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Why No Liberty Cap On The Nation's Capitol?

     This 150th Anniversary demands that we remember that the Statue of Freedom did not start out with a clearly defined ideological purpose. Freedom was "born" not in response to the clamor of a Monumental Idea, but in response to a need to fill a hole in the rebuilding of the Nation's Capitol. When the wooden beams of the Capitol were replaced by steel beams it expanded the space on the dome and required a larger structure to fill it.

Thomas Crawford, a struggling American sculptor living in Rome, received the contract to create a statue. He received minimum ideological supervision from Captain Montgomery Meigs, the Army Corps of Engineers' construction supervisor at the Capitol. Crawford's first design submitted to Meigs was returned because of minor flaws at the base of the proposed statue. The design was of a lady with a sheathed sword and a crown of wheat leaves . Crawford's second design went far beyond the simple corrections requested by Meigs. He made a radical change in the headdress, replacing the wreath with a liberty cap worn by Roman freed slaves.The liberty cap was a round cloth stocking lid with a top stem that flapped about one side of the head or the other. The cap could be pulled all the way down to the ears, completely covering the head and making it impossible to see the wearer's hair or hair style.

The liberty cap originated in Phrygia. The powerful Roman army defeated this small Asian country and brought thousands of slaves to Rome - all of them with shaved heads, signifying their subordinate status. When the slaves were freed the ritual included the presentation of a liberty cap to cover their shaved heads.

The former slaves wore liberty caps while their hair grew out. During this time they placed the stem of the cap so that it pointed forward. When they grew a full head of hair they discarded the liberty cap and ended the symbol's statement of freedom's triumph of the present over the past.

The liberty cap was the most potent part of Crawford's second design and it offered a possible Monumental Idea for the statue: "freedom out of the abolition of American slavery." For a society that was part slave, part free and was at war with itself over its slave parts, the abolition of slavery should have been an obvious idea for a symbol named Freedom.

But this obvious Idea represented in the proposed liberty cap on the head of a statue atop the Capitol could not stand because of the opposition of the project's supreme decision maker: Lincoln's Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

Davis complained bitterly about Crawford's topping the proposed statue with a liberty cap. He argued that the liberty cap's history "renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved." Davis believed that the use of the cap on a statue crowning the Capitol would be misleading and dangerous. Instead of the liberty cap he suggested that Armed Liberty wear a war helmet.

Meigs reported Davis' objections to Crawford and asked for a change in the design. Crawford complied without objecting and replaced the liberty cap with a Roman helmet and eagle feathers. Crawford sent the final design to Meigs with a letter commenting on the changes:

"I have read with much pleasure the letter of the Hon. Secretary and his remarks have induced me to disperse with the 'cap'.... I hope the Hon. Secretary will look upon it as proof of my desire to merit the continuation of his confidence in my ability."

The project to develop a plaster model of the statue proceeded as a straight-out business proposition. Crawford was free to develop "Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace" in terms of what it meant to him, not what it meant to some pressure group of Americans trying to advance some social or political cause. The statue's development going forward without a Monumental Idea -- a gift without the giver, caused criticisms from some American historians, notably Vivian Fryd, who wrote that "Crawford allowed his statue to fall victim to Southern suppression of potentially threatening symbols."

So the answer to the question "What happened to Freedom?" has to be answered in terms of what did NOT happen; the covering of her head with a symbol -- the liberty cap --that could have established a Monumental Idea: truly American freedom from the abolition of slavery.

Article Source:

Eugene Walton is the author of The Biography of Philip Reid (2006 ) and Philip Reid After Slavery (2013).

Posted on 2013-09-13, By: *

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Note: The content of this article solely conveys the opinion of its author.

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