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Across The Fence: Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace
December 05, 2013 M. Timothy Nolting   

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The bronze sculpture at the top of the U.S. Capitol building, “Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace.”

One hundred and fifty years ago on December 2, 1863 the bronze sculpture of “Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace” was hoisted to the top of the United States Capitol building in Washington D. C. A thirty-five-gun salute boomed across the Capitol grounds and echoed back to the assembled crowd from each of the twelve forts that surrounded and protected the home of liberty and justice.

“Freedom,” as she is called, was designed by American-born artist and sculptor Thomas Crawford in 1855. Her journey, from disputed design to her lofty perch above the halls of democracy, involved perilous maritime travels, political posturing, economic greed and deplorable labor practices. Although not forgotten, her story and the stories of those responsible for her creation and completion are buried among the more mundane annals of history. However, on this 150th anniversary of her dedication we should take time to celebrate her place in our American history and remember those who were involved in her creation.

Originally there were two preliminary models of “Freedom” designed by Crawford. The sculptor, whose studio was in Rome, prepared two different statues, in small scale, and sent photos to Captain Montgomery Meigs, who was in charge of the artistic elements of the Capitol building’s construction. The original design depicted a robed female wearing a wreath of wheat and laurel, bearing a sword and shield in her right hand. This design was determined to be too small for its intended positioning atop the Capitol dome. A second proposal was submitted which featured a taller figure standing upon a dominant pedestal encircled with multiple symbols of democracy. “Freedom” herself was sculpted in a stronger, Roman style pose and still bearing the sword in her right hand and a wreath of laurel in her left. Replacing the wreath that the former sculpture had worn, Crawford placed a Roman liberty cap on her head. The liberty cap was representative of the Roman practice of giving freed slaves the red cap of liberty as an outward, visible sign of their release from slavery.

This second proposal was submitted to U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis for his approval. Secretary of War, Davis was in charge of the overall design and construction of the Capitol building and its décor. Davis objected to the incorporation of the liberty cap arguing that the symbol and history of the cap “…renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved.” Davis suggested that an “armed liberty” should instead be wearing a helmet to symbolize “…that her conflict is over, her cause triumphant.”

Ironically, Jefferson Davis, former congressman, senator and then Secretary of War, was a wealthy plantation slave owner from Mississippi. Davis argued that the economic system of slavery in southern America was far different from the slavery of ancient Rome and denied that the slaves on his plantation wanted that type of freedom. Davis forbade any work in the Capitol Building to make any suggestion of slavery and considered the use of the liberty cap to be a covert depiction. Meigs explained Davis’ objection to Crawford by stating that, “Mr. Davis says that he does not like the cap of Liberty introduced into the composition… American liberty is original and not the liberty of the free slave.”

In response to Davis’ objections Crawford designed a helmet depicting the head of an eagle surrounded by an elaborate array of eagle feathers. The helmet is encircled with stars and the legs and talons of the eagle are dangling from the sides of the helmet and over the ears of Lady Freedom. Although not documented by Crawford himself it has been assumed that the eagle design was intended as a symbol that represented the Native Americans. It is likely that Crawford’s use of the eagle was drawn from the iconic depiction of an Indian princess wearing a tobacco leaf skirt, feathered headdress and holding a Roman pileus and vindicta, the cap and pole, symbolic of the Roman freed slaves. Perhaps, in subtle defiance, Crawford did in fact covertly depict slavery. Sadly, in the decades preceding the dedication of “Freedom,” the United States had already forcibly removed more than 100,000 Native Americans from their homelands and placed them on reservations west of the Mississippi River.

Crawford’s final and accepted proposal incorporates the characteristics of the Greek goddess Athena and the Roman goddess Minerva with helmet, breast medallion, sword and shield. The combination of Greek and Roman influence in sculpture, the flowing robe and eagle headdress presents an imposing and powerful image. Unfortunately, most who have seen the sculpture, and are unaware of its history, assume it to be a statue of an Indian princess.

When the third and final design was approved by Jefferson Davis in April of 1856, Thomas Crawford began to sculpt the full size clay model of “Freedom” in his studio located in Rome, Italy. Once the clay model was completed a plaster cast was made that would be shipped to the United States in five separate pieces. From this cast, the final bronze sculpture would be poured and assembled. Then hoisted to the top of the Capitol building.

Before the completed cast could be crated and shipped, Crawford died suddenly in 1857 and not until the spring of 1858 was his widow able to have the crating completed and the pieces shipped. The five crates, containing the completed pieces of the sculpture, departed from Italy aboard a small sailing ship. Not far into the voyage the ship began to leak and had to make port in Gibraltar until repairs could be made. Once again seaworthy, the crew set sail only to find that the repairs did not hold and the ship was forced to seek harbor in Bermuda where the cargo was unloaded and stored until other arrangements could be made. It was not until a year later when all of the pieces arrived in New York and were delivered to Washington in March of 1859.

The plaster cast was assembled for display by an Italian craftsman employed by the U.S. Government in the construction of the Capitol. When the Capitol dome was nearing completion and would soon be ready to be crowned with the statue, the craftsman was asked to dismantle the cast for delivery to the bronze foundry. He refused to do the work unless he was paid an additional, substantial amount of money and guaranteed a long-term, multi-year contract and claimed that no one else knew how to dismantle the pieces. It was true. The sculpture had been assembled so expertly that the joints of the five pieces were invisible and no one knew how to begin the dismantling.

Clark Mills owned the foundry that had been commissioned to cast the final sculpture in bronze. Mills had a worker by the name of Philip Reid who was a talented craftsman and Mills asked Reid to figure out how the cast could be dismantled. Reid was able to discover the hidden joints and successfully dismantled the cast for transport to the foundry.

Reid was only one of several foundry workers employed by Mills and skillfully operated the furnace that controlled the blending of the molten bronze. This task, along with chasing, finishing and assembling the statue was part of Reid’s job. Most foundry workers received $1.00 a day for their labor and most worked from six to seven days a week. Philip Reid worked without pay every day of the week except Sundays. On those weeks when he worked on Sunday, he received $1.25. Philip Reid did not donate his time to this historic project and did not voluntarily work for free on Monday through Saturday every week. Philip Reid was the African-American slave of Clark Mills. Then current laws required slave owners to pay slaves for their labor if they were made to work on Sundays, so when Philip worked on Sunday he received $1.25.

Although it is quite possible that someone else would have figured out the secret of dismantling the plaster cast, it is nevertheless astonishing that it was a slave who made possible the casting in bronze of the crowning glory of our nations Capitol. In one of our nations odd quirks of history it is interesting that in the midst of a civil war, fought in part over the issue of slavery, that an enslaved man would be responsible for the completion of a sculpture entitled “Freedom.”

On April 16, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act which released slaves held within the District of Columbia. Philip Reid became a free man.

It is unknown whether or not Mr. Reid attended the ceremonies that heralded the placement of the statue on the Capitol dome. I would like to imagine that he was there, standing among the crowd, with his wife Jane whom he married in June of 1862. Perhaps they stood arm in arm as the statue was dedicated and long, wordy speeches were made. Perhaps he smiled and patted Jane’s hand as they gazed upward at the bronze sculpture, shining brightly on that cold December day and whispered, “Freedom.”

Editor’s note: M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email; acrossthefence2day@gmail.com
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