I watched bits and pieces of yesterday's Endless Inauguration -- despite the speeches getting shorter, the day has become more and more like some kind of Imperial Roman ceremony, cluttered with tradition-accreted rites and set-pieces atop an originally fairly spare investiture -- and early on, some dignitary or another made a pretty speech referring to the Capitol dome, invoking Lincoln's decision to continue work on it during the Civil War Between The States* as a symbol of the unfinished work of building the nation.
"Ha," thinks I, parroting the most recent version of Conventional Wisdom, "you didn't mention it was slaves who built that dome!"
Then I wondered about it. Really? True, Maryland was a Union slave state through most of that war and the District of Columbia itself was tardy in eliminating the practice.
The real answer is, "Well, no; and then again, yes."
Early on we just don't know, but given the area and what we know about practices of the day, it is likely that some proportion of the labor on the original building was done by slaves. In the expansion of 1850, the use of slaves is a matter of record.
But the dome? The one we see now is the second dome, and it was indeed built during the war years of 1861 - 1865. There's no record of slave labor being directly used on that work. (A better historian than I am might find much of interest in records of employment in quarrying and ironwork at the time; Maryland did not abolish slavery until 1864).
However-- Atop the dome, there stands a large statue: Freedom. The design was executed in plaster by Thomas Crawford, then working in France, and shipped to the U.S....where the foreman at the foundry selected to do the work went on strike. There was one man with the requisite skill to disassemble the plaster design and make the complex molds who couldn't strike: Philip Reid. He was a master craftsman...and a slave. Work started in May of 1860 and in December 1863, Reid and his crew hoisted the completed five-ton statue to the top of the new dome.
...And he supervised hauling the statue up to its assigned place a free man: in April, 1862, Congress finally got around to abolishing slavery in the District of Colombia. In building Freedom, Philip Reid had gained his own freedom.
I like that story better than the one about politicians and symbolism.
* A phrase I have purposely chosen to annoy all sides.
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