What is the history of the United States Capitol Building?
Early in the history of the United States, the Capitol Building, or United States Capitol, was authorized and built in the US's newly formed capital in Washington D.C. It was to serve as the seat of the US government's legislative branch from 1800 when the legislative branch was moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. Washington's site was seen as a compromise between Northern and Southern states, which had disputed where the seat of government for the United States should be.
Construction and Early History
The history of the Capitol building begins with the passage of the Residence Act of 1790, which mandated a formal seat for the US federal government. Northern states would have preferred a site such as New York or Philadelphia as the likeliest place for the seat of the US government; however, after the federal government agreed to take on Revolutionary War debt from northern states, the northern states agreed to Washington D.C. becoming the newly built seat of government. The US government gave the transition period for the legislative branch to be transferred to D.C. within 10 years, lasting between 1790-1800, and Philadelphia serving as the branch's temporary home. The French-American engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant designed the new capital city of Washington D.C., where he planned for 'Congress House,' as the Capitol was envisioned to be called, to be located on its present site on Jenkin's Hill (now called Capitol Hill).
A broad avenue would connect the President's House (White House) with Congress House. Early on, the founders of the United States used ancient Rome as their example. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, saw the Temple of Jupiter in Rome as an example of what the future Capitol would look like, with the building envisioned as the shining temple on a hill that would guide the republic, mainly ruled by an elite. In fact, it was Thomas Jefferson who eventually pushed to change the name from Congress House to the Capitol after the hill in which the Temple of Jupiter stood, which was one of seven hills of ancient Rome.
After a competition held on what the Capitol would look like, where the winner would get $500, the architect, William Thornton, inspired by the Louvre and the Paris Pantheon, was chosen as the main design. A rival to Thornton, Stephen Hallet, a French architect, wanted a grander building and was critical of Thornton's suggestion. Eventually, the two architect's designs were integrated to form much of the Capitol and the initial building's current core. Later, Thomas Ustick Walter and August Schoenborn would also greatly influence the current building by designing the north wing and later dome, respectively.
On September 18, 1793, President George Washington laid the Capitol's foundation, with a ceremony taking place in which he and eight other Freemasons dressed in their masonic clothing. By 1800, the Capitol building was ready to be used for its designed purpose. Interestingly, early in its history, the Capitol was also used as a church for Sunday services, with the speaker's podium serving as the pulpit.
Although the Senate wing was not finished, on November 17, 1800, both the House and Senate were in the Capitol session for the first time. By 1812, both wings of the Capitol were mostly completed (Figure 1).
The first time the Capitol was breached was on August 24, 1814, when British forces entered Washington and burned parts of the city and Capitol. No breach would occur again until the events of January 6th, 2021. Within a year of the first breach and partial burning, the Capitol was being reconstructed, led by two military engineers (George Bomford and Joseph Gardner Swift). During the building's reconstruction, Congress continued to meet but in another building called the Old Brick Capitol that was demolished in 1929. The Capitol was reused for its legislative purpose continuously since 1819. By 1824, the original dome was also completed (Figure 2).
In 1850, the building was significantly expanded to include the new House and Senate wings. The original dome was replaced with a new cast-iron dome larger than the original low, timber-framed design (Figure 2). Thomas U. Walter designed the dome to be 100 feet, with inspiration from Les Invalides in Paris. A significant part of the construction in the 1850s was carried out by slave labor. The Statue of Freedom was placed on top of the dome in 1863, with the dome completed that year.
The rotunda is perhaps the oldest and most distinct feature inside the building, which still encompasses the 1800 original smaller center. The Capitol grounds were extensively redesigned using Fredrick Olmstead's landscape designs between 1874 to 1892, and work also continued around the Mall using his designs. He also recommended new terrace extensions to the north, west, and south sides of the Capitol that have since been completed. New additions occurred to the East Front of the Capitol in 1904, as the large dome and its weight put extra strain on the building.
In 1958, the East Portico was extended. Corinthian columns from the original building were also replaced as part of this larger project, with the original columns now used as part of a large display in the National Arboretum. Since 1960, the Capitol has been declared as an official National Historical Landmark in the United States. In 1993, on September 18, 1993, the Capitol's bicentennial was celebrated by re-enacting the masonic ceremony conducted by Washington and others, with Senator Strom Thurmond, a Freemason, leading the ceremony. Until 1981, the Capitol's East Front was used for Presidential inauguration; the West Front has been used since 1981 for this event.
Recent History and Key Events
On December 2, 2008, the United States Capitol Visitor Center opened to the public, the same date the dome finished in 1863, with the building dedicated to tell the history of the site and act as a starting point for tours of the Capitol. The center was built underground on the Capitol's east side to keep the main view of the Capitol Building and Grounds clear of obstruction, with the building itself being about 580,000 square feet. From 2012-2016, extensive restoration has taken place on the building. Roughly $61 million had been appropriated for external renovation, while over $20 million had already been spent working around the dome. From 2014-2016, extensive scaffolding covered the dome. The work was also pushed quickly so that the 2017 inauguration of the President would not have the scaffolding as part of the view. The work was finished just before the 2016 election, with working finishing in September of that year.
In addition to inaugurations that have taken place in Washington D.C. since 1801, the Capitol has been part of key historical events. Every year, the building serves as a key site for Independence Day celebrations and fireworks, and National Memorial Day concerts. In Martin Luther King's famous March on Washington in August 1963, the Capitol was famously not used as the site of the events and speech since the goal of the march was not to make members of Congress feel under attack or siege but rather that they were part of the process of creating an equal society. Many other protests, including against the Vietnam War and Iraq war, were held near the Capitol and along the National Mall. There have been various violent events within the Capitol over the years.
In 1835, there was an attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson. In 1856, senator Preston Brooks viciously beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane over slavery, which Brooks had strongly supported. There was a small explosion caused by dynamite in 1915 on the 4th of July weekend in 1915 when a former Harvard University professor Erich Muenter had exploded the dynamite due to Congress funding Great Britain while the United States was officially neutral in World War I. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists entered the House gallery, where they began firing indiscriminately with their handguns before being stopped and arrested. Five members of congress were hurt. In 1971 and 1983, two bombings that caused minor damage went off.
Outside of senators, presidents, and other key or major government officials who have been lain in state at the Capitol, officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson were also given that honor in 1998 after a shooting incident at the Capitol building, with Chestnut being the first African American to be given that honor. Gibson was killed in an exchange of gunfire, while Chestnut was killed in the gunman's initial entrance. Rosa Parks become the second African American to be given that honor. In 2013, a woman was killed breaching the grounds of the Capitol.
In 2018, Billy Graham became the fourth private citizen without holding a government role to honor lying in the state. Pope Francis, in 2015, became the first Pope to given a joint address to Congress. On January 6th, 2021, the Capitol was breached for the second time in its history, with four rioters and one police officer killed in the resulting melee.
Few buildings have symbolized United States government and democratic ideals as the Capitol building. The building has seen a fair number of events over the last two hundred years that include controversy or dealt with difficult events, such as using slaves to build a large part of the present building. Given the important symbolic and actual value the building has for many in the United States, and by an extension to many democratic countries, the building and site continue to attract protestors and marches, including the events that turned violent in 2021.
- For more on the early history of the Capitol, see: Brown, G., Bushong, W., 2007. Glenn Brown’s History of the United States Capitol, Annotated ed. in commemoration of the United States Capitol's Bicentennial. ed. For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O, Washington, D.C.
- For more on the Capitol's design, see: Allen, W.C., USA, Architect of the Capitol, 2011. History of the United States Capitol: a chronicle of design, construction, and politics. University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu.
- For more on the history and architecture of the Capitol from 1814 to the 1990s, see: https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/buildings-grounds/capitol-building/history
- For more architectural history, see: https://www.aoc.gov/what-we-do/projects
- For a list of key events at the Capitol, see: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2021/01/united-states-capitol-building-turbulent-history-bombings-assassination-attempts-violence/