–by Don Kennon
At a quarter past noon on Wednesday, December 2, 1863, thirty-five cannon boomed on Capitol Hill, answered by similar salutes from nearby forts that formed the Civil War defenses of the nation’s capital. What had happened? Was it a warning of a Confederate attack (kind of a foreshadowing of Jubal Early’s raid the following July)? Or was it an announcement of a major Union victory? No, it was a military salute (one cannon fired for each of the thirty-five states) to the Statue of Freedom that had just been installed upon the dome of the United States Capitol.
You might think that such a rousing overture would be but prelude to a larger celebration. But, no, on Capitol Hill there were no workmen waving hats, no bands playing, no large crowds cheering, no flags flying (except the single flag that was attached to the statue), no drinking of toasts, and no celebratory speeches. Why not? Because the architect of the Capitol extension, Thomas U. Walter, a dour, humorless, abstemious, and anxious man (my grandfather would have called him a “stick-in-the-mud”), wanted it that way. He wrote that the completion of the installation of the statue would be “a matter of everyday work” and had orders issued to the workmen not “to make any noise whatsoever, or to wave their hats, and also that no attempt be made at speech making.”
Walter thought that he had been put through hell as architect of Capitol extension and the new dome. His pride and considerable ego as a “professional architect” keenly felt every slight by the politicians, bureaucrats, and the army engineers with whom he had to contend, especially in his epic battles when Montgomery C. Meigs of the Army Corps of Engineers had been supervising engineer of Capitol construction. Now, Walter just wanted to see the statue safely put in place and for work to continue unabated. Any celebration, especially one that would involve his workmen imbibing demon rum, might mean time lost and all that that implied for his professional reputation, and that he could not abide.
This much of the event has been briefly told before, in William C. Allen’s writings about the dome and in Guy Gugliotta’s new book, Freedom’s Cap. Katya Miller, a current U.S. Capitol Historical Society research fellow, has become interested in the details of Walter’s opposition to anyone making a speech at the installation and she provided me with some of the documentation she has examined. Walter’s stance was in direct reaction to the intention of Capt. Charles F. Thomas, the chief machinist who was in charge of the statue’s installation, to make a lengthy speech on the occasion.
Thomas and Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin B. French thought that the installation of the Statue of Freedom was well worth celebrating and publicly commenting upon, coming as it did at such a pivotal time during the Civil War, when freedom had been officially recognized as a Union war aim with the Emancipation Proclamation and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia. Thomas and French were committed to the Union cause and both lamented that Thomas was prevented from speaking.
French was not even officially notified of the date of the statue’s installation. Angrily, he noted in his diary on December 2: “Today, at 12 o’clock meridian, they finished putting the Statue of Freedom on the tholus of the dome of the Capitol building. Being Commissioner of Public Buildings and, by law, charged with the care of all the Public Buildings, I thought that those having the control of putting up the statue, . . . would have done me the trifling honor of notifying me officially, when it was to be done, and have requested my presence on the occasion, but it was not done, and I remained in my office.”
Several days later, French still seethed, specifically about the gag order on Thomas’s speech. “I have been immensely vexed lately at the doings of those who controlled placing the statue of Freedom upon the Dome,” he wrote on December 7. “I regarded the event as one of great moment, particularly at this time, and yet those having the control of it, for reasons that I cannot fathom, unless they fear the Southern rebels, issued orders to Capt. Thomas, who had intended a small display of patriotism, for he, at least, is a true patriot & a true man! ordering him peremptorily [sic], not to suffer any demonstration of rejoicing to be made by the men under him, or by himself. . . . It was an unpatriotic, damnable, secession proceeding, and every man who had anything to do with it, if I had my way, should be turned, neck & heels, out of office!”
The officials at whom French aimed his animus were Walter and the Interior Department officials who took the architect’s advice and issued the orders banning speeches and celebrations at the Capitol. French’s accusations against Walter were at least partially accurate. Prior to the war, Walter was a pro-Southern apologist and most of his political patrons were Democrats, including the notorious Secretary of War John P. Floyd of Virginia (who later became a general in the Confederate Army). Although he was from Philadelphia, Walter owned a slave while residing in the District of Columbia when the war began. By 1863 he was avowedly pro-Union, but the depth of his conviction evidently did not extend to permitting Thomas to deliver the unabashedly pro-Union speech he had planned for Freedom’s installation.
Thomas, for his part, had his speech privately printed and distributed. I thank Katya Miller for providing me with the text from the copy of the speech in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress. In the speech, which Thomas describes as “delivered by him standing on the apex of the Statue of Freedom,” he begins by melodramatically removing the chains that bound the statue. “As I remove these chains, unlose[sic] these shackles, and shall soon remove these surroundings, presenting this Statue of Freedom in her fitness and beauty, so shall this war, so sad to contemplate with all its horrors, make this American Nation stand before the world as the ‘Land of the free and the Home of the Brave.’” Thomas specifically links the statue with the Emancipation Proclamation, observing “How appropriate then came the Proclamation that sets the millions free? How fitting this Nation should bow the knee and return to God Thanksgiving and Praise for His goodness, and that following that event so closely I present to you this day this Dome so nearly finished.”
Thomas’s speech is not a great work of literature nor of oratory; however, even if he had been allowed to give it from the dome, no one nearly 300 feet below would have heard it. If Walter worried that allowing Thomas to give a speech might take some of the luster from his accomplishment as the architect, he need not have worried. Thomas proved he held no grudges, even going so far as to praise Walter for his work at the Capitol: “The Nation owes him a debt of gratitude it can never discharge.”
William C. Allen, The Dome of the United States Capitol: An Architectural History (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992).
William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2001).
Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, eds., Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870 (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989).
Guy Gugliotta, Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012).
Charles F. Thomas, Speech of Captain Charles F. Thomas, of Massachusetts, Superintendent of Construction of the Dome of the Capitol of the United States, at Washington, D.C., Delivered by Him Standing on the Apex of the Statue of Freedom, December 2, 1863 (Washington, D.C., 1863).