July 4, 1851
On the Fourth of July, 1851, sunny and unseasonably mild weather attracted large crowds to the Capitol’s east front plaza. The festive multitudes looked forward to a day of parades, speeches, and fireworks. These events were to celebrate the laying of a cornerstone as the beginning of a major Capitol construction project.
Five new states had entered the Union over the previous six years. This expansion added to the membership of Congress and strained the capacities of the Capitol’s already overcrowded legislative chambers. The recently enacted Compromise of 1850 had eased fears that the nation would soon break apart over the issue of permitting slavery in states created from the nation’s western territories. The resulting burst of confidence in the future of the Union led Congress to authorize an expansion of the Capitol. These extensions would provide new Senate and House chambers and much-needed committee rooms.
Shortly before noon on July 4, 1851, a colorful parade reached the Capitol. It included President Millard Fillmore, several veterans of the Revolutionary War, and three individuals who had witnessed the placing of the building’s original cornerstone 58 years earlier.
Into a specially fashioned granite block—believed to have been placed in the northeast corner of the new House wing—Capitol Architect Thomas U. Walter set current newspapers, documents, and $40.44 in coins. Using the same trowel that President George Washington had employed in setting the 1793 cornerstone, a Masonic official performed a sealing ceremony.
Then all eyes turned to the east front steps for a view of the nation’s foremost orator, former senator Daniel Webster. In his two-hour address, Webster compared the United States of that day with the nation at the time of the first cornerstone laying. He also noted that he had placed a brief handwritten statement under the cornerstone. That statement included his message to future generations. “If it shall be the will of God that this structure shall fall from its base, that its foundation be upturned…Be it known that on this day the Union of the United States of America stands firm, that their Constitution still exists unimpaired, and with all its original usefulness and glory; growing every day stronger and stronger in the affections of the great body of the American people, and attracting more and more the admiration of the world.”
An artillery salute and fireworks on the Mall concluded this most jubilant Independence Day.
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