The United States Capitol, much like this city’s other architectural glory, the National Cathedral, is as much a work in progress as a finished product. Completed nearly a century and a half ago, it has been repaired and improved almost nonstop. The famous statue of “Freedom,” the magnificent dome upon which it stands, the stunning paintings and frescoes by Constantino Brumidi, the hidden systems by which the vast building is heated and cooled — all these and countless other features have been worked on and, wherever possible, modernized, a process that seeks to maintain the Capitol’s 19th-century grandeur while making it a hospitable environment in which to conduct the nation’s business — when, that is, Congress is in the mood.

Still, the construction of the Capitol as the world has known it since “Freedom” was put in place in the late autumn of 1863 is a story unto itself — the story of the building’s expansion in the 1850s and ’60s from the comparatively small early 19th-century original — and Guy Gugliotta tells it superbly in “Freedom’s Cap.” He takes his title from the original design submitted in 1856 by Thomas Crawford, “an American sculptor based in Rome,” in which the “elegantly draped” figure of a woman wore a “ ‘liberty cap,’ the symbol from classical antiquity of a manumitted slave.” This was disagreeable to the secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, who had taken a powerful interest in the Capitol’s improvement but did not want anything associated with anti-slavery sentiments to be memorialized in the building. As Gugliotta explains, eventually the “liberty cap” was replaced by the somewhat bizarre “crest of feathers and a bird’s head” with which it has been adorned to this day, but he chooses, properly, to see the Capitol itself as the “cap,” worn by a nation whose people are now far more free than they were when the statue was installed.

Gugliotta is a freelance writer who has worked for a number of newspapers in various capacities — including The Washington Post, though his path and mine never crossed. With this book, he joins that estimable group of non-professional historians who have revived the practice of narrative history, one cherished by serious readers but too often scorned these days in academic history departments. From time to time he strains to maintain narrative pace with unnecessary foreshadowing — “As time passed, Walter would have even more reason to worry about Meigs,” “Many things would happen to make Meigs repudiate those words” — but this may not annoy most readers as much as it does me. On balance, Gugliotta writes lucidly and engagingly, he brings to life a huge cast of characters, he captures the physical setting of Washington in the mid-19th century and the mood of a city where “every transaction seemed to be poisoned by the issue of slavery,” and he has done a stupendous amount of research.

What Gugliotta calls the “seed” of the Capitol’s expansion was planted in 1850 by Davis, then the junior senator from Mississippi, in communication with a Washington architect named Robert Mills. Davis wanted “a set of drawings and estimates for an enlargement of the U.S. Capitol by adding new wings to either end of the existing building.” Nothing as ambitious as that happens quickly in Washington, but the letter was the beginning:

“This simple act would turn out to be the first step in a project that in fifteen years would convert the smoky, mildewed Capitol — largely untouched since [Charles] Bulfinch had ‘finished’ it in 1829 — into a national showpiece. And from this day in April 1850, Davis would cultivate and promote the project with unflagging enthusiasm and relentless single-mindedness. From April 1850 until the day he abandoned Washington to become president of the Confederacy eleven years later, Davis would be the new Capitol’s political champion, benefactor, and shepherd. Without him the modern Capitol, recognized throughout the world as an enduring symbol of republican democracy, would never have existed.”

’Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War’ by Guy Gugliotta (Hill & Wang)

Gugliotta is fully aware of the irony of this but argues that Davis’s record as a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War who served with considerable valor underscores the difficulty of drawing pat conclusions about him. On the one hand, he was an ever more outspoken defender of slavery and the states where it thrived, becoming their leader when they seceded; on the other hand, he was in his fashion a genuine American patriot who believed that the young but growing country should have a capitol suitable to its size and ambitions. For those 11 years he was the most important person behind the expansion of the Capitol, and he navigated the bitter political scene on its behalf with astuteness and determination.

Though Mills was the first architect to whom Davis turned, it was another — a Philadelphian named Thomas U. Walter — who was named “Architect of the Capitol” by President Millard Fillmore in June 1851. The project was ostensibly a matter for Congress, but Fillmore had taken command of it and, by Gugliotta’s account, in a timely and effective manner; at least in this regard, he seems to have been a considerably better president than history has portrayed him. Davis persuaded him to turn control of the project over to the War Department, and it was Davis who assigned a young engineer and Army captain named Montgomery Meigs to supervise the undertaking. Inevitably and predictably, Meigs and Walter crossed swords as each sought control of the project and credit for its success, but in the early years they worked together closely and well.

There was nothing simple about the job. There were political obstacles at every turn, so many of them that for this reason alone it is a miracle that the expanded Capitol managed to get built. There were architectural disputes, with various factions favoring various schemes before the final plan at last emerged. There were immense structural difficulties and controversies as well, ranging from the type and quality of materials to whether — at a time when xenophobia was at a peak — foreign laborers and artisans should be permitted to work on the building. The sheer size of it was breathtaking: “At 61,201 square feet, the Capitol was already one of the biggest buildings in the country, if not the biggest. The design approved by . . . Fillmore would more than double the length of the current Capitol and increase the ground covered by the building to 153,112 square feet, which, as Walter noted in an early report, would be ‘652 square feet more than three and a half acres.’ ”

Into the bargain there was a truly venomous political climate. As Walter wrote to a friend, “Nothing new here but snow and rain and slush and mud, hard words, threatened duels, people looking daggers at one another, and other amusements of the kind too numerous to mention.” Yet even in this atmosphere resistance to the expansion project gradually diminished, perhaps, as Gugliotta suggests, because “it was one of the few remaining national enterprises that could unite rather than divide Congress.” Support for it was strong among members from North and South alike, and remained so right up to secession and the beginning of war.

The Capitol was still under construction when Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in March 1861. By then all the controversies had faded and work moved apace, but Lincoln was firm against suggestions that work should be stopped while the war went on. “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” he said. He was right. The Capitol endures, the most powerful symbol of the nation he did so much to keep together. Gugliotta has paid the great building, and the people who did so much to bring it into being, handsome tribute indeed.


The United States Capitol

and the Coming of the Civil War

By Guy Gugliotta

Hill and Wang. 486 pp. $35