December 2, 2008
A magnificent 19-foot-tall plaster statue rises in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall. This Statue of Freedom looks so fresh that a visitor might think it was created for just that space. In fact, it is 150 years old.
In the 1850s, noted American sculptor Thomas Crawford designed the work at his studio in Rome, Italy. The Architect of the Capitol had instructed Crawford to produce an allegorical statue, representing Liberty, to crown the larger dome planned for the newly enlarged building. Crawford's original design featured a figure wearing a "liberty cap." Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, whose department was in charge of the Capitol expansion project, objected to placing a liberty cap—the symbol of freed slaves—on the statue's head. He said it would be inappropriate because Americans had never been slaves. The designer substituted a crested Roman helmet.
The sculptor shipped the completed plaster model, disassembled and packed in six crates, from Italy in the spring of 1858. A serious leak forced the ship's captain to abort the journey in Bermuda. Months passed before the crates reached Washington. A local iron foundry cast the statue into five bronze sections. The final section was bolted into place on December 2, 1863.
The statue's plaster model, having served its purpose at the foundry, went on display in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. After a few years, it was dismantled and stored in the basement. The model remained there until 1890, when the Smithsonian Institution accepted the broken figure for display in its Arts and Industries Building. Over the next 75 years, the model greeted millions of admiring visitors. But, in 1967, Smithsonian officials, seeking space for their expanding collections, ordered the model sawed in half and stored.
Twenty-five years later, in 1992, with plans underway to temporarily remove the bronze version of the statue from the Capitol Dome for cleaning and restoration, Congress reclaimed the plaster model from the Smithsonian. After workers replaced missing pieces and painted the entire surface, the much-traveled statue went on display in the basement rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. Once again, visitors had a chance to see Freedom up close.
In 2008, the plaster statue moved again—this time to its honored place in the Visitor Center.
On October 23, 1993, during the ceremony that marked the return of the newly cleaned bronze statue to its perch atop the Capitol dome, U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove had recited a well-received poem. Fifteen years later, at the December 2, 2008, Visitor Center's dedication, Dove returned. This time, she honored the plaster version. She again recited her 1993 poem, "Lady Freedom Among Us." Here is the concluding stanza about "Lady Freedom": "Don't think you can try to forget her/ don't even try/ she's not going to budge// no choice but to grant her space/ crown her with sky/ for she is one of the many/ and she is each of us."