Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace
Perched atop the dome of the Capitol stands one of the most misinterpreted statues in all of Washington D.C. Often confused for a Greek goddess or a Native American woman, the truth is, it is Freedom personified, although its design was inspired by both classical motifs and Native American culture.
An American sculptor – Thomas Crawford – living in Rome was commissioned in 1854 to create a statue that would stand atop the dome of the capitol. His original design had a Phrygian cap on the statue’s head – a symbol of freedom and, more specifically, freedom from slavery. U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis (who would later be President of the Confederacy) vehemently opposed the symbolism of the cap and ordered the design to be changed. Instead, Freedom wears a military helmet surrounded by nine stars, surmounted with the head, talons, and feathers of a bald eagle.
The statue stands over 19 feet tall and weighs nearly 15,000 pounds. In its right hand is a sheathed sword and the left hand holds a laurel wreath and a shield with 13 stripes. It wears a chiton (similar to a toga) and has a Native American style blanket draped over its left shoulder.
Crawford died shortly after he finished the plaster model in 1857. His widow sent the model in five pieces across the Atlantic the following year but – due to difficulties with the ship carrying it – it did not arrive in Washington until 1859.
Upon arrival it was assembled for display before casting by a craftsman. When the time came to cast the plaster in bronze, the craftsman refused to disclose how to disassemble it unless he was given more money. The government refused to pay more and called upon the services of a slave owned by the owner of the foundry that was to cast the statue. His name was Philip Reid, and by gently hoisting the top of the statue with a system of pulleys, he was able to expose the seams in the different sections of the statue, allowing it to be disassembled for casting.
The finished statue was assembled in pieces atop the capitol dome. The work was completed on December 2nd, 1863 and was marked with a 35 gun salute – one gun for each state in the union at the time. Today, the original plaster model can be seen by the public in the Capitol Visitor Center.
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