Before beginning my job at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, I had not given a terrible amount of thought to the Capitol as a building. I had studied and taught quite a bit on the institution of Congress and its members, but the building itself had not really piqued my interest. Now that my job centers so much on the history of the building that houses the legislative branch of our federal government, I happen to know quite a bit about how it came to look the way it does today and who was involved in making it so. The story is an interesting and long one, and perhaps the most intriguing chapter of that story comes in its last phase of expansion that added the two present-day Senate and House wings and the larger dome, which was, except for a few finishing touches, finished by the end of the Civil War. A recent book called Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War, by Guy Gugliotta, details that extension project and the people most involved in it, one of whom was Jefferson Davis. It is Davis’s involvement and devotion to the Capitol expansion that I have come to find most intriguing.
Most Americans remember Jefferson Davis as the man who became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War; however, that was simply one aspect of a much more complex man. As a southerner in the first half of the 19th century, and with a brother who owned a plantation, it was not outlandish for Davis to be an ardent supporter of slavery and states’ rights. Davis would go onto become a senator for the state of Mississippi, becoming close with John C. Calhoun as well as Henry Clay. Despite his views on states’ rights and slavery, Davis would become the champion in Congress for the Capitol extension proposed in 1851, wanting to see the building transformed into one fit to house the legislative branch of our federal government. Davis wore his states’ rights hat in nearly every aspect of his life, but he donned his unionist hat when it came to restoring, extending and beautifying the symbol of American democracy and freedom, an irony not overlooked by Gugliotta.
The 1850’s was a time of tremendous division and animosity in the country and in the Congress; it seemed to be less a matter of if, and more a matter of when a civil war would erupt to finally answer the question of slavery in this country. Against that same backdrop, the plan to expand the Capitol was under way, thus providing a lovely juxtaposition of each new state having to confront the divisive issue of slavery as they were admitted to the Union, while also adding to the need to enlarge both the House and Senate chambers to accommodate the growing country. In the middle of all of this craziness was Jefferson Davis, the most ironic and arguably the most important figure in the entire narrative.
Jefferson Davis would end up fighting for the expansion of the Capitol as voraciously as he fought for the institution of slavery to continue on as the Confederate president. How could a man so ready and willing to lead the South out of the Union and into the bloodiest war we’ve ever known, pitting neighbor against neighbor, at the same time feel so strongly about the need to make bigger and greater the U.S. Capitol, which led to his having to spend quite a bit of political capital to do so? No one can truly understand that level of contradiction, but regardless of his infamous role in our nation’s history, there is no question that Davis also deserves credit for fighting the good fight to push for the expansion of the Capitol into that beautiful and grandiose symbol of liberty and freedom that we all know and love.
So, the next time you see a picture of the Capitol on television or you come for a visit to DC and see it in person, just remember that it took about 70 years for the Capitol to be completed in its current form, and that the man who would lead the southern states out of the Union would be the same man who was crucial in pushing for the expansion of the Capitol. Our country’s history is filled with all manner of irony and hypocrisy—this is merely one example that people don’t know quite as well as some others.