September 18, 1793
On September 18, 1793, President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. A Virginia newspaper, the Alexandria Gazette, recorded how Washington crossed the Potomac and was met by two brass bands, a volunteer artillery company, and a delegation of Masons in full regalia. They accompanied him in the first parade held in Washington, D.C.—a grand procession from the construction site of the White House to the construction site for the U.S. Capitol.
We know from that newspaper article, and from Masonic ritual, that Washington placed an inscribed silver plate under the cornerstone at the southeast corner of this building. However, we do not know whether that meant the southeast corner of the Senate wing, the first section of the building to be completed, or the southeast corner of the whole building as intended, which would locate it over on the House side. More than two centuries later, the Architect of the Capitol is still searching for that cornerstone. Metal detectors have failed to locate the silver plate.
Regardless of where the cornerstone may be found, the significance of that event was the personal interest that George Washington and other federal leaders took in this building. They were conscious of creating a republic amid a world of monarchies, and they turned to the ancient Roman republic as a model, to make the fledgling government look more impressive. In that spirit, they renamed Jenkins Hill as Capitoline Hill—soon shortened to Capitol Hill. On the draft plans for the city, Thomas Jefferson also crossed out “Congress Hall”—as the meeting place for Congress was called in Philadelphia—and wrote “Capitol” instead. At the time, the federal government was situated in Philadelphia, a city of brick, but Washington wanted a classical style for the new capital city that would be named for him, with buildings constructed in stone.
George Washington envisioned a domed structure atop Capitol Hill, and he admired the neoclassical design submitted by a physician, Dr. William Thornton, for its “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.” Thomas Jefferson similarly described Thornton’s plan as “simple, noble, beautiful, excellently distributed, and moderate in size.” Jefferson added that no one was more delighted with these plans than the president, “whose decision is most important.” Congress agreed and appropriated the funds. After laying the cornerstone, Washington returned periodically to oversee the construction, but sadly did not live to see Congress occupy the new building. He died in December 1799, less than a year before the Senate and House first convened in the Capitol.
Since then, the Capitol has grown along with the nation. New states brought more senators and representatives, and new wings had to be added to accommodate them, their staffs, and their constituents—most recently with the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center in 2008. Throughout this growth, the building has retained the classical appearance that Washington wanted. The Capitol stands as a reminder of the lasting impact of government actions—for decisions made in the 1790s continue to influence this building and this city more than two centuries later.