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The U.S. Capitol Is ‘a Building Like No Other in the Land’: David McCullough

David McCullough
·14-min read
Win McNamee/Getty
Win McNamee/Getty

Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough delivered this speech to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in 2016, and it was subsequently collected in The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, from which it is reprinted here.

So here we are in the Capitol of the United States of America on Capitol Hill, the acropolis of our nation. It is a building like no other in the land, wherein the highest aspirations of a free and open society have been written into law, generation after generation, where, time and again, brave and eloquent words have changed history, and where the best and some of the worst of human motivations have been plainly on display. This magnificent structure has been called “the temple of liberty”… “the spirit of America writ in stone”… “a mighty engine”… “an ennobling shrine”… “a city unto itself.” Thomas Jefferson called it “the great commanding theater” of the nation. It may also be said that here on this site, within these walls, there is an abundance of story such as to be found in no other structure in our country.

Some have likened the Congress to an ever-flowing river, the content of which keeps steadily changing. From the time Congress first took up its business here on the Hill in 1800 more than eleven thousand men and women have come and gone as members of the House and Senate. The current elected members number 535. But the continuing population of this “city unto itself” is greater by far. There are a total of 1,800 Capitol Hill police serving, or a force more than three times the size of Congress. Some one hundred engineers look after the electricity, plumbing, and fire protection. Another army of workers maintains the grounds. Barbers, chefs, waiters and waitresses, a resident physician, and congressional staff members are also part of the workforce within the building.

The Night American Terrorists Bombed the U.S. Capitol

Then there are the 65 tour guides who serve a steady flow of visitors numbering from three to five million a year—men, women, schoolchildren by the thousands from all parts of the country and the world.

I set foot here first as a high school student all the way from Pittsburgh. I was 15.

It is fitting that we do justice to the past, and that we travel far and wide to see where our history happened—to the birthplaces and homes of our notables, to Independence Hall and battlefields and legendary river crossings. But think of the volume and range and the immense consequences of so much that has taken place at this one site—the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, or the declarations of two world wars, or approval of the Marshall Plan and building an interstate highway system like no other on earth. It was here during the Great Depression that Franklin Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Here, in an inaugural address known the world over, that John Kennedy called on us to “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

To be sure, there has been no absence of pointless onstage preening in this “great commanding theater,” no shortage of self-serving blather and endless days taken up with matters unbearably dull. “We have the power to do any damn fool thing we want to do, and we seem to do it about every 10 minutes,” one senator, William Fulbright, commented 50 years ago. And now we are confronted with the disgraceful “Dialing-for-Dollars” reality of things as they are currently in Congress.

But then history is human. History is composed of the bad and the good, as much of the goings-on here amply illustrate. There was that day on the Senate floor in 1856 when political anger turned to manic rage and a South Carolina congressman, Preston Brooks, attacking from behind with a heavy cane, tried to club to death the outspoken abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and nearly succeeded.

And there was the day in 1950 when a freshman senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, had the courage to stand and challenge Senator Joseph McCarthy as no one had, saying that those who shouted loudest about Americanism all too frequently ignored such basic principles of Americanism as “the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, the right of independent thought.”

Harry Truman later said to her, “Mrs. Smith, your declaration of conscience was one of the finest things that has happened here in Washington in all my years in the Senate and the White House.”

As should be appreciated, too, there is here, and rightfully, an enduring pride that comes with serving one’s country, of navigating with skill and to good effect within this political institution. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan once put it proudly, “I am neither a Black politician nor a woman politician. Just a politician, a professional politician.”

My old friend Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, while standing outside the Capitol on 9/11, said to himself, “Lord, let us get back in there… we had to say to the American people that we were here, including our loyal and brave staff.”

Think of those who have passed through these very doors. Think of the turning points in our history that have taken place here—here where we are gathered in Statuary Hall, the old House of Representatives.

It was here that James Monroe, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Millard Fillmore were all inaugurated president… here that a foreign citizen addressed Congress for the first time—the Marquis de Lafayette. This is historic ground if ever there was. Congress passed the Land Grant College Act here, established the Smithsonian Institution, voted for war on Mexico, a decision strongly opposed by many, including a congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. Here, by acts of Congress, eight states became part of the Union—Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, and California—states that in area nearly doubled the size of the country.

Acoustics in the hall were erratic, mainly terrible. From certain locations on the floor one could hear what was being said—even whispered—on the far side of the room. At the same time it was next to impossible to hear what was being said from the podium.

There are old tales of ghostly footsteps echoing here at night. According to one story, a Capitol policeman entered the hall on a New Year’s Eve to find all the statues dancing.

One of the most moving moments in our country’s story took place just over there. A brass plate on the floor marks the spot. In 1831, at age 63—considered quite old at the time—a newly elected member of the House, John Quincy Adams, took his seat. Thirty years earlier, in 1800, his father, President John Adams, had addressed Congress when it convened for the first time in the still unfinished Capitol. John Quincy had been an ambassador several times, a senator, secretary of state, and president. Now he had returned to the same setting where he had been inaugurated president to serve as a mere freshman congressman. It was something no president had ever done and, as he wrote in his diary, no election or appointment had ever conferred on him such pleasure—including the presidency.

He was short, portly, a bit drab in dress, not at all impressive in appearance, but he soon left little doubt as to where he stood on issues. He was determined, incorruptible. He was also one of the few members of the House whose voice could be plainly heard from the podium, acoustical problems notwithstanding. “Mr. Adams,” wrote Congressman Joshua Giddings of Ohio, “belongs to no local district, no political party, but to the nation and to the people.”

He loved the House of Representatives, loved the theater of all its proceedings, rarely missing even an hour when the House was in session. He worked fervently to establish the Smithsonian, opposed the war with Mexico with unfailing tenacity, and spoke with an eloquence scarcely equaled then or since—“Old Man Eloquent,” he was called. He was the most ardent and faithful antislavery member of the House of Representatives.

Tenacity of purpose burned in him to the very end. Feb. 21, 1848, was the day John Quincy Adams collapsed here at his desk. He died two days later. He had died “in harness,” as said then.

On Feb. 26, he lay in state here, the room packed with an immense crowd including all members of both houses, the Supreme Court, and President Andrew Jackson. “We have never witnessed a more august spectacle,” wrote one Washington newspaper. “In point of character, as a man and as a politician, none of the public men at Washington,” said the New York Herald, “are approachable to what Mr. Adams was.”

Two all-important lessons of history stand clearly expressed in this our national Capitol. The first is that little of consequence is ever accomplished alone. High achievement is nearly always a joint effort, as has been shown again and again in these halls when the leaders of different parties, representatives from differing constituencies and differing points of view, have been able, for the good of the country, to put those differences aside and work together.

I witnessed this firsthand in 1978, during the Senate debate over the Panama Canal Treaty, a measure strongly favored by the Carter administration. My book on the canal, The Path Between the Seas, the result of six years of writing and research, had been published only the year before, and convinced as I was that the treaty was much the wisest course for our country and for Panama, I volunteered as an independent advocate for the treaty and was on hand here on the Hill through several months. At times I had the pleasure of hearing my book quoted on the Senate floor, and by those taking opposite positions. But, so it often is with history. It can serve to validate all kinds of opinions.

In the course of the debates I saw Republicans and Democrats alike change their point of view and I saw that both sides were trying to do what they felt to be the right thing. I witnessed no animosity, no enmity. In the end it was only when a number of Republicans, and Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee in particular, saw the treaty as the right course and made it a joint effort, that the treaty passed. And it has proven to have been the right decision over the past 38 years.

The second lesson to be found here is that history is about far more than politics and war only. So much that is most expressive of American life and aspirations and contributions to the human spirit is to be found in the arts—in architecture, paintings, sculpture, and engineering genius. We Americans are builders at heart and in what we build we often show ourselves at our best. You have only to look around at so much to be seen in this great building.

In view of the current political climate, let me point out, too, how much of what we see throughout the building was the work of immigrants. William Thornton, a physician who won a design competition for the Capitol in 1792, was a native of Tortola in the British West Indies. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first professional architect to take charge of the design of the building, including this hall, was born and educated in England. James Hoban, the architect who restored the White House after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812, and who also worked on the Capitol, was from Ireland. And Collen Williamson, the stone mason who oversaw the laying of the foundation of the Capitol, was a Scot.

Then there was amazing Constantino Brumidi, the artist whose vibrant frescoes fill the uppermost reaches of the great Rotunda under the Capitol dome and whose decorative genius brightens the corridors and hallways of the Senate wing in such a manner as rarely to be seen. A tiny figure who stood only five feet five inches tall, he was exuberant in spirit and produced work here of such monumental scale as had never been seen in our country.

There was also Carlo Franzoni, the sculptor who did the statue of Clio, the muse of history, over there, above the main door keeping note of the history taking place here.

Brumidi and Franzoni, as you might imagine, were both from Italy, as were any number of workers, skilled masons, and stonecutters.

It might also be added that our capital city, Washington, was itself the design of an immigrant, the French engineer Pierre L’Enfant, and that the two finest, most famous movies ever made about Congress, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise and Consent, were directed by immigrants, Frank Capra and Otto Preminger, respectively.

And yes, there were the African American slaves who did much of the work on the Capitol—how many in all will never be known, but play a large part they did. Notable evidence of their labors are the pillars that stand all about us here. “Hired out” by their owners, they cut the marble in the quarries.

Building and rebuilding the Capitol took more time and labor and patience than many might imagine. Things went wrong. There were angry differences of opinion over matters of all kinds. There were accidents, numerous injuries, and one dramatic, narrow escape.

At work one day on his frescoes in the upper reaches of the great dome, Brumidi slipped from his scaffold and only just managed to catch hold of a rung of the ladder and for fifteen minutes hung for dear life with both hands some 55 feet above the marble floor until a Capitol policeman happened to glance up and rushed to the rescue. Brumidi by then was 72 and had been at work in the Capitol for 26 years.

The great dome famously took form through the Civil War and remains as intended the colossal commanding focal point of our capital city. It is primarily the work of two exceptional Americans, architect Thomas U. Walter and structural engineer Montgomery C. Meigs, each a story. Walter started out as a bricklayer. Meigs, a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, was all of 36 when he took on one of the most challenging engineering assignments ever and created what stands as a masterpiece of nineteenth-century engineering with inner and outer cast-iron shells weighing nearly nine million pounds.

A great lover of the arts and an artist himself, Meigs also had much to do with the art that was to fill the building—including the part played by Brumidi and the choice of the American sculptor Thomas Crawford to create the nineteen-and-a-half-foot-high Statue of Freedom that would stand atop the dome.

Completed in 1868, the gleaming dome remains the focal point of our capital city and though there have been modifications and additions to the building in the years since, it remains essentially as it was then, a symbol of freedom, the structure bespeaking more than any other our history, our American journey, evoking and encouraging powerfully pride in our system and, yes, patriotism.

And now we are in the midst of another election season, which like so many before will determine much to follow—more than we can possibly know.

Over there above the door, on the side of Clio’s chariot, is the work of the Massachusetts clockmaker Simon Willard. It has been doing its job a long time, since 1837, 179 years ago. It ticks on, still keeping perfect time.

My feeling is Clio, too, is attending to her role now no less than ever, taking note of the history we are and will be making.

On we go.

From THE AMERICAN SPIRIT: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough. Copyright © 2017 by David McCullough. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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