Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation

Layout for Washington, D.C. in 1815

All the participants recognized they were creating America’s most important public building.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were determined that the United States Capitol be a meaningful expression of America’s new political and social order. The Constitution, ratified in 1788, had given the country its governing structure; the Capitol, begun three years later, was still incomplete when Congress first met there in November 1800. Construction of the original building took thirty-four years and was directed by six presidents and six architects. Opinions among statesmen and designers differed as to how to achieve a symbolically potent yet functionally efficient building within a Neoclassical framework. Conceiving of themselves as inheritors, guardians, and conveyors of Western civilization, they slowly built a Capitol that drew upon both American and European emblematic and architectural traditions.

The Capitol was found to be too small soon after it was completed in 1826. Several proposals during the 1830s and 1840s to extend it either to the east or with new legislative wings attached to the north and south led to a second competition in 1850-51. The Capitol Extension dwarfed the original structure, dramatically changing its physical appearance, as Victorian exuberance replaced Neoclassical sedateness.

During both building campaigns symbolic, aesthetic, and pragmatic issues were of paramount concern, because all the participants recongnized they were creating America’s most important public building. In addition to legislative chambers, committee rooms, and offices for the Senate and House of Representatives, the Capitol accommodated the Library of Congress until 1897 and the Supreme Court until 1935.

A More Perfect Union: Symbolizing the National Union of States

Symbols for a New Nation

Eagle Decorating Ancient Roman Temple: Robert Wood. “Soffit of the door of the cell of the Temple [of the Sun],” in The Ruins of Palmyra, Otherwise Tedmor in the Desart [sic]. London: 1753, Table XVIII, H. Copyprint. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Symbols are history encoded in visual shorthand. Eighteen-century Euro-Americans invented or adopted emblems — images accompanied by a motto — and personifications — allegorical figures — to express their political needs. They used them as propaganda tools to draw together the country’s diverse peoples (who spoke many languages) in order to promote national political union, the best hope of securing liberty and equal justice for all.

Adult Hercules Suggested as Symbol of America: Francois, Marquis de Barbi-Marbois, designer. “Allegory of the American Union,” 1784. Water color on paper. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin was responsible for suggesting the country’s first emblem — a native rattlesnake — and its first personification — Hercules. Both were readily understood by his contemporaries: the snake device conveyed the need for political solidarity among the colonies, while the strength of the infant Hercules was likened to that of the mighty young nation. Subsequent devices continued to symbolize national union, while personifications were generally composite figures that fused ideas of Liberty, America, Wisdom, or Civil Government. The Capitol’s early planners drew upon this small but expressive group of accepted American symbols to convey to the public its actual and metaphorical roles.

Symbols of Union

Benjamin Franklin. “Join or Die”. Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), May 9, 1754. Newspaper. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress

Benjamin Franklin consulted Baroque emblem books to find an appropriate symbol for the union of the colonies. A French source provided the image of a cut snake with the motto that translated as “Join, or Die.” An Italian iconography book stated that snakes symbolized democracy, government by the people. Probably owing to the snake’s negative connotations, Franklin and others sought alternative symbols of union.These included a circular chain of thirteen links and a Liberty Column supported by hands and arms that represented the states. After the Revolution, national political union was embodied in the Great Seal of the United States. Several groups of thirteen elements — leaves on the olive branch, arrows clutched by the eagle, stars above its head, and a shield of stripes on its breast — referred to war, peace, and the American flag, itself the Revolution’s principal symbol of union.

The Most Approved Plan: The Competition for the Capitol’s Design

Thomas Jefferson decided that the Capitol’s design should be chosen by a public competition, and advertisements began appearing in American newspapers in March 1792. The entries were disappointing to the judges — Washington, Jefferson, and the Commissioners of the District of Colombia. Most of the entries survive to this day; they are a revealing reflection of the talent available among America’s amateurs, builder-architects, and professionals.

Thomas Johnson and Thomas Jefferson. [Announcement of Capitol Design Competition]. Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), March 24, 1792. Newspaper. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress

The published guidelines stipulated matters of fact — size and number of rooms and materials — not issues of taste, such as style of architecture, historical association, or symbolic meaning. Thus the competitors themselves proposed ideas of how to convey America’s new political structure and social order. Their suggestions, ranging from simple to complex, economical to expensive, reflected commonly held beliefs about America’s governing population — primarily farmers and merchants — or promoted benefits promised by the Constitution.

Most competitors drew upon Renaissance architectural models, either filtered through the lens of eighteenth-century English and American Georgian traditions or based directly on buildings illustrated in Renaissance treatises. The Capitol competition coincided with nascent Neoclassicism in America, in which forms and details from Greek and Roman architecture were revived. Three of the competition entries were inspired by ancient classical buildings.

Ancient Roman Pantheon Inspires Jefferson’s Capitol Design: Antoine Desgodetz. “Elevation de la face du Pantheon, a Rome,” in Les edifices antiques de Rome. Paris: Claude-Antoine Jombert, 1779. Engraving in book. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

The Roman Pantheon — the circular domed rotunda dedicated to all pagan gods — was suggested by Jefferson, who later shepherded it through several transformations.

The Temple of Justice and Faith: The Capitol’s East and West Porticoes and Dome

Capitol as It Was Envisioned About 1797: Architectural Model of Thornton’s Revised Design of the Capitol. Plastic Model, 1994. Architect of the Capitol

In 1791 Pierrre Charles L’Enfant had located his “Congress House” atop Jenkins Hill, which he said “stands as a pedestal waiting for a monument.” He proposed for it a domed rotunda facing west. Subsequent architects designed domes to identify the Capitol on the city’s skyline. Impressive central porticoes facing east and west transcended entry points. Rather they drew visitors to the rotunda, perceived from the beginning as a great public meeting place, first a monument to Washington, but soon a “Hall of the People,” a usage probably proposed by Jefferson. The entire ensemble of dome, rotunda, and porticoes occupied fully one-third of the original Capitol mass. These symbolic areas were balanced by actual functional spaces, the chambers, committee rooms, and offices in the wings. The general outline of the Capitol’s compact and coherent exterior was established in 1793. Minor changes were confined to the central section, not constructed until 1818-1826.

To Throw the Labor of the Artist Upon the Shoulders of the President of the United States: The House and Senate Wings

Inadequate funding and material and manpower shortages dictated the Capitol phased construction. The north or Senate wing was begun first because its numerous rooms could house the entire Congress until the south wing was built. In fact, the House of Representatives, Senate, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress all moved into the north wing when the federal government settled permanently in Washington in 1800.

Latrobe’s First Major Revisions Presented to Jefferson: Benjamin Henry Latrobe. “Plan of the Principal Story of the Capitol, U.S.,” 1806. Water color on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Contrary to the rules established by Renaissance architectural theorists, Jefferson suggested locating both the House and Senate chambers at ground level rather than on the second floor. Both were to be double-story rooms with visitors’ galleries that overlooked legislative proceedings below. However, on the exterior the main story seemed to be the second story. Apparently, Jefferson wished to emphasize the easy accessibility of America’s political system and at the same time the supremacy of the people. Both the first Senate chamber designed by Stephen Hallet and the first hall for the House of Representatives designed by James Hoban were built following Jefferson’s suggestion; both were replaced because of faulty construction.

Latrobe’s Post-Fire Revisions Include New West Wing: Benjamin Henry Latrobe. “Plan of the Principal Floor at the Capitol, U.S.,”. 1817. Water color on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Before the War of 1812, Latrobe redesigned and rebuilt most of the north-wing interiors, placing a new semicircular Supreme Court on the ground floor and a new Senate directly above it. Both rooms were vaulted in brick for permanence and grandeur. Only the Supreme Court survived the fire of August 24, 1814, nearly intact. Latrobe demonstrated his genius as an architect in his design for the courtroom and two adjacent vestibules. He achieved the impression of expansiveness in relatively small areas by creating layers of space and varying ceiling shapes and heights. The vestibules contained Latrobe’s most memorable symbols, corncob and tobacco leaf and lower capitals for his newly invented American orders (columns with their capitals and entablatures).

Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace: The Capitol Extended

By the close of the Civil War in 1865 the Capitol had been transformed from a sedate and self-contained building on a rather small scale to an exuberant and complex one of much greater size. Its breadth extended 751 feet across the brow of Capitol Hill and the feather-crested helmet of its corning statue, Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, rose 287 feet, 5 and 1/2 inches above ground level.

Portrait of the Architect of the Capitol Extension: Matthew Brady. “Thomas U. Walter”. Copyprint from glass negative. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter had won the competition in 1851 for the Capitol’s extension. He and others presented designs based on three possibilities: making a square Capitol by building an addition on the east, placing new wings directly against the north and south walls, or attaching lateral wings to the old building via corridors. The latter, sanctioned by the Senate Committee on Public Buildings, maintained much of the original Capitol integrity.

New House and Senate Chambers Located in Proposed Eastern Extension: Thomas U. Walter. “Plan of Principal Story. Design for an Enlargement of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.”. 1850. Water color on paper. Architect of the Capitol

The new rectangular chambers were placed in the center of each wing at the suggestion of Captain Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892) of the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1853 Meigs was put in charge of operations. Until 1859 he chose the painters and sculptors who decorated the Capitol Extension, suggesting themes to them that expressed Euro-American dominance of the continent. Italian-born fresco painter Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880) spent twenty-five years decorating walls and ceilings of committee rooms, offices, and corridors, as well as the rotunda’s frieze and canopy painting. His subjects ranged from a visual dictionary of American flora and fauna to American history primarily told through classical allegories.

The Center and Heart of America: Political and Cultural Influence of the Capitol

An Early Distant View of the Capitol: August Kollner. “West Front of the United States Capitol.” New York: Goupil, Vibert, & Co., 1839. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Capitol was an immediate popular success. Descriptions in travel accounts beginning in the 1810s often presented it as an accomplished fact, as did the earliest lithographs and engravings. As soon as Bulfinch’s dome was raised, numerous engravings and color lithographs were printed of both facades, but the view from the west was most popular. Distant views of Capitol Hill seen from Pennsylvania Avenue or various elevated sites around the city were more popular in the 1830s and 1840s because they showed the newly planted trees that covered the grounds and provided a dark base upon which the white building seemed to float. Objects as diverse as Staffordshire pottery, jaquard coverlets, handboxes, embroidered pictures, and candelabra were created using these prints. Even sheet music covers for patriotic marches reproduced the early printed views of the Capitol.


Writing to Benjamin Franklin in 1782, patriot Robert Morris remarked that “in a Government like ours the Belief creates the Thing.” Certainly the belief in what the Capitol could convey about that government sustained the many statesmen and architects who created the building. Conceived in the spirit of ancient republics, slowly built to embody the political and social values of the Constitution, and nurtured by the continuous unfolding of national events, the Capitol’s art and archtecture presents the broad sweep of American aspirations and history. Today the Capitol is a distillation of two hundred years of what Henry James, writing in The American Scene in 1907, called the “whole American spectacle.” Even before it was finished, numerous prints began to make the Capitol a familiar icon, as architecturally vital and ambitious as the institutions it housed.

Originally published by the United States Library of Congress to the public domain.