Atop the Capitol dome stands the most often and least clearly seen sculpture in our town, a 19 1/2-foot bronze statue entitled "Freedom."
The figure is of a woman in flowing robes making gestures symbolic of a peace-loving nation: Her right hand rests on the hilt of a sheathed sword; her left holds a wreath and a shield. A brooch with the letters "U.S." pins her robes. On the pedestal is our motto, E Pluribus Unum ("Out of many, one"), since supplanted by "In God We Trust."
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis commissioned sculptor Thomas Crawford to execute the statue in the early 1850s. Davis rejected Crawford's first design, called Armed Liberty, because her soft cap was too like those worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. And we all know what became of Jeff Davis.
Crawford revised his design to include the present headdress, which he described as "a bold arrangement of feathers suggested by the costume of Indian tribes." They sweep back from an eagle's head that fronts a helmet rimmed with stars.
Crawford completed the plaster model of the statue in Rome a year before he died in 1857, and it was another year before the model was sent off. Storms drove the ship into Bermuda, where the model was placed in storage for another year. The statue's five sections were cast in the Clark Mills Foundry in Bladensburg; the final work weighed 14,985 pounds and cost $23,796.82, of which casting ate up all but the $3,000 that was paid to Crawford's estate.
Although work on most public buildings had stopped during the Civil War, President Lincoln ordered work on the Capitol to continue, because "if people see the Capitol going on, it will be a sign to them that we intend the Union shall go on."
At noon on December 2, 1863, the great helmet was lifted into place 300 feet above the ground as President and Mrs. Lincoln watched from a carriage surrounded by a cheering throng. A 35-gun salute (one for each state at that time) was fired. Flags flapped; cannon boomed from 12 of the forts circling wartime Washington. There were no other ceremonies, nor were any needed.