By Lily Rothman
January 31, 2018

In wrapping up his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Trump turned to a powerful metaphor — one that has watched over Washington for more than 150 years.

“Atop the dome of this Capitol stands the Statue of Freedom,” Trump said. “She stands tall and dignified among the monuments to our ancestors, who fought and lived and died to protect her. Monuments to Washington, and Jefferson, and Lincoln, and King. Memorials to the heroes of Yorktown, and Saratoga. To young Americans who shed their blood on the shores of Normandy and the fields beyond, and others who went down in the waters of the Pacific and the skies all over Asia. Freedom stands tall over one more monument. This one. This Capitol. This living monument. This is the monument to the American people.”

But, though Trump’s modern evocation of the statue’s meaning was clear and straightforward, the complicated history of American freedom is built into that statue.

In 1960, TIME explained how it ended up on the top of the Capitol dome:

The Army engineer in charge of putting a new dome on top of the U.S. Capitol sat down to write a letter to the sculptor who was to design the statue that would adorn it. What or whom should the statue represent? ”We have too many Washingtons,” wrote the captain firmly on May 11, 1855. “We have America in the pediment. Victories and Liberties are rather pagan emblems, but a Liberty, I fear, is the best we can get.” And so Sculptor Thomas Crawford set to work in his studio in Rome. The model he made was nearly lost at sea, but eventually his 14,985-lb. statue, cast in bronze, was raised by steam hoist to its permanent perch. It is the strange figure that looms behind the heads of Senator Margaret Chase Smith and her opponent, Maine Assemblywoman Lucia Cormier, on this week’s cover of TIME. It is a lady of earnest intention but of dubious quality, who is a member of a whole family of official American follies whose lives have been perfectly miserable.

Sculptor Crawford endowed his Armed Liberty with every cliche available—an olive branch, a wreath of wheat and laurel, the customary sword and shield. “These emblems are such,” said he confidently, “as the mass of our people will easily understand.” But somewhere along the line the olive branch was dropped, and for the head wreath Crawford substituted a liberty cap in a tribute to the freeing of the Phrygian slaves in ancient times. This was too much for Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. As a result, part of an eagle with a lot of feathers was scrunched on Liberty‘s head, and a circle of stars was added.

In a 19th century artistic evocation of freedom or liberty, explains the office of the Architect of the Capitol, that “liberty cap” symbol (a soft, cone-shaped hat, often depicted in red) would be expected and normal. The hats dated back to ancient times, when versions had been worn by free men in Greek and Roman civilizations, but had more recently come to symbolize the liberty sought by revolutionaries in the United States and France. Look at the most famous allegorical artworks of the time on the subject of liberty, and there’s the hat.

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But, in an 1856 letter Jefferson Davis, who was then overseeing the construction, explained his objection to the hat’s presence on the statue:

As to the cap, I can only say, without intending to press the objection formerly made, that it seems to me that its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free, and would not be enslaved.

The language of art, like all living tongues, is subject to change; thus the bundle of rods, if no longer employed to suggest the functions of the Roman lictor, may lose the symbolic character derived therefrom, and be confined to the rough signification drawn from its other source, the fable teaching the instructive lesson that in union there is strength. But the liberty cap has an established origin in its use as the badge of the freed slave, and though it should have another emblematic meaning to-day, a recurrence to that origin may give to it in the future the same popular acceptation which it had in the past.

Why should not armed Liberty wear a helmet?

Though Davis argued that the cap was not appropriate to represent American freedom, given that the Founding Fathers had always possessed their inalienable liberty, it is impossible to ignore the role his own biography might have played in that decision. As Sarah Burns and John Davis put it in their history of American art, “Davis objected to any reference to liberty for slaves.”

Before the statue was finished, he would be elected president of the Confederate States of America.

Davis did lose this particular argument when it came to other allegorical art around the Capitol, and the cap can be seen in several spots there. Nor did the dome statue’s relationship to slavery and freedom stop at its headdress. In fact, cap or no cap, the rest of its path to the dome is perhaps a better representation of the complicated realities of what it means to celebrate freedom in the United States, and to fight to protect that ideal.

As the Architect of the Capitol notes, one of the people who played a key role in getting the statue to its place atop the Capitol was a man named Philip Reid, who was himself enslaved. By the time the statue was completed in 1863, he was free.

Write to Lily Rothman at


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