this idea of a national “public” cemetery originate? The story is complex and fascinating, and very much involves Congress and the federal government. The origins can be traced, in part, to the emergence of Congressional Cemetery after 1812, when the Congress sought to create an antebellum version of a national memorial site at a privately-owned burial ground near the Capitol. Beginning that year and continuing into the 1850s, Members of Congress, all branches of the military, Vice Presidents, and even three United States Presidents received either permanent or temporary burial at the cemetery, which became known as Congressional. Impressive private and public monuments were placed over these graves, including the congressional cenotaphs designed by Benjamin Latrobe that marked members of the House and Senate who died while serving in office.

With regard to military burials, Congressional served as the first national military burial ground, including two Generals of the Army, and officers and enlisted from all American conflicts, particularly the War of 1812 and the Mexican War in 1846-48. In the latter, three officers—Colonel Truman Cross, Colonel William Montrose Graham, and Captain Charles Hanson—were honored with full military funerals and public processions to Congressional Cemetery accompanied by President James Polk, members of his cabinet, and Members of Congress. Indeed, the military processions to Congressional established its status as being in part the nation’s first national military cemetery.

Montgomery Meigs was intimately familiar with Congressional Cemetery. Many members of his family rested there, including his prominent father-in-law, Commodore John Rodgers; his mother-in-law, Minerva Rodgers; his brother-in-law Frederick Rodgers; and his uncle John Forsyth, who served as Secretary of State during 1834-41. In addition, numerous professional associates and friends had been interred at Congressional. Standing at the graves of John and Minerva Rodgers, he was just a short distance from the other major military burials there as well as the graves of Vice Presidents George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry. In Congressional Cemetery, Meigs found a compelling model for his later vision of a national public cemetery.

Thus, as he reached the end of his term of Quartermaster-General, Meigs sought a course for Arlington that would transform it into a national memorial site, one that would be inclusive of both military and civil leaders who had served the nation. And in so doing, he turned to what Congress had attempted in the development of Congressional Cemetery during the antebellum period. He was aware, of course, that Congressional was, in fact, a privately-owned cemetery. Thus, he sought to utilize a government-owned site to establish a national public cemetery, and Arlington’s location and role as a national military cemetery served that purpose very well.

In the end, however, Montgomery Meigs’ vision for Arlington did not materialize. The cemetery would remain a site under control of the U.S. Army, and limited to those who had served in the military. Popular sentiment dictated that “national” meant “military,” largely as a result of the Civil War. Any return to the antebellum attempt at creating a “national public cemetery” no longer had support in either Congress or the military ranks, particularly within the Army. Today, Congressional—located only a mile and half from Congress and maintained by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery—still contains the antebellum monuments from its period as America’s first national cemetery. Meanwhile, Arlington serves as the nation’s memorial and emotional center as those who die on the battlefield are laid to rest by their fallen comrades. Few today know of the historic connection between the two sites or that Meigs once sought to shape Arlington into a “public” national cemetery based on the Congressional Cemetery model.

Note on Sources:  The documentation for this blog can be accessed in Abby and Ronald Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol:  Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2012), see chapters 3 and 4, pp.  96-104 and 144-49.

The Temporary Insanity of Rep. Daniel Sickles


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–by Clare Whitton, USCHS intern

Philip Barton Key (Harper's Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

Philip Barton Key (Harper’s Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

On a chilly winter evening, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Philip Barton Key II was taking his usual evening walk around Lafayette Park, just behind the White House. Apparently, this was Key’s custom for most evenings, most likely because of the signal he was trying to send to the upper window of the apartment building across the way. Specifically, it was the residence of the young and beautiful Teresa Sickles and her husband Senator Daniel Sickles. Sickles and Key ran in the same social circle, thanks to their jobs and families’ social prominence. At the time, Philip was a well known lawyer and a widower, with four fairly young children under his care. More importantly, he had a prominent family legacy starting with his father, Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the nation’s national anthem. He was the nephew of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who in 1857 defended the decision of the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, which asserted that slaves, even if freed, could never be made citizens. On top of all this, Key was known to be one of the best-looking men in town, and Key never denied the attention. Unfortunately for Key, his good looks and important position in society could not save him from falling in love with a married woman. The Sickles couple and Key were both invited to James Buchanan’s 1857 Inaugural Ball, presumably where the pair met. Recognizing the danger they were putting themselves in, Philip would signal Teresa by waving his handkerchief in the park; she would in turn place her handkerchief in the window; and the two would meet in their secret spot.

Teresa Sickles (Harper's Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

Teresa Sickles (Harper’s Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

However, on February 27, 1859, something was off. That night, Daniel Sickles had received a “poisoned pen”, or a letter detailing Philip and Teresa’s affair. Senator Sickles was enraged to hear about his wife’s affair. In fact, he was so angry that he forced Teresa to give a written confession to the affair which he would use to get a divorce. Now, his anger would have been completely warranted, if he was not notorious for being unfaithful. For example, he once brought a prostitute with him on his visit to London to meet the Queen of England. To make it worse, Teresa was pregnant with their daughter at the time. Nonetheless, Sickles was still fuming at the “embarrassment” and sent his wife packing to her father’s home in New York.

Two nights later, Philip Key took his walk, gazing up at the windows of his lover’s apartment. Teresa’s handkerchief was there, in its usual place. Key made his way back towards the Gentleman’s Club, on the other side of the park. Little did he know, Sickles himself had placed the handkerchief in the window, catching Philip at his own game. (It seems Sickles had a flare for the dramatic, since he could have simply confronted Philip at the Capitol or the Gentlemen’s Club). Sickles followed Key towards the Gentleman’s Club, pulled a revolver from his pocket and shouted: “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!” He fired three shots, one of which scuffed Key’s hand; the second hit his inner thigh, sending him to the ground. After an attempt to stop Sickles by throwing his opera glasses at him, Key tried to drag himself behind some bushes. Sickles followed him and fired his third bullet, straight into Philip’s chest. A crowd quickly formed, since a famous senator was shooting a famous attorney right behind the White House. In the chaos, Sickles slipped the gun back into his pocket and simply walked away. Philip was brought into the clubhouse he had just left. His death followed soon after.

Sen. Daniel Sickles in prison (Harper's Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

Sen. Daniel Sickles in prison (Harper’s Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

This was no fairy tale romance, although it sounds like something straight out of Hollywood. Teresa would die of tuberculosis eight years later, at her father’s home. Daniel Sickles, ironically, lived a long and somewhat happy life. Edward Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s future Secretary of War, defended the murderer and had him acquitted, even though he was found guilty for murder. How? Temporary insanity. Stanton would become the very first lawyer to use temporary insanity as a real defense, and, it worked.

The Civil War was only a few years away, and Sickles rose to the position of Union Commander. He was not particularly good at this either, however. He was sent to Gettysburg in July of 1863, where he not only sent hundreds of his own troops to die when he gave up the high ground but also had his leg blown off by a canon. Being as dramatic as he was, Sickles graciously sent his amputated leg and the cannon ball to the Army Medical Museum, where it remains to this day. Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor for his “bravery,” served as a diplomat in Mexico and Spain, and was reelected to Congress for one term in 1893. On the bright side, he passed a bill through the legislature that provided for the preservation and commemoration of Gettysburg, allowing thousands of people to visit the battlegrounds today. He died in 1914, at the age of 94.

Works Consulted
“The Actors in the Homicide” The Chicago Tribune. March 5, 1859. Accessed June 20, 2016.

Daniel Sickles’s Temporary Insanity.” Murder by Gaslight. Last Modified November 10, 2009. Accessed June 20, 2016.

Representative Daniel Sickles of New York.” House Office of the Historian. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Sickles, Daniel. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Tragedy at Washington.” Farmer’s Cabinet. March 2, 1859: 2. Accessed June 20, 2016.

George Washington’s First Principles of Executive Leadership


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Editor’s note:
On Wednesday, August 3, our summer lecture series continues with Dr. Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon’s book talk about her recent publication
For Fear of An Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789. Here, she offers a preview of her work. A limited number of books will be available for purchase at the talk. Pre-registration is requested.

–by Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon

I should like to be informed … of the public opinion of … myself—not so much of what may be thought the commendable parts, if any, of my conduct, as of those which are conceived to blemishes. … If they are really such, the knowledge of them … will go more than half way towards effecting a reform.

So wrote George Washington to his son-in-law and confidant David Stuart in July of 1789, in the early months of his presidency. He asked Stuart to be his confidential informant about his conduct as president and to write to him “without any reserve.” Washington realized the difficult and controversial position he had inherited with the office of the presidency. His continued popularity derived from more than his war hero status—it also stemmed from his ability to apprehend and reflect the pulse of popular opinion. Importantly, Washington comprehended the importance of the will of the people under the Constitution. He told Stuart that he wanted to know about local attitudes toward his leadership and correct any misunderstandings since “at a distance from the theatre of action, truth is not always related without embellishments.” He understood that calming public fears about the presidency—by mirroring public opinion when he agreed with it or considering a modification of his positions if the people demanded it—was an integral part of his leadership and even pledged to Stuart that he would reevaluate his stances and “effect a reform” if the public deemed his actions misguided. Washington recognized that “the eyes of America—perhaps of the world—are turned to this Government.” Perhaps no one was watched more closely than Washington.

George Washington, Arriving in New York City, April 30, 1789 by Arsene Hippolyte Rivey

Detail of George Washington, Arriving in New York City, April 30, 1789 (sic) by Arsene Hippolyte Rivey (New-York Historical Society)

Yet, in the spring of 1789, within weeks of the beginning of the first Congress under the new Constitution and even before Washington had been inaugurated, the House and the Senate became embroiled in their first dispute—how to address the president. The Senate majority favored a lofty title, while the House stood unanimously and adamantly opposed to anything more than the simple and unadorned “President.” The debate spilled far beyond the chamber doors and raged all summer long—Congress, the press, and individuals throughout the country debated more than thirty titles, most with royal overtones. Indeed, the eventual resolution in favor of the modest title of “President,” without an exalted introduction like some form of “Highness” or “Majesty,” was far from certain in a world that remained full of monarchs.

In 1789, much of America recognized the need for presidential authority and energetic leadership despite the ever-present alarm over the potentially abusive power or weak corruptibility of the office. Nothing signaled these apprehensions over the presidency more than the unanimous election of universally trusted George Washington as the new nation’s first president. To his credit, Washington understood this. Although his celebrity encouraged an elite court-like atmosphere wherever he went, Washington counteracted these tendencies early on with his opposition to a regal title. During the title controversy, he brought to his leadership both a widely admired perspective of republican reserve and a willingness to take cues from the people. By consciously mirroring the views of the majority of his countrymen and women, who disdained regal titles as he did, he encouraged public acceptance of the presidency, which added political legitimacy to the office and the new national government. During the unsettled early days of the Constitutional era, Washington imagined a course for the emerging nation’s executive that calmed public fears about the office by embracing the principles of modesty and a nod to the people. The republican resolution of the title controversy, a simple civic title of “President,” which both Washington and the people supported, established an approach to leadership and authority that fledged the presidency’s power by not flaunting it.


[1] George Washington to David Stuart, July 26, 1789, William Wright Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, David R. Hoth, Christine Sternberg Patrick, and Theodore J. Crackel, eds. The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series (PGW; Presidential). 14 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987—), 3:321–27.

Constantino Brumidi: Immigrant or Refugee Pt. 2


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We’re marking the anniversary of Brumidi’s birth by revisiting remarks from a 2015 celebration. See here for Part 1.

–by William C. diGiacomantonio

So, what role did his experiences have in Constantino Brumidi’s removal to America? Did it really make him a “refugee” rather than just an “immigrant”? In other words, did he feel that he had a choice in whether to stay or go, after his release?

Instead of hearing Brumidi invoke human and civil rights like freedom of expression, we find him bargaining with the Vatican for his release—within months of his arrest, and well before his conviction—so that he can go to America to broaden his commercial opportunities as an artist. It is not a promise to remove a political thorn from the backside of Pius’ restored and increasingly reactionary regime.

Maybe Brumidi just expressed his bargaining position this way because it sounded more noble than groveling for forgiveness for the consequences of supposed political crimes. But there is no evidence that Brumidi remained under any police surveillance, much less sanctions, following his pardon. It certainly can’t be said that his flight to America constituted an indictment of the corruption of Church governance. And in fact, from almost the moment he arrived in the New World, his steady flower of art commissions for religious institutions comprise a kind of “seal of approval” by high churchmen who could not have been ignorant of Brumidi’s prior run-ins with the Church.

Here’s what I think: there is no reason to believe that Brumidi resented the Papacy—much less the Pope himself—as much as the administration of justice wielded in its name. Note that he was not prosecuted for treason, but for a criminal charge of larceny. (The pardon resulted from affidavits that Brumidi was simply removing the art work to more secure locations, away from rioters.)

Another way to think about the question of “refugee” versus “immigrant” is to consider what America was offering as an alternative to the world Brumidi was leaving behind.

Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs in the 1860s (Library of Congress)

Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs in the 1860s (Library of Congress)

Brumidi disembarked in New York City in September 1852—one of the 45,000 Italians who would arrive in America by 1870, during the first wave of Italian Immigration. (A second “great wave” of Italian immigration, the one we associate with old family photos from Ellis Island, lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s—when a young Italian farmboy named Carmen diGiacomantonio landed there, whose grandson is speaking to you now. There are others here today with similar stories, I know.) Brumidi’s work in the U.S. Capitol followed his personal introduction to Montgomery Meigs two years later, in December 1854. We all know that Brumidi would become a favorite among the many foreign artists whom Meigs employed and his preferment must seem to us, from this vantage point, as one of those inevitabilities of history. But of course nothing in history is inevitable. And in fact, Brumidi’s employment on the Capitol faced a serious backlash against what was seen as an over-reliance on foreign-born artists, to the exclusion of native born artists.

Recall that Brumidi’s first years in America coincided with the high-water mark of the Know-Nothing movement. In 1854—the very year Brumidi was first introduced to Meigs—the Know-Nothings reached the height of their political influence as a nativist, “America first,” anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movement—owing in no small part to the notoriety of Pio Nono’s “un-American” form of political repression.

The 1850s was not the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last time, that native-born American workers would resent foreign hires. (Peter L’Enfant had been pilloried in the press for hiring too many fellow Frenchmen when he converted New York’s old city hall into the nation’s first Capitol—Federal Hall—in 1788.) But to an artist seeking freedom of expression, it must come as rude awakening, whenever it happens.

We have Brumidi’s own word for it, that he eventually came to regard America as a land of unequaled political freedom and economic opportunity. The commemorative plaque we passed coming into the cemetery today is testimony that as early as 1855 Brumidi considered his new mission in life “to make beautiful the capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty.” I would only suggest that perhaps that sense of mission was forged less out of fear of the past that optimism for the future. It does no disservice to Brumidi’s unquestioned sense of patriotism to say that his immigrating had less to do with being driven into a forced exile from a land of despotism, than freely seeking and embracing new, liberal traditions of political freedom and economic opportunity.

Constantino Brumidi: Refugee or Immigrant?

–by William C. diGiacomantonio

To mark the 211th birthday of the Capitol’s premier artist, Constantino Brumidi, we are posting the remarks presented at last year’s 210th birthday observance in a ceremony at Brumidi’s gravesite in DC’s Glenwood Cemetery (2219 Lincoln Rd., NE). There, a small but devoted and enthusiastic fellowship gathered to hear the USCHS’s chief historian, Chuck diGiacomantonio, talk about Brumidi’s coming to America. The group then laid flowers at Brumidi’s grave, shared thoughts about the artist, and afterwards re-convened at a local pizza joint for celebratory food and drink. The Constantino Brumidi Alliance and the USCHS hope to make the observance an annual event. Stay posted for announcements on the USCHS website as next July rolls around….

Part 2 will be published on Wednesday.

The title’s word choice is more than just boilerplate. It is meant to focus some perspective not on what Brumidi was coming to, but what he was leaving behind. As Brumidi’s “Apotheosis of Washington” goes into exile behind sheets and scaffolding, we might ask whether Brumidi’s removal to America was also a form of exile, as it is usually described. Then we might each play amateur art critic and better speculate how Brumidi’s Old World experience influenced his artistic themes and motives once he was here.

Brumidi, late in life (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, Brady-Handy Collection)

Brumidi, late in life (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, Brady-Handy Collection)

The image that often comes to mind of Brumidi the man is that of a short (5’5”), stocky, dark-complexioned, vaguely foreign looking middle-aged man, sporting a hefty Karl-Marx-like beard. But picture, if you can, Brumidi a few decades younger than that. The probably much more dashing artist, half-Greek and half-Italian, was barely thirty when he executed his first major art commissions at the Palazzo Torlonia in his native Rome. The Torlonia family was so impressed that they retained him to work on the Villa Torlonia as well. In 1840 he attracted the attention of connoisseurs in the Curia, who hired him to rework some of the High-Renaissance era Loggias in the Vatican. He was already being regarded as one of Rome’s greatest artists by the time he painted Pius IX in 1847.

Pius IX became a major character in the story of Brumidi’s relocation to America, so he deserves more than just passing reference. His election in 1846 was regarded, justifiably, as a liberal turning point for the Church both spiritual and temporal. Peter’s successor, we’ll recall, was the ruling autocrat of a large swath of central Italy. And although the Papal States had already come to be seen as a plaything in European geopolitics, the Pope’s powers at home were more than just those of a figurehead. In time, Pius IX would become known as “Pio Nono”—which by a slight twist of pronunciation, can be made to mean not only “Pius the Ninth” but “Grandfather Pius”—which was an especially apt description of the man who would become the longest-reigning Pope in history. At his election, he was also one of the youngest popes—a quality that Brumidi captures in his portrait of the energetic, debonair looking Pius in 1847, one year in his papacy.

Pio Nono became the first Pope actually to step on U.S. sovereign territory when he alighted on the deck of the USS Constitution off the coast of Gaeta, Italy, in August 1850. History found Pio Nono in Gaeta as an exile from his experiment in liberalization gone awry. Infected by the so-called “Revolutions of 1848” against the post-Napoleonic reactionary settlement of Europe, Rome rose up against the Pope and established a Republic in 1849.

Brumidi, who had been serving as captain in the city’s militia under the old regime, naturally transferred his allegiance to the new regime. The Republic was suppressed after just a year (thanks, in part, to the pious intervention of Napoleon’s own nephew, Napoleon III), and Brumidi continued his painting uninterrupted—even completing one of his masterpieces, Rome’s Church of the Madonna dell’Archetto, within months of the Republic’s downfall. But by the time critics were praising his latest masterpiece, declaring Brumidi second only to the great painters of the High renaissance, he was already in jail on accusations of stealing art work from convents and monasteries during the short-lived revolt. He was found guilty in January 1852 and sentenced to 18 years—which was quickly reduced. He was pardoned altogether just two months later. And five months after that, he embarked for America.

So, what role did this experience have in Brumidi’s removal to America? Did it really make him a “refugee” rather than just an “immigrant”? In other words, did he feel that he had a choice in whether to stay or go, after his release?

Come back for Part 2 on Wednesday! In the comments, let us know if what you think about Brumidi’s status as an immigrant or refugee.

Rep. Emanuel Celler


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On May 5 and 6, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society will host its annual symposium on congressional history. After a dozen years on a chronological journey through the sectional conflicts that dominated much of the nineteenth century, this year we shift gears to trace one topic that appears repeatedly in American history. Discussions about immigration, related legislation, and consequences of reforms or changes to current laws are sprinkled across the pages of current events news and campaign coverage; these topics pepper conversations around the country. Congress and a Nation of Immigrants, 1790-1990: From the First Naturalization Act to the Simpson-Mazzoli Act will examine the historical underpinnings of these current debates through various lenses, including race, quotas, politics, and popular culture. As speakers consider immigration law and related issues, they will detail and challenge popular perceptions of racial, ethnic, and political differences in American society.

Speaker Lance Sussman (Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel; Gratz College) is focusing his talk on Rep. Emanuel Celler, one of the namesakes of the landmark 1965 immigration legislation that shifted U.S. immigration policy away from primary reliance on quotas based on national origins and toward skill- and family-based preferences. The title of the talk, “Reopening the Golden Door:  Congressman Emanuel Celler’s 40 Year Struggle for Immigration Reform, 1924-1965”, initially suggested to me that Celler retired, covered in glory, shortly after winning an extended battle over immigration policy, but Celler had a fifty-year career that spanned the mid-twentieth century and its dominant issues, including the New Deal, WWII, the Red Scare, the civil rights movement, and feminism.

Rep. Emanuel Celler in 1951.

Rep. Emanuel Celler in 1951. Courtesy New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Celler entered the House just in time to (unsuccessfully) fight against the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which barred Asian immigration and limited immigration from many countries in an attempt to maintain the racial and national origin status quo in the United States. Celler, representing a Brooklyn district full of immigrants of varied backgrounds (including many from eastern or southern Europe) and their descendants, objected to legislation that would limit future immigration from many of their homelands. The 1965 Hart-Celler Act was certainly a centerpiece in Celler’s work on immigration reform, but when looking at his career as a whole, writers tend to classify it as an example of his ongoing work on civil rights legislation. Celler chaired the House Committee on the Judiciary almost continuously throughout the 1950s and 60s and authored, co-authored, or otherwise championed the groundbreaking civil rights acts of the period. Celler supported New Deal programs, urged FDR to accept more Jewish refugees during WWII, and opposed the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

Elizabeth Holtzman

Elizabeth Holtzman (Library of Congress)

Ironically, another facet of the civil rights era shaped the end of his congressional career. Celler lost the 1972 Democratic primary to Elizabeth Holtzman, who highlighted his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and his support for the Vietnam War while running the same kind of underdog, grass-roots, on-the-street campaign that Cellar had run when he first won his seat in 1922.

The upcoming symposium is free and open to the public, so if you’re in DC, join us May 5 and 6 on Capitol Hill to learn more about immigration legislation throughout American history. Pre-register here! The schedule is posted on our website, and Sussman will speak about Celler’s work on immigration reform at 10 am on May 6.

Works Consulted
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Emanuel Celler and Elizabeth Holtman.

Carroll, Maurice. “Emanuel Celler, Former Brooklyn Congressman, Dies at 92.” The New York Times (New York): January 16, 1981.

Kammer, Jerry. “The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965.” Center for Immigration Studies website: October 2015.

U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website. Key Milestones, “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act).”

Wasniewski, Matthew, editor in chief. “Elizabeth Holtzman,” Women in Congress, 1917-2006, p. 482-487. Washington, DC: 2006.

Francis Doughty: Visionary or Trouble Maker?


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Mau van DurenToday we welcome Mau van Duren to the USCHS blog! He will be discussing his new book, Many Heads and Many Hands: James Madison’s Search for a More Perfect Union, in Washington, DC on Wednesday, April 13 at noon. The event is free and open to the public, though pre-registration is requested, and will be held in Ketchum Hall in the VFW Building at 200 Maryland Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.


Francis Doughty, Visionary or Trouble Maker?:
Concepts Developed in Europe, Tested in Colonial America, and Implemented in the United States’s Constitution

–by Mau van Duren

James Madison added concepts to our Constitution that found their origins in Continental Europe. The Dutch Republic proved a major conduit and originator of innovations in governance and civil liberties. Taxation with Representation was enshrined in the Dutch Constitution of 1477. Freedom of Religion and Freedom of the Press (free speech) were introduced in 1568. Secular Marriage and an Independent Judiciary existed in the Republic well before others introduced them.

In the late 16th century and first half of the 17th century, the Republic was a refuge for Europeans who had escaped religious persecution in countries as diverse as England, Germany, France, Spanish Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. All were Protestants of one flavor or another, and they brought with them the languages and cultures of their people. Many settled in Amsterdam and many in Leyden. That small city was then the center of the cloth trade and manufacture but, perhaps more importantly, it was the center of enlightenment, education, and science. Descartes, Grotius, and other greats taught there. Isaac Newton published all his books there.

Many of the foreign settlers were country folk and could not get used to city life and made use of the opportunity life in the New World might afford them. Affected by the sophistication around them, they carried the patently Dutch concepts and values with them and implemented what they could in their new environment. Strongest among them were the Separatists whom we now know as the Pilgrim Fathers. Other denominations settled in New Netherlands, Jamestown, and Rhode Island. Religious refugees who had no connection with the Dutch Republic were the settlers of Massachusetts Bay, the Puritans. And they brought with them patently English concepts and values.

One man and his young family came to America in the early 1630s. He set foot among the Pilgrims in Plimoth Plantation, preached among the Puritans in Plimoth’s Cohannet, briefly settled among the Free in Rhode Island Plantation, became a civil liberties advocate in New Amsterdam, preached on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, founded a school further south in Virginia, farmed along the Rappahannock, and eventually disappeared in the fog of time.

In every colony Doughty set foot, he experienced the birth, infancy, and growing pains of virtual republics. He saw the development of the rule of law and democracy. He suffered the small-mindedness of religious intolerance in Massachusetts, lived among the free in Rhode Island, learned about the powers, and limitations, of the people of New Netherlands, and witnessed the evolution of participatory government in both Virginia and Maryland. Mostly he followed in the footsteps of others, but in New Netherlands he was, briefly, a pioneer. He mixed with the movers and shakers, and quite literally, lived the beginnings of what would become the American Nation.

Vote Pairing


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While researching a recent Twitter/Facebook Fact-of-the-Day post, I came across a notation in the Congressional Globe (similar to today’s Congressional Record) that I hadn’t encountered before. In 1867, the administration negotiated and the Senate approved a treaty to purchase Alaska from Russia. The House didn’t approve an appropriation for the purchase until 1868, however; as I looked at the records from July 14, 1868, I noticed a series of comments from Members stating that they were “paired” with another Member and giving the votes of each person in the pair.

Pairs? At first it sounds more like a setup for card playing or dancing, but it turns out to be a relative of the vote-swapping that American voters have sometimes negotiated during recent presidential elections. In this case, it’s a way for Members of Congress, especially absent Members, to place into the official record how they would have voted had they been on site.  Until 1999, three types of pairs were recognized (one person present, one absent; both absent; or only names, not preferred votes, listed in the record). These are informal agreements between specific Members who generally are on opposite sides of the issue, and they are understood to be acceptable only when they do not affect the outcome of the vote.

Currently, the only form that remains in use in the House is what was known as a “live pair.” At specified moments, a Member may vote “present” on the floor and note that he or she is paired with an absent Member. Then the Member can note how each person would have voted. Such an occurrence is rare now, with Members instead choosing to make similar arrangements among themselves without taking the formal step of announcing the pairing for the record. Most Members prefer to use non-pair options for placing their preferred vote in the official record even when they are absent.

USCHS President Ron Sarasin says that when he was in office in the 1970s, staffers would set up the pairings between Members. USCHS volunteer Jay Pierson was one of those staffers when the practice was more common: “It [pairing] was done by Floor staff who would either talk to a Member or Members about it or call the Members’ offices. Of course if there were an odd number of Members wishing to be paired, someone would be left out!”

Notice in the Congressional Globe about pairings on the appropriations vote.

Notice in the Congressional Globe about pairings on the appropriations vote.

In case you’re curious, in 1868, the pairings in the House on the Alaska appropriations vote were:

Robert Van Horn (Republican from MO) was paired with Cadwallader Washburn (Republican from WI)–Halbert Paine of WI announced the pairing and noted that Washburn would have voted no. (More of a “specific pair” than any other kind, since both were absent.)

Dennis McCarthy (Republican from NY) announced that he would have voted “no” and that he was paired with John Pruyn (Democrat from NY), who would have voted “ay.”

Benjamin Boyer (Democrat from PA) announced that he was paired with George Washington Woodward (Democrat from PA) and that Woodward would have voted “ay” while he himself would have voted “no.”

Anyone recall a more recent example of pairing occurring in either the House or the Senate? Former staffer Pierson can only recall one live pair being done during his 35 years working on the House floor.

Works Consulted
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Congressional Globe, 40th Cong., 2nd Sess. 4055 (1868). (View the page cited)

Davis, Christopher M. Pairing in Congressional Voting: The House. Congressional Research Service, 2015.

Hass, Karen L. Rules of the House of Representatives, 114th Congress. Page 33 (Rule 20).

Primary Documents in American History (Treaty with Russia for the Purchase of Alaska), Library of Congress, accessed April 5, 2016.

William Henry Harrison’s Gold Medal


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While researching today’s #onthisday Tweet (also on Facebook!), I turned up an interesting little fact. Read on to learn more about War of 1812 hero–oh, and president–William Henry Harrison.

portrait of William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison, c. 1840, print attributed to John Sartain. (Library of Congress)

Born in Virginia, William Henry Harrison first made his name in the army fighting campaigns against Indians. He found his way to posts in the territorial governments of the midwest and served as governor of the Indiana Territory for twelve years. When Tecumseh and other Indian leaders resisted white incursions more and more stridently, Harrison managed to get himself in command of the troops once again. The 1811 battle near Tippecanoe started badly for Harrison and his men, but in end, the U.S. Army won the fight; white Americans generally celebrated the widely-known victory.

Shortly thereafter, the U.S. and Britain returned to a state of outright war. In Harrison’s area, many Indians, such as those in Tecumseh’s alliance, were fighting alongside the British to drive the Americans back east. On October 5, 1813, Harrison led his forces to a significant–and rare–American victory against the British and their allies in Ontario at the Battle of the Thames. Tecumseh was killed and his alliance fatally damaged. Soon, Harrison was traveling the east and enjoying the admiration of Americans starved for good news from the war’s fronts.

1818 CGM for Harrison

From the Statutes at Large (see below for citation/link.)

In 1818, Congress chose to honor Harrison, along with Isaac Shelby of Kentucky, with a Congressional Gold Medal for their part in the 1813 victory. They were the among the last of the those honored for their roles in the War of 1812. Harrison served two terms in the U.S. House and most of a term in the Senate, and he held various territorial, state, and federal posts before being elected president in 1840. He gave his lengthy inaugural address on March 4, 1841 and died of pneumonia on April 4. When elected, he was the oldest man to have been elected president, and he still holds the title for the shortest time in the office.

The Miller Center biography of Harrison points out that he was quick to strive for plaudits and praise as well as lucrative appointments, so it’s interesting to note that Harrison’s short time in the House and the awarding of his Congressional Gold Medal coincide. Harrison represented Ohio from 1815-1819 in the House and thus had the opportunity to vote on the resolution honoring himself. The Annals of Congress (page 1648) note only that the resolution was passed in the House–no mention of debates or congratulations. However, several days later, the House was debating the merits of a similar resolution honoring other War of 1812 officers; the Annals record that now Harrison rose to “bear testimony to the gallant services of the gentlemen of the Northwestern army, and took the opportunity of expressing briefly his sense of the distinguished honor to which he had recently himself received at the hands of Congress–a reward more dear to him than any other that could be conferred on him, but which he must look on as due to the gallant army which he had the honor to command rather than to his merits, etc.” (page 1671)

A Congressional Gold Medal is no small honor. Intriguing that it came Harrison’s way while he was serving in the body that grants it!

To learn more about William Henry Harrison, see:
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
Miller Center biography, including the essay on “Life Before the Presidency” for information about Harrison’s military and congressional careers.
White House, History and Grounds, William Henry Harrison.

Additional sources:
Glassman, Matthew Eric. Congressional Gold Medals, 1776-2010. Congressional Research Service. Page 21.
Statutes at Large, 15th Congress, First Session, page 476.