Statue of Freedom
A Poem from Lady Freedom's perspective
The Incredible History of the Statue of Freedom
A Most Incredible Journey
Crowning the Capitol Building Dome stands perhaps America’s most prominently placed work of art. Yet she goes relatively unnoticed by most and her extraordinary history and symbolism are known by fewer still.
In 1855, discussions had begun on how to adorn the top of the Capitol Dome. This task fell to Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis and Capitol Engineer, Montgomery Meigs. Thomas Crawford was an American sculptor who had taken residence in Rome since 1835. He had already been commissioned to design the pediment over the Senate entrance called Progress of Civilization. In 1855, Meigs and Davis commissioned Crawford, to design the Capitol’s crowning glory they called Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace.
Crawford completed the full-sized plaster model in his Rome studio in 1856 for which he was awarded $5,000 before dying the following year. In April of that following year, the plaster model was separated into five large sections. Each section was placed in a separate crate and loaded aboard the bark Emily Taylor in Leghorn, Italy where from it set sail on April 19 for New York.
While still in the Mediterranean, the Emily Taylor sprang a leak. A month after leaving port she put in at Gibraltar for repairs. All the cargo except the precious crates was unloaded. The bark was calked and a month later she launched a second time for New York.
The second leg of the voyage, however, had scarcely begun when heavy gales tossed the bark. The beleaguered craft developed serious leaks and much of her cargo was thrown overboard to keep her afloat. The five crates and the Emily Taylor somehow made it to Bermuda but the ship was badly damaged. She was sold and the cargo was sent on to New York aboard other ships.
Amidst this confusion the five crates were separated. Some of the crates arrived in New York in December with the rest arriving months later. In March of 1859 the reunited crates were shipped to Washington, D.C., arriving nearly a year after having left Italy.
The statue was to be cast in bronze at Mills Foundry. The Capitol had been expanded and a new larger dome was being constructed to match the larger building’s proportions. Before the statue could be installed atop the new dome, the construction would first need to be completed.
Officials decided to assemble the plaster sections so passersby could admire the full model during the construction. According to one account, it was "put together so nicely by an adroit Italian employed about the Capitol that no crevices were perceptible."
This attention to detail proved to be a problem when time came to transport the model to the foundry where the bronze statue was to be cast. The model was far too large and fragile to move in one piece and the Italian craftsman who knew where the joints were refused to divulge the secret unless offered substantially more money to continue the project.
Refusing to play by these rules, foundry owner Clark Mills assigned the task of solving the puzzle to one of his most skilled workmen, Philip Reid. Reid was to be entrusted with not only dismantling the model but casting the individual sections and assembling and mounting the bronze sections atop the dome. In so doing Mills was undertaking something quite audacious and brutally ironic. The extraordinarily complex project of procuring and placing one of the world’s most powerful symbols of freedom had been entrusted to Philip Reid, a mulatto slave.
With ingenious simplicity, Reid attached a rope to the head of Crawford’s plaster model and used a block and tackle to tug gently upward until hairline cracks in the plaster began to reveal the model’s separate sections. The delicate model could now be disassembled and gingerly transported by wagon to Mills Foundry. Philip Reid supervised the very technical bronze casting of the massive five sections, each weighing over a ton.
In the meantime, the nation had plunged into civil war. Despite Washington D.C. being the Union’s capital, slavery still persisted in the capital as Reid was selected to undertake the audacious project. At last, on April 16, 1862, Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, freeing thousands of slaves living specifically in the District of Columbia, including Reid.
The statue’s massive bronze sections were transported to the Capitol in June of 1862 but unfortunately, the Civil War would delay the installation of the statue. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederate states. The statue’s installation atop the dome would finally begin later that year. Finally at noon on December 2, 1863 under Reid’s supervision the top section of the Statue of Freedom was raised and bolted atop the Capitol dome. Thus ended the eight and a half year odyssey from inception to placement of a truly remarkable symbol.
The event was hailed by a salute of 35 canons, one for each state at that time, including those in the Confederacy. The salute was answered by canons at the twelve forts around Washington, D.C.
As the thunderous call of freedom and response reverberated about the capital, an adolescent nation’s matriarch stood tall and proud over her quarrelsome brood, gazing distantly over a frosty land to the east toward a new horizon. Somewhere a newly freed mulatto slave smiled broadly, taking in the canon’s roar in symbolic compensation.
Meanwhile, Crawford’s plaster model, having completed its epic journey, had now served its purpose at the foundry. Its sections were once again reassembled and the model displayed in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. The model had begun to show signs of deterioration and after a few years, it was dismantled again and relegated to the basement. In 1890, the Smithsonian Institution accepted the broken figure, exhibiting it in the Arts and Industries Building. It would remain there until 1967 when Smithsonian officials, seeking space for expanding collections, had the statue sawed in half and stored in the basement.
The darkness of the basement likely could have been the model’s last stop were it not for a Hawaiian woman named Morrnah Simeona. Simeona was a teacher and practitioner of ho’oponopono—a traditional Hawaiian forgiveness and reconciliation process.
One day as she was relaxing on the Capitol Building’s lawn, the Statue of Freedom, as it had become known, caught her attention. Feeling a profound connection, Simeona felt the statue speaking to her.
“Do you know who I am?” asked the statue.
Morrnah replied “Oh, you're Pocahontas.”
The statue responded, “No, I'm the Lady of Freedom, and from today on your work will be to set me free."
Hearing Lady of Freedom’s call, Simeona committed herself to the cause. In 1989, she presented a Bill to the Hawaiian House Committee on Intergovernmental Relations and International Affairs, asking that the Lady of Freedom be recognized as a symbol of World Peace. In her speech to the committee, Morrnah Simeona said of Lady of Freedom,
"She represents freedom for the United States of America and for the Cosmos, not just for mankind but also for all of creation. To initiate awakening in the people of our great country is Divine destiny—to bring Peace and Freedom to the world and the entire cosmos which is reflected in the inscription at the base of the Lady of Freedom: ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ out of many one."
Simeona had also learned the statue’s model had fallen into disrepair and had been unceremoniously cut in half and stored in the Smithsonian basement. Appealing mostly to members of her own ho’oponopono foundation, Simeona raised the funds to restore and relocate what she called the "consciousness of the nation.” In 1993 the restored model was placed in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building.
In 2008, the plaster model of the statue moved again to an honored place in Emancipation Hall in the new Capitol Visitor Center. And thus concludes Lady Freedom’s extraordinary journey, at least for now.