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'The Statue of Freedom' gets its liberty cap

January 19, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Freedom_1_2 When Barack Obama takes the oath of office as president of the United States, Thomas Crawford's "Statue of Freedom" will preside over the event from its exalted perch atop the Capitol dome. Metaphorically, at least, the nation's first African American president will complete something the statue's artist originally planned to evoke.

Crawford got the commission in 1855. At his studio in Rome, he executed a plaster model of a draped, classical female figure with sheathed sword and victorious laurel wreath. Crawford died in 1857, at the age of 44, several years before the 19 1/2-foot model could be shipped home, cast in bronze and hoisted to the top of the dome. (It arrived on its pedestal in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, weighing about 15,000 pounds; the plaster model is now installed in the new Capitol Visitor Center.) Early in the process, a significant alteration was made to the design.

Originally, the artist planned to dress "Freedom" in a Phrygian cap -- a simple, soft, peaked red hat, also called a "liberty cap." A classical motif, the hat had become such a common symbol of political revolution that it eventually ended up on the official seal of the U.S. Senate.

However, as the informative website of the Architect of the Capitol notes, after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis objected to the sculptor's intention to include a liberty cap, Crawford replaced it with a crested Roman helmet. Why the objection? Because, in the rising abolition movement, the liberty cap had been adopted as a symbol of freed slaves.

Davis, of course, resigned from the Senate in 1861 and accepted appointment as president of the Confederate States of America. In a cruel irony, the complex casting and assembly of the sculpture was overseen by Philip Reid -- a slave at the foundry.

At Obama's swearing-in, the "Statue of Freedom" will gain another level of meaning. Hats off.

More photos are after the jump.

--Christopher Knight

The crested Roman helmet

The seal of the U.S. Senate includes a red "liberty cap"


A rendering of the "Statue of Freedom" atop the Capitol dome


The U.S. Capitol dome


The plaster model in the Capitol Visitor Center

Photo credits: Architect of the Capitol