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Conflict in the Capitol

Guy Gugliotta offers excellent account in 'Freedom's Cap'

Mar. 6, 2012
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The bitter irony running through Guy Gugliotta's Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (Hill & Wang) is that the politician most responsible for constructing the country's physical seat of government in Washington, D.C., ended up turning traitor to the country.

The politician was Jefferson Davis, senator from Mississippi and secretary of war, who by the acts of seceding with his state from the Union and accepting the presidency of the Confederate States of America committed treason against his native land. Freedom's Cap is the excellent and exhaustive, if somewhat exhausting, history of how Davis championed the efforts of two other men, Montgomery C. Meigs and Thomas U. Walter, in remodeling and vastly expanding the crumbling structure that had housed the Senate and House of Representatives into the architecturally grand edifice it is today.

The history centers on the decade-long rivalry between those two men. Gugliotta shows how Meigs, a U.S. Army captain and engineer who in 1853 took on the task of supervising the reconstruction, and Walter, a civilian architect hired to design the two new wings of the Capitol, strove to thwart each other's often-conflicting plans for the building while at the same time somehow also getting the job done.

In a larger sense it is the history of the nation's politics in the prewar and Civil War years. Gugliotta deftly demonstrates also how everything—everything—was political, including the shape and size of the dome that ultimately capped the building and the statuary, paintings and furnishings inside it, and how they all depended upon and reflected national politics.

The central factor in the politics was, of course, slavery. Everything, again, came back to that. So why did Davis, an unshakable believer in the rightness of slavery and future secessionist, want a bigger and better national Capitol?

The answer is that he was at heart a unionist and he wanted a national building that would reflect national greatness (and not leak when it rained). A consummate politician—and quite disagreeable human being—he maneuvered himself into the position of being able to promote, guide and authorize payment for the Capitol project.

The trouble was Davis wanted a union that would continue to allow slavery. As long as he saw a chance of achieving that, he pressed on with the Capitol—finding funding, manipulating competing egos, dealing with successive presidents and administrations and the crises that they brought. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, that chance was gone—and so was he.

By this time much of the work other than the dome had been completed; the Capitol project had increasingly grown in favor with politicians and populace. During the 1850s, sometimes Meigs was top dog on the project, sometimes Walter, depending on the vagaries of political influence. Generally Meigs had the backing of Davis, but Walter was always able to find patrons to oppose him.

Paradoxically, as the author points out, though their feud never abated, in some ways Meigs and Walter were much alike, especially in their capacity for imagining large projects. For another thing, both were devoted to, and obsessed with, the Capitol—and with what it could mean for their own legacy and immortality.

In December 1859 the hammer came down on Meigs. John Floyd, President James Buchanan's corrupt and incompetent secretary of war, finally achieved his goal of relieving him of nearly all his posts. Further infighting followed; work stopped, then started again. On Dec. 2, 1863, with Walter looking on, the statue called Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace was bolted into place atop the Capitol dome.

But Meigs had the greater triumph. Under Lincoln he was promoted to brigadier general and named quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, a post more powerful than its name suggests. In four years of war, Gugliotta writes, Meigs “probably had as much to do with the destruction” of Davis' Confederacy “as any other man alive.”

That represented another irony, this one perhaps more piquant than bitter, in the career of his former benefactor, who after the war never returned to Washington to see the Capitol whose designs he had approved and whose construction he had made possible.


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