Slave Labor and the Building of the US Capitol

It is one of the astonishing facts of the extreme fringes of the Confederate heritage movement that a group of people who claim that they want to bring people the true history display so little understanding of it … in fact, some of them are so busy writing that it leaves them very little time to read the very material they promote … or so it would seem.  Nowhere has this been more apparent recently that in the confusion I’ve seen over the use of enslaved laborers to build the United States Capitol.  Apparently this is now understood in some corners as evidence that the Lincoln administration used slaves to build the Capitol (because, after all, Washington DC is also in “the North”).

Sometimes ignorance can be so astonishing that it is breath-taking (although an interruption in the supply of oxygen to the brain might explain these bizarre claims).

The United States Capitol was designed in accordance with the flawed architectural designs of one Dr. William Thornton (a slaveholder, by the way) in the 1790s.  Enslaved laborers did in fact construct much of the inaugural building, including John Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves (you may have heard of another Hemings at Monticello, but I digress).  At that time, slavery was legal in the District of Columbia as well as in the bordering states of Virginia and Maryland: President Washington had chosen the site after his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and Congressman James Madison had secured the relocation of the capital southward (note that all three men were slaveholders).  For those wanting a more detailed report on the use of enslaved labor at this time, I direct you here.

Over time, the Capitol building underwent several other changes.  We’ve not seen nearly as much research on the role of enslaved labor in those changes.  Slavery remained a significant part of life in DC, so much so that the Compromise of 1850 continued to protect slavery in the district while ending the slave trade there (a slave auction stage was located within sight of the Capitol).

In the 1850s, work commenced on a new dome for the Capitol as part of a larger program of expansion (Thornton’s design had already been significantly revised by Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch).  Secretary of War Jefferson Davis played a major role in the design of the Stature of Freedom that adorns the top of the dome: he asked for changes so that it didn’t look as if it was advocating freedom for slaves.  Davis, of course, was also a slaveholder and later president of the Confederacy.  His chief engineer?  Montgomery Meigs, who much later was put in charge of relandscaping the grounds around Arlington House (he would eventually be replaced for a short time by William B. Franklin).

Work continued on the Capitol during the Civil War, but the recognition of the use of slave labor involves the building of the original Capitol.  Moreover, in 1862 Congress, with Lincoln’s enthusiastic support, abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, something Lincoln had first sought during his single term in Congress.  Thus slave labor was not available after that time because the slaves in DC had been freed; Maryland followed suit and ended slavery in 1864 (my Confederate heritage fanatics have never alerted me to any efforts by the Confederate Congress to free Confederate slaves, and I don’t believe that’s how freedom came to southern slaves).

Congress recently recognized the use of enslaved labor in building the Capitol, and has placed two plaques to mark the occasion.  Note the dates cited on the plaques … Lincoln was born after this work was completed, making it hard for him to approve this.

Other people have gotten their history confused on this as well.  No matter.  But at least it will be interesting if some people will simply admit their confusion and acknowledge their error (and no, I’m not going to link to their foolishness … they monitor the blog anyway).

Here’s a nice short visual history of these developments down to the present.  And here’s a C-SPAN episode on testimony before a Congressional committee.

19 thoughts on “Slave Labor and the Building of the US Capitol

  1. Connie Chastain August 23, 2011 / 6:44 am

    In 1861, when the Union Army was making war on the South, Philip Reid, a slave from Maryland, was heavily involved in the creation of the statue of Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace that was later located atop the capitol dome. He was not emancipated until 1862. Now, if there were no slaves working on the capitol during the war then (1) the war did not start until after 1861 or (2) Philip was freed before the war started, not in 1862, or (3) Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace is not part of the capitol….

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 23, 2011 / 10:22 am

      You seem confused, Connie. I mentioned the emancipation of 1862, and Reid was a part of that emancipation. I did not say there were no slaves working on the Capitol during the entire war; I pointed to the end of slavery in DC in 1862 as marking when that would have ended.

      For Reid’s story, see this.

      Could you show me the plaque marking the contribution of enslaved black labor to the buildings used by the Confederate government in Richmond? Thanks.

      • Connie Chastain August 23, 2011 / 1:28 pm

        I’m not confused, Mr. Simpson.

        Your essay implies that the “extreme fringes” of the Southern heritage movement make claims that are not true — i.e., that slave labor was used to build the U.S. capitol while U.S. troops were warring on Southerners. In fact, it is true.

        What Richmond and the Confederacy did or did not do has nothing to do with the hypocrisy of claiming the north was fighting to free slaves when (among other factors) (1) there were five slave states in the union and (2) slave labor (specifically Phillip Reid’s) helped to build the U.S. capitol WHILE U.S. troops were making war on Southerners.

        The plaques acknowledging that slave labor was used to build the capitol didn’t exist until 2010, so the U.S. government didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to recognize that contribution for 149 years.

        Maybe some people think sticking up a plaque almost a century and a half after the fact absolves the U.S. of its hypocrisy. I disagree.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 23, 2011 / 1:45 pm

          You are confused … and now you are misleading people. As I’ve pointed out, the research into the use of slave labor concerns building the original Capitol building (thus the plaques), and some people seem to have that confused with what was going on in 1861-62 (when slavery ceased in the District of Columbia). I haven’t said that slaves were not involved in the process in 1861-62: I’ve said that I’ve seen significant confusion among some people who have chosen to comment on the broader subject, and that includes you. That you continue to change your story suggests that you now know that your original claims were based on such confusion.

          Now you claim that people are saying that the North went to war to free the slaves. I haven’t, so what’s your point?

          As for hypocrisy, my understanding is that southerners have been part of the United States government for some time, and in fact white southern slaveholders took the lead in locating the District of Columbia in slave territory (and using their own slaves in the process of building the Capitol). I also understand that you’re a United States citizen. Care to tell me what role southerners played in overturning this omission in the historical record? Or are they just as guilty as everyone else? Wouldn’t that make you a hypocrite to overlook that fact as you point fingers? Why yes, it does. But I’m sure you don’t understand that, either, which suggests why it’s a waste of time discussing things with you. Thanks for the reminder.

          Apparently some defenders of southern heritage thought the Capitol was built during the Civil War. Thus the history lesson. There was construction on some expansion to the building (most notably the addition of a new dome topped by the current statue), but the building’s history goes back to the first years of the new republic.

          Meanwhile, of course, you remain silent on your embrace of the League of the South, including its call for violence. So much for southern courage.

          It’s been interesting. Now continue your stalking (which you admit doing on your blog). Without folks like me you would have nothing to blog about to your dozen devoted readers. But, as you have reminded me to ignore you, I agree that to continue this would be to wallow in your mud puddle. Just don’t complain when you see the result.

        • Corey Meyer August 24, 2011 / 10:07 am

          This is a common tactic used by those in the SHM, taking the claim that the war was about slavery and stating that since the North did not go to war to free the slaves the war was not about slavery.

          However they always…always…forget to discuss the confederate side of that story despite evidence like that found in the documents of the secession commissioners.

  2. Kevin August 23, 2011 / 7:31 am

    I like the strategy, Brooks. You can make the historical point without directing readers to these silly little sites and still feel comfortable knowing that they will eventually get around to reading it.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 23, 2011 / 10:23 am

      Oh, I think we already have evidence of that. 🙂

      Helga Ross and Connie Chastain … stalkers. 🙂

      • Kevin August 23, 2011 / 5:20 pm

        I just read this post. Wow, this is not only creepy, it redefines the whole activity of web troll.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 23, 2011 / 10:45 pm

          Well, Connie has her own blog, and Helga Ross has her little discussion group. They are free to carry on their discussions about me, including mentioning old posts in their continuing obsession (and people are welcome to follow their commentary). I just came to the conclusion that they were cluttering up the comments area. However, I reject the notion that either one is secretly sweet on me. At best it’s a passing crush. 🙂

          They’ll continue to write about me … the one who got away. 🙂

      • Roger E Watson August 24, 2011 / 2:26 pm

        She does look nice in that dress !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Charles Persinger August 24, 2011 / 5:59 am

    Maybe Connie and Helga can see if Brag Bowling is single……

  4. BorderRuffian August 24, 2011 / 6:32 am

    In 1861 did Lincoln (or the northern dominated Congress) have the power to dismiss the slave laborers and replace them with free labor? If so, why not?

    “…Secretary of War Jefferson Davis played a major role in the design of the Stature of Freedom that adorns the top of the dome: he asked for changes [liberty cap] so that it didn’t look as if it was advocating freedom for slaves….”

    Are you sure about this? The liberty cap had been on US coins from 1783. It was also on the Confederate silver half dollar.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 24, 2011 / 10:08 am

      Yes, I’m sure about Davis’s objection.

      So far the use of slave labor in 1861-62 involves Reid and the Statue of Freedom’s final preparations. As you’ll note from the blog, there hasn’t been much research done into that, so other than Reid we’re still finding out about it. Maybe those people who are so interested in black Confederates might turn their skills in that direction. Instead, however, I continue to see confusion between what Congress recently recognized (the use of slave labor in the building of the original building) and one year of the Lincoln administration. Moreover, as they seem quite passionate about this whole issue, I’m not sure why they don’t contact their own congressional representatives to make sure justice is done and the truth (as they see it) be known. I’m going to make an inquiry of the folks who direct historical research about the Capitol, because I think it’s a worthwhile project. If they fail to take similar steps, then we know that their charges of hypocrisy ring hallow, to be polite, and that they are complicit in a coverup concealing the contributions of enslaved Americans to American history. Given your own activity on these blogs, perhaps you’ll do the same.

  5. TF Smith August 24, 2011 / 7:29 am

    Maybe if you used very small words?

    And pictures?

    Your fans leave me with a mental picture of Aunt Bea crossed with Kathy Bates in Misery, for some reason…with maybe a little Glenn Close from the “bunny in the pot” movie…

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 24, 2011 / 10:15 am

      Actually, in some ways I’m being unfair to Ms. Ross, who does actually read some history, but who has other issues and who can’t resist revisiting old posts to add to some point while defrauding on her promises to explore other issues. Sometime last weekend Ms. Chastain exploded, and it’s been one screed followed by another rant ever since. For those interested in that sort of thing, they can visit her blog. I simply don’t need to have this blog become bogged down by her silliness. Ms. Chastain does equate her efforts with those of the League of the South: I see the League of the South as a far more serious matter, although she continues to skirt the issue of documenting her disagreements with the group to which she links. Perhaps that’s because there aren’t any.

  6. TF Smith August 25, 2011 / 7:26 am

    Should you tell them about RYP?

  7. Carl Schenker August 26, 2011 / 5:58 am

    Brooks —
    Your post uses the phrase “enslaved labor/laborers” several times. Recently, I have noticed the phrase “enslaved person” various places. I am curious about the seeming movement from “slave” toward “enslaved person.” I assume the intent of the usage is to recognize that “enslaved persons” were PEOPLE forced into slavery and therefore had an identity broader than the mask a slave was forced to adopt. In short, I assume the phrase is intended to dignify the person. But does such a usage run the risk of somewhat prettifying the condition of slavery? Curious whether this is a topic of discussion or usage is just drifting in that direction. Thanks for any thoughts.
    Carl Schenker

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 26, 2011 / 4:56 pm

      You’re the first person I’ve seen who suggests that this recent turn of phrase “prettifies” slavery. It’s a way in which to show respect for the people by not defining them by an imposed status. It also gets us away from a tendency to talk about “former slaves” and “ex-slaves” and encourages people to adopt a somewhat different perspective.

      • Carl Schenker August 27, 2011 / 8:04 am

        Brooks: Thank you for your reply. Just for the record, I was asking a question rather than stating a position, as I had only noticed the usage recently. CRS

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