RICHMOND — Yes, it’s true that Virginia’s statehouse served as the capitol of a hostile breakaway confederacy that enslaved other humans and engaged in a bloody war with the United States.
But until Thursday, that was the only thing the federal government officially recognized as historic about the Virginia State Capitol.
And as any Virginian can tell you, at great length, there’s a whole lot more.
The feds are finally onboard with that, as the National Park Service has changed the State Capitol’s designation as a National Historic Landmark.
Now the Capitol is recognized for the full sweep of its historical and architectural significance, which goes far beyond one of the darkest periods in U.S. history.
To wit: It was designed by Thomas Jefferson (with the help of French architect Charles Louis Clérisseau). Inspired by the symmetrical beauty of a Roman temple in France, the building ushered in the whole era of Neoclassical construction in American monumental buildings (you’re welcome, Washingtonians).
The cornerstone was laid in 1785, with Gov. Patrick “Give me liberty, or give me death” Henry in attendance. Its walls have seen the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the treason trial of former vice president Aaron Burr in 1807, presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall.
Yes, Robert E. Lee assumed command of Virginia’s Confederate forces there, and Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States. But the building was also the site of the swearing in of L. Douglas Wilder in 1990 as the first African American elected governor of any state.
The Confederate historic designation was awarded in 1960, when the country was poised to observe the centennial of the outbreak of the Civil War. Virginia had tried several times since then to have its recognition changed, without success.
So while the official change seems like semantics — the Park Service now designates the site as the “Virginia State Capitol” instead of as the “Capitol of the Confederacy” — it means a lot to a state trying to wrestle with the weight of its past.
As legislators convened in the building Wednesday for the 2017 session of the General Assembly, they were fond of noting that they are part of the oldest deliberative body in America — heirs to the House of Burgesses, which formed in Jamestown in 1619. State leaders were pleased that the change in national landmark status comes before 2019, the legislature’s 400th anniversary.