Partisan bickering, back-stabbing rivalries, xenophobia, character assassination, political moves that would make Machiavelli blush—no, not Washington circa 2011, but the Washington Capitol in the 1850s.
Former Washington Post congressional correspondent Gugliotta (co-author: Kings of Cocaine, 1989) returns with a prodigiously researched, generously illustrated account of the transformation of the U. S. Capitol from a cramped, cold, noisy, inadequate and ugly structure into today’s massive marble symbol of democracy. For those knowing little about the building, there are surprises on virtually every page. As the nation careened toward the Civil War, it was Jefferson Davis who championed the Capitol’s cause, fighting for the funds that the enormous project required. The author begins in the mid-1850s with the issue of Thomas Crawford’s statue, Freedom, now perched atop the Capitol dome. The original design featured a figure wearing a freedom cap, symbol of a liberated slave. Davis had a problem with that (the cap doesn’t appear on the final figure), but the great contest that Gugliotta outlines was between Army engineer Montgomery C. Meigs and architect Thomas Ustick Walter, both of whom would, at times, have control of the project. Both had ferocious work ethics, as well as enormous egos; their struggle raged for years as they contended for credit for the work. Gugliotta pauses occasionally to provide necessary historical and architectural context—including stories about marble quarries and ironworks; John Brown (whom he labels a terrorist); Presidents Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln; and the many artisans and artists, principally Constantino Brumidi, whose massive work still astonishes visitors who look upward in the rotunda.
Impressive research underlies a well-told story that’s simultaneously depressing (what a nasty species we are) and inspiring (what a wonderful species we are).