Today in History: George Washington lays the cornerstone to the US Capitol in 1793

September 18th, 2013

On September 18, 1793, George Washington laid down the cornerstone at the US Capitol building, beginning a century-long construction project for the iconic landmark. The building’s history includes modifications to its design by several architects, a fire at the hands of the British Army, and use as both a hospital and barracks during the Civil War. 

During the early years of the nation, there was no permanent capital city. Congress met in several major cities, including New York and Philadelphia up until 1791. In 1790, Congress called for a permanent capital city to be selected by passing the Residence Act. The act gave President Washington the authority to select a capital city, and he chose a portion of land provided by Maryland that would become the District of Columbia. Washington selected three commissioners to survey the area and oversee the design of the city and its government buildings. The commissioners hired the French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant who quickly located a site for the future Capitol building, calling it “a pedestal waiting for a monument.”

L’Enfant did not remain on the project for long, however. When he refused to produce any drawings of his planned design for the commission to review, L’Enfant was dismissed, and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson spearheaded an open design competition. None of the 17 plans that were submitted were satisfactory to the commission, but a late submission by Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish physician, passed muster. Thornton’s design was composed of three parts: the middle section included a dome, and the two sides flanking it would be reserved for each chamber of Congress. Construction began on September 18, 1793 with President Washington laying the cornerstone.

Inadequate funding and design problems left the building far from complete in 1814 when British troops set fire to it during the War of 1812; only a strong rainstorm saved the Capitol from ruin. Throughout the 19th century, various architects took over the project and the iconic Statue of Freedom arrived from Rome in 1859. It was not until 1863 that the dome was completed, with significant renovations continuing throughout the 20th century.

For more on the US Capitol, check out this lesson plan by EDSITEment which considers the symbolism and significance of the building. Also consider using this lesson plan for “The Man without a Country,” which mentions the powerful symbolism of the Capitol and considers the role of national identity. Similarly, Herbert Hoover’s “Address to a Joint Session of Congress on the Bicentennial of Washington’s Birthday” describes the powerful effect of the American flag flying on top of the Capitol throughout American history.  

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