"Political Compromise in Public Art: Thomas Crawford's Statue of Freedom"


The United States Capitol dome and its colossal bronze statue are frequently seen on the nightly television news and in political cartoons as signifiers of the U.S. government. Neither photographs of the Capitol nor cartoons, however, provide clear details of the statue on the dome, which is often misidentified in the media and by the general public as an Indian. Thomas Crawford's Statue of Freedom is in fact a difficult monument to discern, in part because of its location, far above the viewer's eye, but also because the artist was forced to make a number of compositional and iconographic changes to satisfy his patron, the U.S. government, represented by two men, Captain Montgomery Meigs (1816-1889), from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the financial and engineering supervisor of the Capitol extension between 1853 and 1859, and his boss, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). Crawford's Statue of Freedom, commissioned in 1855 and erected during the Civil War, in 1863, will be for us a "case study" in the role played by patrons in shaping and compromising the ideological content of public art. (1)

To understand the active role Meigs and Davis took in influencing the iconography and the meaning of Crawford's Statue of Freedom, we must first examine the monument's various stages of development. The idea for a statue on the pinnacle of the newly designed dome first arose in a drawing by the architect of the Capitol, Thomas U. Walter. (2) In this drawing, Walter had conceived of a female personification of Liberty, holding her traditional pole surmounted by the liberty cap. Upon learning of Walter's ideas, Meigs contacted Thomas Crawford (1813-1857), an American sculptor living in Rome, who was already engaged in a number of works for the new Senate


and House wings. (3) "We have too many Washingtons, and we have America in the center of your Senate pediment," Meigs reasoned in a letter to Crawford, noting also that "Victories and Liberties are rather pagan emblems." Nevertheless, the engineer concluded, "Liberty I fear is the best we can get. A statue of some kind it must be." (4) Crawford followed the engineer's advice and proposed "Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace." In this first design, Freedom does not have the pole, cap, or any other emblems traditionally associated with Liberty. Instead Crawford's modest, softly rounded female figure wears a wreath on her head composed of wheat sprigs and laurel. "In her left hand," Crawford elaborated, "she holds the olive branch, while her right hand rests on the sword which sustains the shield of the United States." The sculptor also placed wreaths on the base to show, as he explained, "the rewards Freedom is ready to bestow upon the distinction in the arts and sciences." (5) Crawford thus merged Peace, identified by the olive branch, and Victory, identified by the laurel leaves, with Liberty, creating an iconographic "synthomorphosis," that is, a fusion of stock allegorical imagery.

Four months later, Crawford submitted an altered design known only through his verbal description in a letter to Meigs. In this design, he abandoned the theme of Peace and established more clearly the work's signification of Liberty, creating the basis for the final monument. Positioning what the sculptor now identified as "armed Liberty" on a globe that is surrounded by wreaths placed below "emblems of Justice"-- the fasces-- Crawford added three emblems: "a circlet of stars around the Cap of Liberty"; the shield of the United States, "the triumph of which is made apparent by the wreath held in the same hand which grasps the shield"; and a sword held in her right hand, "ready for use whenever required." Crawford finalized the statue by placing stars upon her brow "to indicate her heavenly origin" and by locating the figure above a globe to represent, in his words, "her protection of the American world." (7)

In this second design, the artist added the liberty cap, eliminated the olive branch and its reference to peace, and retained the sword. The addition of the globe as the "American world" corresponded with the vision of America as a great empire that would influence other nations to adopt her republican form of government. The orb also suggests an association with the nation's expanded notion of manifest destiny, envisioning the nation's global power during an age of aggressive expansion beyond the continental limits of the United States into the Caribbean and Cuba. (8) Crawford's "armed Liberty" thus reflects the militaristic rhetoric of the 1850s and matches the administrative responsibilities of Jefferson Davis as the secretary

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of war who advocated the acquisition of Cuba and Nicaragua. (9) Earlier, as a Democrat in the House of Representatives, Davis had embraced the concept of manifest destiny and had advocated Oregon's occupation, arguing, "It is the onward progress of our people towards the Pacific, which alone can arrest their westward march; and on the banks of which . . . the pioneer will sit down to weep that there are no more forests to subdue." (10) He furthermore had advocated the acquisition of California and the decision to enter into war with Mexico, giving up his seat to fight in the Mexican War.

Jefferson Davis essentially approved of Crawford's second design, except for one aspect: he objected to the presence of the liberty cap, arguing that "its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved." This statement gains in significance when we realize that the secretary of war was a plantation and slave owner from Mississippi who argued vehemently in behalf of the slave system and the extension of slavery into newly acquired lands. From our post-civil rights perspective, Davis's purposeful refusal to acknowledge that blacks in the South and on his own cotton-growing plantation were not born free indicates a dangerous irony and racism that we must recognize influenced the meaning of the statue on the dome of the United States Capitol. Davis suggested that instead of the liberty cap, "armed Liberty wear a helmet," given that "her conflict [is] . . . over, her cause triumphant." (11) Consequently, Crawford dispensed with the objectionable cap, putting in its place "a Helmet . . . the crest [of] which is composed of an Eagles [sic] head and a bold arrangement of feathers suggested by the costume of our Indian tribes." (12) It is the feathered helmet that leads to the inaccurate identification of the statue as an Indian. Crawford furthermore placed the initials of our country on "armed Liberty's" chest, having rays of light issue from the letters.

Shortly we will examine how Davis's objections resulted in Crawford's fusion of three allegories. We must first address the secretary of war's rejection of the liberty cap, however, for this takes on politicalimplications in relationship to the dissension between the North and South over slavery, which would eventually erupt into civil war. Earlier, Crawford had intended to include the liberty cap in his group for the cornice of the Senate door, which originally was to represent Liberty and Justice. Jefferson Davis, however, rejected the cap. As Captain Meigs explained to the artist, "Mr. Davis says that he does not like the cap of Liberty introduced into the composition. That American Liberty is original & not the liberty of the freed slave-- that the cap so universally adopted & especially in France during its spasmodic struggles for freedom is derived from the Roman

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custom of liberating slaves thence called freedmen & allowed to wear this cap. (13) Consequently, Crawford transformed Liberty into the more innocuous personification of History in his cornice sculpture.

In the statement previously quoted, Davis, the future president of the Confederacy and, we will remember, a slave owner, expressed knowledge about the practice of manumission in ancient Rome. During the Roman ceremony, freed slaves covered their newly shorn heads with the pileus cap while magistrates touched them with a rod (the vindicta). (14) Before the Roman Empire, the cap symbolized emancipation from personal servitude rather than constitutional political liberty. Emancipated slaves in Rome wore a cap to hide their shaved heads.

Although Davis provided accurate explanations for the liberty cap's original function and meaning in ancient Rome, eighteenth-century iconography books, such as Cesare Ripa's Iconologie, had codified Liberty as a female personification who holds a scepter in one hand and the liberty cap in the other. (l5) Paul Revere employed the figure with a pole surmounted by the cap, possibly for the first time in the American colonies, in 1766 on the obelisk for the celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act. (16) Twenty-four years later, Samuel Jennings used Liberty in his Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences (Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum) not as a symbol of political freedom but as a reference to the possible emancipation of blacks in the United States. Jennings executed this painting for the Library Company of Philadelphia in support of the directors' abolitionist activities. In the work, he juxtaposed a benign and beautiful white woman as Liberty with the slaves in the lower-right-hand corner. In the background, a group of African-Americans dance around the liberty pole in celebration of their freedom. (17)

This first abolitionist painting in America emphasizes the meaning of the liberty cap in the United States. Because it had referred to manumission in ancient Rome, the cap in the United States resonated with tacit implications in regard to the slaveholding South. Consequently, the liberty cap and staff that the Frenchman Augustin Dupre depicted on the coin Libertas Americana (Massachusetts Historical Society) in 1783 disappeared from the first American pattern dime of 1792. (18) For the newly established country, which depended upon the link between the North and South for its existence, some Americans considered the symbols of Roman manumission too loaded in content to be included on American coins.

Abolitionist organizations such as the ones that the directors of the Library Company had founded in the eighteenth century became revitalized in the 1830s and again in the 1840s, when the newly acquired Mexican


territories exacerbated the differences between North and South. In 1846 Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot attached to an appropriation bill a proviso prohibiting slavery in all new territories acquired from Mexico. Although this measure failed to pass both houses, debates over slavery extension further hardened differences between northerners and southerners, eventually leading to the threat of secession by South Carolina and other southern states in 1849. After eight months of acrimonious debate, the Compromise of 1850 temporarily allayed dissension.

This discussion provides the framework for our comprehension of why Jefferson Davis opposed the use of the liberty cap in Crawford's cornice figures and in his dome statue. The plantation owner, champion of southern rights, and former representative and senator from Mississippi utilized his position as the individual in charge of the Capitol extension between 1853 and 1857 to reject any potential antislavery implications. At the same time, Meigs, a northerner who considered slavery an "eternal blot" on the concept of liberty in the United States, communicated Davis's opinions and acted as an intercessor on behalf of southern concerns by making sure that the liberty cap and slavery remained out of sight in the Capitol artworks. This army officer had befriended a number of powerful southern politicians, among them Robert Toombs of Georgia and R.M.T. Hunter of Virginia, and he needed their support, as well as that of his boss, during the times when Thomas U. Walter and, later, Secretary of War John Floyd challenged his position as supervisor of the Capitol extension. (l9) Davis's rejection of the liberty cap as an antislavery symbol and Meig's adherence to his superior's desires thus contributed to Crawford's decision to change the symbolism and meaning of his art works.

Now that we have examined the iconographic evolution of Crawford's statue and the reasons for these changes, it is necessary to study the monument from a slightly different perspective. Jefferson Davis's rejection of the liberty cap and recommendation of a "helmet" for the Statue of Freedom led to Crawford's conflation of three traditional allegories in his third and final version; these are Liberty, Minerva, and America. To understand how Crawford fused these allegories, we must briefly review the iconographic evolution of each personification.

America as a female personification of a geographic location came to symbolize the New World in the form of an Indian queen. Wearing a feathered skirt and a headdress, this America often held a club or a bow and arrow. The United States adopted this iconographic type on three congressional medals commissioned between 1787 and 1791 and on the Diplomatic Medal (Massachusetts Historical Society) of 1710. (20) Before and during the

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Revolutionary War, America and Liberty combined to become America as Liberty, in which the Indian princess with tobacco leaf skirt and headdress held the cap and pole, as in Paul Revere's masthead for The Massachusetts Spy. That Secretary of War Davis advised Crawford to add the plumes of eagle feathers to the helmet indicates that he knew the tradition of associating America with Liberty and intended the sculptor to combine the two allegories in the statue.

Crawford's synthomorphic approach is further evident in the work's association with Minerva, the ancient Roman goddess of war and of the city, protector of civilized life, and embodiment of wisdom and reason. A majestic and robust female figure, Statue of Freedom in fact emulates Phidias's fabled Athena Parthenos, a work reconstructed by Quatremere de Quincy (and entitled "Minerve du Parthenon") in Restitution de la Minerve en or et ivoire, de Phidias, au Parthenon, published in 1825, which Crawford must have consulted. (21) Phidias's Athena Parthenos was the guardian deity over that earliest and most archetypal democracy, Athens, and hence an appropriate prototype for the American female colossus who stands in protection over the United States. Although Crawford's image is less complex, both the ancient and the modern work include the helmet, the breast medallion, the shield along the side, and the sword. (Crawford replaced the image of Medusa in Minerva's breastplate with the initials "U.S.A.") Even the fluted cloak that gathers from the lower right to the left shoulder corresponds in these two matron types whose immobility, severity of facial expression, military accoutrements, and colossal size express sternness and control, very different from the serenity and suppleness of Crawford's first design, "Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace." Not so in Crawford's final militant, motionless, and massive female colossus. Crawford depicted a placid image in his Armed Liberty, in part to show that Liberty's battles had been won in North America, enabling her to stand watch over the Union and the world to enforce the sword wherever and whenever necessary. Minerva, in fact, takes on special implications for the statue's vehement stance over the globe of the world.

Jefferson Davis probably intended Statue of Freedom to be interchangeable with Minerva when he suggested the helmet, for the secretary of war knew the goddess's iconography, evident in his detailed drawing of a profile bust of Minerva with a helmet made in 1828, while he was a student at West Point. Furthermore, Thomas Crawford, Montgomery Meigs, and Jefferson Davis must have been familiar with the traditional association between America and Minerva evident in images such as the 1789 Washington peace medal by Joseph Richardson, Jr. (Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum),


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the frontispiece for the Reverend Samuel Cooper's History of Nortb America (1789), and John J. Barralet's 1815 engraving America Guided by Wisdom (Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum). In Barralet's popular engraving, the two personifications are separate figures in close association. The other two images-- the Washington peace medal and the frontispiece to Cooper's book-- fuse America and Minerva into one allegory.

As we have seen, the iconographic evolution that Crawford followed in his Statue of Freedom resulted from the politically motivated advice of Montgomery Meigs and Jefferson Davis. Slavery proved to be an explosive and divisive issue that affected not only politics but works of art on the United States Capitol building. Thomas Crawford allowed his statue to fall victim to southern suppression of potentially threatening symbols. As a result, he created a monument of compromise manifest even in the title; the work is identified by government publications as Statue of Freedom rather than its more appropriate title, Armed Liberty. Politics eroded the work's meaning, and, with each concession made by the artist, the work's iconography became more obscured. What is ironic is that during the Civil War Crawford's Statue of Freedom resonated with additional meaning that applied directly to the division between the North and the South. In particular, President Lincoln had the monument hoisted onto the Capitol dome in 1863, to symbolize the nation's reunification under northern hegemony, a meaning that Jefferson Davis, now president of the Confederacy, obviously had never intended.


This essay derives from a chapter in my book, Art and Empire: The Politics of Ethnicity in the US. Capitol, 1815-1865 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992).

1. Because Crawford had died before the statue's completion, Robert Mills cast the model in bronze. For general information about Crawford, see Robert L. Gale, Thomas Crawford: American Sculptor (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964); and Lauretta Dimmick, "A Catalogue: The Portrait Busts and Ideal Works of Thomas Crawford (1813-1857)" (Ph.D. Diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1986).

2. Walter to Rest Fenner, May 25, 1869, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

3. Meigs had first asked Randolph Rogers for proposals, but he was too preoccupied with his bronze doors for the Capitol Rotunda and hence declined the commission. See Meigs to Rogers, March 19, 1855, Meigs Letterbook, Office of the Architect of the Capitol. For information on Rogers's doors and the other works Crawford executed for the U.S. Capitol building, see Fryd, Art and Empire.

4. Meigs to Crawford, May 11,1855, Meigs Letterbook.

5. Crawford to Meigs, June 20,1855, Meigs Letterbook.

6. I derive the term synthomorphosis from Marvin Trachtenberg in The Statue of Liberty (New York: Viking Press, 1976), 65.

7. Crawford to Meigs, October 18,1855, Meigs Letterbook.

8. Literature on manifest destiny and westward expansion is extensive. Most helpful are Albert Katz Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963); Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York Vintage Books, 1966);Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1970); and Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985).

9. For information on Davis, see Clement Eaton, Jefferson Davis (New York Free Press, 1977).

10. Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches, vol. 1 (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), 34.

11. Davis to Meigs, January 15,1856, Meigs Letterbook.

12. Crawford to Meigs, March 19,1856, Meigs Letterbook.

13. Meigs to Crawford, April 24,1854, Meigs Letterbook.

14. Yvonne Korshak, "The Liberty Cap as a Revolutionary Symbol," Smithsonian Studies in American Art 1 (Fall 1987): 53-69; and Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

15. Cesare Ripa, Iconologie (New York and London: Garland, 1976), 99.

16 Korshak, "Liberty Cap," 54.

17 For more information on this work, see Robert C. Smith, "Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences," Winterthur Portfolio 2 (1965): 84-105.

18. Korshak, "Liberty Cap," 62.

19. Russell F. Weigley, Quartermaster General of the Union Army: A Biography of M.C. Meigs (New York Columbia University Press, 1959), 117, discusses Meigs's friendship with southern statesmen and his assessment of slavery.

20. Information on the iconographic development of America is extensive. Most helpful are the following: E. McClung Fleming, "The American Image as Indian Princess, 1765-1783," Winterthur Portfolio 2 (1965): 65-81; Fleming, "From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess: The American Image, 1783-1815," Winterthur Portfolio 3 (1967): 37-66; Hugh Honour, The New Golden Land:European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975); and Joshua C. Taylor, "America as Symbol," in America as Art (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976), 1-36. See also Vivien Green Fryd, "Hiram Powers's America 'Triumphant as Liberty and in Unity,'" American Art Journal 18 (1986): 54-75.

21. He also could have been inspired by the replica of the ancient goddess in Antoine Etex's sculpture Peace (1815), carved on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a city he visited in 1845.