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