'Freedom's Cap': the U.S. Capitol's big remodel
"Freedom's Cap" by Guy Gugliotta tells the story of the expansion of the U.S. Capitol under the leadership of an unlikely champion — Jefferson Davis, who would go on to become president of the Confederacy.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War'
by Guy Gugliotta
Hill and Wang, 512 pp., $35
The United States Capitol, as everyone knows, is where Congress meets and does nothing. It wasn't always that way; before the Civil War, Congress actually voted to do something: expand the Capitol to its present size
Former Washington Post reporter Guy Gugliotta tells how it happened in this fascinating new book. It's a tale of political intrigue, famous personalities, technological innovations and bitter feuds, all under the pervasive shadow of slavery and the threat of secession and Civil War.
The original Capitol, dating to 1800, was reconstructed after the British burned it during the War of 1812. By 1850, Gugliotta writes, it was a wreck: "Walls were cracking, roofs sagged, timbers rotted." The Senate sweltered in summer and froze in winter. Acoustics were so bad in the House that members couldn't hear one another. Something had to be done, and the man who got it started was the junior senator from Mississippi — Jefferson Davis.
From April 1850 until he left Washington 11 years later to become president of the Confederacy, Davis was the new Capitol's "political champion, benefactor, and shepherd," Gugilotta writes
Bringing it into existence involved battles with presidents, other congressmen, architects and contractors. It didn't help that the man in charge of the project, Army Capt. Montgomery Meigs, a Davis protégé, was arrogant and stubborn and clashed with the principal architect, Thomas U. Walter. But Meigs also was something of an engineering genius who devised many new construction techniques, especially for the Capitol dome. Meigs later became quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, ironically playing an important role in the eventual defeat of Davis' Confederacy.
Gugliotta tells the story well. But meanwhile, comfortably situated in the expanded Capitol, Congress continues to do nothing.