Between 1775 and 1783, the United States Congress and its predecessor bodies did their business in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, later known as “Independence Hall”.
The governing body convening under the Articles of Confederation in March 1781 met there as well, until the Mutiny of 1783, when a mob of angry soldiers converged on the Hall demanding payment for their service in the Revolution.
Congress requested the Governor of Pennsylvania, John Dickinson, to call up the militia and dispel the mob. Governor Dickinson sided with the veterans, and refused to aid the Congress. So it was that the United States Congress up and fled, leaving Philadelphia first for Annapolis and then Trenton, before finally ending up in New York City.
The “Residence Act” of July 1790 established the Federal government along the banks of the Potomac River. The specific site had been up for debate, before Alexander Hamilton brokered a compromise. Several delegates switched support in favor of the current location, in exchange for the Federal government assuming their states’ war debt.
The Residence Act gave President George Washington authority to select the site for the capital, setting a deadline of December 1800 for completion, when the Congress moved back to Philadelphia.
Pierre L’Enfant was selected to create the city plan, and to design the buildings themselves. His plan established the “Congress House” building on Jenkins Hill, with a grand Boulevard connecting it with the President’s house and a public space stretching westward to the banks of the Potomac.
Jefferson objected to that name for the building, preferring “Capitol”, after the Roman temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, on Capitoline Hill.
L’Enfant was fired in February 1792, with no plans having been completed for the Capitol. Then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson was a key adviser to the President, and he organized a competition to select designs for the Capitol building and for the President’s house.
An amateur architect and late entry into the competition named William Thornton was officially approved for the project, though several others had input into the finished product.
President George Washington personally laid the cornerstone of the Capitol building on September 18, 1793.
Funding problems and design squabbles plagued the project from the beginning. The building was incomplete when Congress held its first session there on November 17, 1800.
Government functions were not all that took place at the Capitol building. From its earliest days, Church services were held there as well, giving lie to currently fashionable notions of the “separation of church and state”. These services were non-denominational and voluntary. Preachers from all Protestant denominations appeared from the beginning, and Catholic priests began officiating services in 1826. Religious services would continue at the US Capitol until the Civil War.
The Capitol was partially burned down during the British sack of Washington in 1814. Reconstruction began the following year and ended with the addition of the Rotunda and the first dome.
By the 1850s, the number of new states’ representatives threatened to exceed the building’s designed capacity. President Millard Fillmore held a design competition, resulting in the House and Senate wings as you see them today.
Work began in 1855 to replace the small wood-framed dome of 1818. Weighing in at 6,400 tons and costing $1,047,291, equivalent to $27.4 million in 2016 dollars. The Capitol dome is cast iron – actually a dome-within-a-dome, finished to blend with the stone facade of the original building.
Standing atop the capitol dome is the colossal 15,000lb. “Statue of Freedom” hoisted into place on December 2, 1863.
Ironically, a slave named Philip Reid helped to cast the bronze statue, winning his freedom by the time it was put into place. In 1868, Samuel Douglas Wyeth wrote in his guide book “The Federal City, the Ins and Abouts of Washington”, that “Mr. Reed (sic), the former slave, is now in business for himself, and highly esteemed by all who know him”.
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