Jefferson Davis, the Civil War, and the Building of the U.S. Capitol

Guy Gugliotta, author of 'Freedom's Cap,' discusses what it took to build the U.S. Capitol.

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The U.S. Capitol is recognized as a symbol of American democracy and freedom, but support for building the monumental home of the national legislature was far from universal. Constructed in the years leading up to and during the Civil War, it was widely seen initially as a symbol of government excess. Guy Gugliotta, a seasoned congressional reporter, explores the characters who saw to the building's completion and the challenges they faced in Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War. Gugliotta spoke with U.S. News about why future secessionist Jefferson Davis had to persuade Congress to build the Capitol and what Americans can learn from that struggle now. Excerpts:

Why did the United States need a new Capitol?

Having just won the Mexican War, the United States had accumulated a huge tract of territory. There was still plenty of vacant territory left over from the Louisiana Purchase. With these territories clamoring to become states, all of the sudden you are going to have many more senators and many more congressmen in Washington, and the existing building, which is now the center section of the current building, was simply not big enough. The existing Capitol was pretty hard-used. It was leaking, nothing had really been done on it since 1829, there were rotting timbers, trash everywhere. In the House chamber, which is now called Statuary Hall, it was impossible to hear. Several people suggested that one of the reasons Congress was at each others' throats all the time was that nobody could understand anybody else, so instead of having normal conversations, they were screeching at each other all the time, so everybody got mad. It was bedlam.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Was 2011 One of the Worst Years for the U.S. Government in American History?]

Why were so many lawmakers opposed to the idea of building a new Capitol initially?

Most people were very much local. They were very much into their states, into their communities. They really didn't pay much attention to the federal government. The federal government was a necessary evil. It was someplace to go where you could get taxes raised. But Jefferson Davis saw the United States and all that it could become because he had a much larger perspective. He had a national vision that most of his colleagues didn't have.

How could the man who was the early champion of the U.S. Capitol be the same man who led the Southern secession?

I think Jefferson Davis was almost a split personality. When Congress is debating what becomes the Great Compromise [of 1850], and Davis at that point is a senator from Mississippi, there is nobody that is more of a states' rights, pro-slavery guy than him. He threatens secession all the time, he's got a really bad temper, and he is really nasty to cross. At the same time, he is very much an advocate of improving and increasing the reach of the United States. I think where he gets this is that he was a West Point graduate, a Mexican War hero, an Army veteran. He was in his 40s at this time, and at that moment he had probably traveled around the country and knew more about the country just as much as anybody in the United States.

[Read more author Q&As in U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

Why is it important for the United States to build monuments?

Davis's view was that the United States was becoming a great nation, and a great nation needed a great seat of government. Also, I think, in a country like ours, with the exception of the Native Americans, where everybody comes from someplace else, national symbols are very important. I think we care a lot more about our buildings, our statues, our songs, our flag—things like this—than other people.

How did the conflict over building the Capitol and the conflict over slavery interact?

Enthusiasm for building the new Capitol in 1850 is really minimal. At the same time, the desire to have a solution to the slavery problem with the Great Compromise is huge. As the decade progresses, the enthusiasm for the Capitol starts to grow just as the hope for a solution there begins to deteriorate. Very gradually, the Capitol becomes a symbol of what the nation could become if there wasn't this other horrible problem. As the country sinks into despair, the Capitol rises.

Corrected 4/16/2012: The headline of a previous version of this article misattributed Jefferson Davis’s role in building the Capitol.