The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was a message from the colonies that they intended to go their own way from the rule of the British Empire. Such a declaration was necessary to inform the rest of the world so the revolt could be recognized by potential allies. In order to demonstrate that the disparate colonies were unified in their determination, the Articles of Confederation were likewise drafted and adopted. The document stated conditions under which a loose partnership could work together in conducting the Revolutionary War.
Although the Articles were a giant step forward, there were some areas that seemed to fall short. There were no provisions for a President nor any executive or judicial positions. Even worse, there was no authority to collect taxes which left George Washington and his army begging from the individual colonies for weapons and supplies. His chief aide , Alexander Hamilton, was well aware of the shortages and would later be central in revisiting the Articles of Confederation after the Revolution had been miraculously won.The British threat was still imminent from forces in Canada and in the Northwest Territories. The United States struggle for independence was far from over. The Constitutional Convention was meant to revise the Articles of Confederation , but instead inspired a completely new Constitution.
The compromises of the Federalists led by Hamilton were opposed by the anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry which led to the Constitution in 1789.This new , upgraded document tried to have it both ways. The creation of the Congress with it’s upper and lower houses was a vital component in the checks and balances worked out by the considerable genius represented in the founding fathers.
The newly formed government finally settled in Washington DC which was still under construction and being directed by Thomas Jefferson.Only the Senate wing of the Capitol was complete and the House of Representatives was reduced to a temporary brick bunker known without affection as “The Oven.”
In 1800, the congressmen were eager to complete their sessions to escape the stuffy, hot and depressing prison that was propped up by outside beams and seemed to be in danger of collapsing on their powdered wigs.
Benjamin H. Latrobe (1764 -1820) was one of the first professionally trained architects to make a mark in the new country. He was born in England and had a solid education in engineering as well as being an exceptional artist and a student of Neoclassical architecture. He enjoyed some accomplishments in Europe, but the personal tragedy of his wife dieing in childbirth motivated him to try his luck in the colonies. He arrived in Virginia after a horrific four month voyage that nearly starved the passengers. His sense of gratitude on surviving was heightened by his good fortune of being introduced around to the cream of society, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Latrobe found himself in demand on a great number of projects.The list includes private mansions, forts, banks, public waterworks, an assortment of public buildings including a cathedral and a penitentiary in Richmond. He was selected by Jefferson to oversee the work on the Capitol Building which was based on another Neoclassical architect, William Thornton. This task was not his favorite since he felt the designs were not up to his own standards and made many changes to the Capitol when he was recalled to repair the damages suffered in the War of 1812.
Latrobe had worked on the Hall of the House of Representatives that had replaced ” The Oven” The first hall fell victim to the burning of Washington DC , which I wrote about in a previous article. The rebuilt design was an amphitheater with a domed ceiling supported by columns. It was a beautiful and inspiring space, but there was a problem with echos and errant acoustics detrimental to speeches and the noisy daily business. In 1857, a new hall for the Representatives was built leaving the Old Hall’s fate in question.
Some thought that it should be used for the always expanding Library of Congress and others saw it as an art gallery. Since the columns afforded minimal wall space for paintings, the solution was inspired by two origional statues.These statues were titled “Liberty and the Eagle” and “The Car of History” featuring Clio the Muse of History. A plan was developed for all the states to supply statuary of their local heroes. The Old Hall of the House of Representatives became the National Statuary Hall which is today one of the most popular spots amid the landmark treasures of the country. It is the site of many ceremonial functions including a regular Inaugural luncheon for newly elected presidents.