Last week I read David McCullough’s “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For”, which is a great collection of his speeches. Here’s McCullough in the chapter “A Building Like No Other”, speaking in 2016 to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in Washington, D.C.:
Two all-important lessons of history stand clearly expressed in this our national Capitol. The first is that little of consequence is ever accomplished alone. High achievement is nearly always a joint effort, as has been shown again and again in these halls when the leaders of different parties, representatives from differing constituencies and differing points of view, have been able, for the good of the country, to put those differences aside and work together. …
The second lesson to be found here is that history is about far more than politics and war only. So much that is most expressive of American life and aspirations and contributions to the human spirit is to be found in the arts—in architecture, paintings, sculpture, and engineering genius. We Americans are builders at heart and in what we build we often show ourselves at our best. You have only to look around at so much to be seen in this great building.
In view of the current political climate, let me point out, too, how much of what we see throughout the building was the work of immigrants. William Thornton, a physician who won a design competition for the Capitol in 1792, was a native of Tortola in the British West Indies. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first professional architect to take charge of the design of the building, including this hall, was born and educated in England. James Hoban, the architect who restored the White House after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812, and who also worked on the Capitol, was from Ireland. And Collen Williamson, the stone mason who oversaw the laying of the foundation of the Capitol, was a Scot.
Then there was amazing Constantino Brumidi, the artist whose vibrant frescoes fill the uppermost reaches of the great Rotunda under the Capitol dome and whose decorative genius brightens the corridors and hallways of the Senate wing in such a manner as rarely to be seen. A tiny figure who stood only five feet five inches tall, he was exuberant in spirit and produced work here of such monumental scale as had never been seen in our country.
There was also Carlo Franzoni, the sculptor who did the statue of Clio, the muse of history, over there, above the main door keeping note of the history taking place here.
Brumidi and Franzoni, as you might imagine, were both from Italy, as were any number of workers, skilled masons, and stonecutters.
It might also be added that our capital city, Washington, was itself the design of an immigrant, the French engineer Pierre L’Enfant, and that the two finest, most famous movies ever made about Congress, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise and Consent, were directed by immigrants, Frank Capra and Otto Preminger, respectively.
And yes, there were the African American slaves who did much of the work on the Capitol—how many in all will never be known, but play a large part they did. Notable evidence of their labors are the pillars that stand all about us here. “Hired out” by their owners, they cut the marble in the quarries.
Building and rebuilding the Capitol took more time and labor and patience than many might imagine.
Things went wrong. There were angry differences of opinion over matters of all kinds. There were accidents, numerous injuries, and one dramatic, narrow escape.
At work one day on his frescoes in the upper reaches of the great dome, Brumidi slipped from his scaffold and only just managed to catch hold of a rung of the ladder and for fifteen minutes hung for dear life with both hands some fifty-five feet above the marble floor until a Capitol policeman happened to glance up and rushed to the rescue. Brumidi by then was seventy-two and had been at work in the Capitol for twenty-six years.
The great dome famously took form through the Civil War and remains as intended the colossal commanding focal point of our capital city. It is primarily the work of two exceptional Americans, architect Thomas U. Walter and structural engineer Montgomery C. Meigs, each a story. Walter started out as a bricklayer. Meigs, a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, was all of thirty-six when he took on one of the most challenging engineering assignments ever and created what stands as a masterpiece of nineteenth-century engineering with inner and outer cast-iron shells weighing nearly nine million pounds.
A great lover of the arts and an artist himself, Meigs also had much to do with the art that was to fill the building—including the part played by Brumidi and the choice of the American sculptor Thomas Crawford to create the nineteen-and-a-half-foot-high Statue of Freedom that would stand atop the dome.
Completed in 1868, the gleaming dome remains the focal point of our capital city and though there have been modifications and additions to the building in the years since, it remains essentially as it was then, a symbol of freedom, the structure bespeaking more than any other our history, our American journey, evoking and encouraging powerfully pride in our system and, yes, patriotism.
And now we are in the midst of another election season, which like so many before will determine much to follow—more than we can possibly know.
Over there above the door, on the side of Clio’s chariot, is the work of the Massachusetts clockmaker Simon Willard. It has been doing its job a long time, since 1837, one hundred and seventy-nine years ago. It ticks on, still keeping perfect time.
My feeling is Clio, too, is attending to her role now no less than ever, taking note of the history we are and will be making.
On we go.
What incredible vignettes from our Capitol’s creation. I’ll never be able to see the Capitol dome again without thinking of 72-year old Brumidi, hanging for fifteen minutes from the rafters above the marble floor. To speak with him after his rescue, and to learn what sort of things a person thinks about in that situation.