Freedom's Cap The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War

Guy Gugliotta

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

496 Pages



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A Washington Post Best Book of the Year

The modern United States Capitol is a triumph of both engineering and design. From its 9-million-pound cast-iron dome to the dazzling opulence of the President’s Room and the Senate corridors, the Capitol is one of the most renowned buildings in the world. But the history of the U.S. Capitol is also the history of America’s most tumultuous years. As the new Capitol rose above Washington’s skyline, battles over slavery and secession ripped the country apart. Ground was broken just months after Congress adopted the compromise of 1850, which was supposed to settle the “slavery question” for all time. The statue Freedom was placed atop the Capitol’s new dome in 1863, five months after the Battle of Gettysburg.

In Freedom’s Cap, the award-winning journalist Guy Gugliotta recounts the history and broader meaning of the Capitol building through the lives of the three men most responsible for its construction. We owe the building’s scale and magnificence to none other than Jefferson Davis, who remained the Capitol’s staunchest advocate up until the week he left Washington to become president of the Confederacy. Davis’s protégé and the Capitol’s lead engineer, Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, became quartermaster general of the Union Army and never forgave Davis for his betrayal of the nation. The Capitol’s brilliant architect and Meigs’s longtime rival, Thomas U. Walter, defended slavery at the beginning of the war but eventually turned fiercely against the South.

In impeccable detail, Gugliotta captures the clash of personalities behind the building of the Capitol and the unique engineering, architectural, design, and political challenges the three men collectively overcame to create the iconic seat of American government.


Praise for Freedom's Cap

“[A] meticulously detailed history . . . Ironies abound.”—Abigail Meisel, The New York Times Book Review

“The construction of the [United States] Capitol as the world has known it since ‘Freedom’ was put in place in the late autumn of 1863 is a story unto itself . . . and Guy Gugliotta tells it superbly in Freedom’s Cap . . . With this book, he joins that estimable group of non-professional historians who have revived the practice of narrative history, one cherished by serious readers . . . Gugliotta writes lucidly and engagingly, he brings to life a huge cast of characters, he captures the physical setting of Washington in the mid-19th century and the mood of a city where ‘every transaction seemed to be poisoned by the issue of slavery,’ and he has done a stupendous amount of research . . . Gugliotta has paid the great building, and the people who did so much to bring it into being, handsome tribute indeed.”—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Guy Gugliotta, in his splendid new book . . . gives us a fascinating tale of the struggles to design, fund and construct the new Capitol . . . Gugliotta deftly weaves a narrative of the difficult and massive construction project and the politics surrounding it.”—Al Kamen, The Washington Post

“[A] painstakingly researched, thoroughly intriguing historical detective story . . . [Gugliotta] adeptly orchestrates the intricate re-creation of a stormy episode in a particularly tempestuous era . . . Freedom’s Cap is a classroom model of historical investigation and writing, the narrative colorful and captivating in its minutest detail.”—Dale L. Walker, The Dallas Morning News

“[A] fascinating new book . . . A tale of political intrigue, famous personalities, technological innovations and bitter feuds, all under the pervasive shadow of slavery and the threat of secession and Civil War . . . Gugliotta tells the story well.”—Steve Raymond, The Seattle Times

“Excellent and exhaustive . . . Mr. Gugliotta deftly demonstrates . . . how everything—everything—was political, from the shape and size of the dome that ultimately capped the building to the statuary, paintings and furnishings inside it.”—Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“An engrossing and surprising chronicle that shifts between the rebuilding of the Capitol and the slow disintegration of the Union . . . This is a superbly written account.”—Jay Freeman, Booklist

“Wonderfully detailed . . . Gugliotta’s research and narrative are outstanding, and one of the best aspects of Freedom's Cap is the side alleys and byways of the story that he uncovers.”—William C. Davis, History Book Club

“In this fascinating and well-written narrative, Guy Gugliotta tells the story of the rebuilding of the U.S . Capitol, an enterprise that occupied more than a decade before and during the Civil War. Combining the history of politics, art, and engineering, it shows how the monumental project’s party, personal, and sectional rivalries reflected the crisis, and triumph, of a divided nation.”—Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

“In this splendidly researched and engagingly written new book, Guy Gugliotta deftly tells the intimately connected stories of the construction of the Capitol and the destruction of the Union. This is an original and compelling tale of how history really happens.”—Jon Meacham, former editor of Newsweek and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

“This fascinating narrative ties together America’s preeminent architectural symbol and its most wrenching struggle. The building of the Capitol dome, an expression of unity, occurred as the nation was tearing itself apart in the lead-up to the Civil War. Guy Gugliotta’s deeply researched tale features Montgomery Meigs and Jefferson Davis, whose partnership and subsequent clash mirrored their turbulent times.”—Walter Isaacson, former chairman and CEO of CNN and author of Steve Jobs

“A prodigiously researched, generously illustrated account of the transformation of the U. S. Capitol from a cramped, cold, noisy, inadequate and ugly structure into today’s massive marble symbol of democracy . . . There are surprises on virtually every page . . . Impressive research underlies a well-told story.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[An] intensely researched historical gem . . . Gugliotta has turned out a superb mixture of mid-19th-century American culture and technology with the turbulent history of the period.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Freedom's Cap
1"CONGRESS HOUSE"In 1850, the city of Washington was almost sixty years old. It had a population of 40,001, of whom 26 percent were classified as "colored" and 5 percent were slaves.1 Congress had 233 House members and sixty-two senators from thirty-one states. Democrats held a plurality in the House and a solid Senate majority, but the president was a Whig. He was General Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," hero of the Battle of Buena Vista in the recently concluded Mexican War. The most important political question facing Taylor and the Congress was how to divide up the immense
Read the full excerpt


  • Guy Gugliotta

  • Guy Gugliotta covered Congress during a sixteen-year career as a national reporter for The Washington Post and is now a freelance writer. He has written for The New York Times, National Geographic, Wired, Discover, and Smithsonian. He is the coauthor of Kings of Cocaine.

  • Guy Gugliotta Carla Robbins