The Capitol Extension

And the Men Behind the Scenes

The Capitol's artwork did not appear out of thin air, or consist of pieces charitably donated by wealthy American philanthropists. Instead, the government commissioned carefully selected projects out to artists, who developed their pieces under several watchful eyes. The administrators of the Capitol artwork had tremendous influence over what adorned the Capitol, and often their personal ideologies were made manifest in these artworks.

In 1850, Congress legislated an expansion of the Capitol and two important changes took place. First, the position of the Architect of the Capitol was reopened and President Fillimore appointed a Greek Revival architect, Thomas U. Walter, to fill the post. Second, the Capitol extension project came under the jurisdiction of a new department-the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis (Fryd 109). In Art & Empire, Fryd provides a brief biography of Davis' life, which sheds some light on his approach to the Capitol decorations:

Davis, a Mississippian, had attended West Point and then fought against Indians in various battles, most notable during the Black Hawk War of 1831-1832. Retiring from military service in 1835, he settled near Vicksburg and became a prosperous cotton planter. In 1845, he won a seat as a Democrat in the House of Representatives. During his short tenure as a congressman, he advocated the occupation of Oregon, the acquisition of California, and the decision to go to war with Mexico. He gave up his seat on Congress to fight in the Mexican War and then reentered politics in 1847, when the governor of Mississippi appointed him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, where he served until he became secretary of war in President Pierce's cabinet between 1853 and 1857. In this position, Davis directed the Capitol extension, organized the defense of the frontier against hostile Indian tribes, planned the removal of the Seminoles in Florida to reservations, and directed surveys for a transcontinental railroad in the South.

As his political actions indicate, Davis was a staunch believer in Manifest Destiny. As a powerful administrator overseeing the Capitol extension, Davis was certain to use the Capitol art to validate and promote his ideology. His first step was to set someone who had a similar ideology as an artistic overseer: Captain Montgomery Meigs.


Montgomery Meigs also attended West Point, and started working for the Corps of Engineers in 1837 (Fryd 110). His influence over the Capitol extension, along with Jefferson's, was so great that Fryd proclaims, "for the first time, albeit briefly, two people regulated the decoration of the Capitol, Jefferson Davis and Montgomery Meigs. The government thereby established its first consistent process for federal patronage, with Meigs acting as an intermediary between artists and Davis, who in only four years successfully influenced the iconography and meaning of the decoration so that it reflected his expansionist and pro-slavery stances" (110).

Meigs was excited by the plans for the Senate and House wings of the Capitol extension, and he vowed that the American public should have a Capitol building that would "rival the Parthenon" (Fryd 111). Two artists were recommended to him as potential sculptors: Hiram Powers, whose Greek Slave had made him famous, and Thomas Crawford. Only Crawford submitted a design for the Senate wing. His ideas were not uninfluenced by the political climate in which he worked, as is shown by excerpts from a letter that Meigs sent to Crawford and Powers:

'Our history of the struggle between civilized man and the savage, between the cultivated and the wild nature,' would appeal 'to the feelings of all classes," wrote Captain Meigs in August 1853 to Crawford and Powers. Realizing that the expansion of the Capitol would afford numerous locations for scultural decorations in emulation of ancient temples, Meigs cautioned the two artists that the American public caoul not "appreciate too refined and intricate allegorical representations...Consequently,...Meigs suggested that the artists consider the theme of racial conflict for the Senate and House tympana, a subject that had been the basis for the American literary canon and could be seen elsewhere in the Capitol Rotunda. (Fryd 112)