The Capitol Dome

2017 Dome 54.1

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V isitors to the United States Capitol often spend a fair amount of time in the Rotunda, admiring the massive paintings, Doric pilasters, and life-sized statues of prominent Americans. As schoolchildren and tour groups gaze upwards into the Dome they see Constantino Brumidi's Apotheosis of Washington (1865) (fig. 1). Completed near the end of the American Civil War, this stunning fresco features a radiant George Washington rising into the heavens, accompanied by the female figures of Victory and Liberty. Surrounded by thirteen maidens and groups that represent the themes of commerce, agriculture, war, science, mechanics, and the sea, Washington is visually enshrined as America's greatest founder and hero. But what many fail to realize is that long before Brumidi's fresco, the Rotunda was designated to serve as a grandiose mauso- leum for the remains of George Washington. Two stories beneath the Rotunda floor, the tomb would safeguard the republic's most revered citizen, resting at the center of the city that shared his name and symbolically lying at the legislative heart of the Ameri- can nation. The history of Washington's tomb in the Capitol illuminates how American hero worship evolved and transformed during the nineteenth century. Federalists attempted to fuse European hero worship traditions with American republicanism, using Washington's tomb to further their political agenda. Democratic-Republi- cans charged that this form of veneration smacked of regality and decadence. They branded it as antithetical to the ideals of the American Revolution, contending that the people, not an individ- ual, secured independence for the nation. Washington's descendants ultimately ensured that his body would never lie beneath the Rotunda. Nonetheless political parties, factions, and organizations battled each other incessantly to claim George Washington for themselves. With so many different interpretations of Washington, these groups believed that possession of the body gave its owners the power to control the memory of Wash- ington for political, social, economic, and cultural rea- sons. The tomb is a testament to George Washington's significance to a young nation, but its emptiness speaks volumes about our rejection of Old World traditions and the political contentiousness of our national past (fig. 2). A number of historians have explored the origins of the tomb, debating whether or not Washington encour- aged the idea of a tomb for himself. C.M. Harris argued that Washington "recognized the political usefulness of his own, world famous image (and body) in fixing the location of the permanent capital and in establish- ing the 'national faith' of the new government." Rubil Morales-Vázquez contended that Washington supported Dr. William Thornton's idea and design for a tomb because "self-interest coincided with what he perceived to be the public good." Karal Ann Marling countered that while Washington personally inspected all of the submitted plans for the new Capitol, there was no tomb specifically mentioned in Thornton's winning design. Architectural historian William C. Allen argued that while Thornton wished to place an equestrian statue of Washington in the "Grand Vestibule," only after Washington's death did he promote the idea of entomb- ing him in the Capitol. The original Thornton plans are long lost, but all of these scholars drew vastly differ- ent conclusions from the same document: William Thornton's letter to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia in April 1793. 1 Thornton's letter to the Commissioners describes the Capitol's prominent features in great detail. He men- Fig. 2. Washington's tomb at the Capitol, c. 1916 3 THE CAPITOL DOME SEE NOTES FOR IMAGE CREDIT S.

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