It is the “traditional” motto of the United States: E pluribus unum, classical Latin for “Out of many, one.” Its inclusion on the Great Seal was approved by Congress in 1782, making it the de facto motto of the U.S. from its earliest days. Eventually, Congress adapted “In God We Trust” as the official motto in 1956, following the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, signaling America’s dedication to the Divine at the peak of the Cold War, when we felt it necessary to differentiate our system of government from “godless Communism.” The relegation of E pluribus unum to honorable mention was considered uncontroversial at the time, but now may be a time to rethink that decision.
Besides being emblazoned across our seal, E pluribus unum has a place on our coins and currency, and, on the cast-iron pedestal that supports the colossal Statue of Freedom that stands atop the Capitol dome, arguably the most famous architectural landmark in America.
Although the dome itself is a marvel, the statue deserves special attention. Originally named Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, it depicts a female figure who holds the hilt of a sheathed sword in her right hand, while clasping a laurel wreath of victory and the Shield of the United States in her left hand. Her tunic is secured by a brooch inscribed “U.S.” and is partially covered by a heavy, Native American-style fringed blanket thrown over her left shoulder. She wears a military helmet adorned with stars and an eagle’s head which is itself crowned by an umbrella-like crest of feathers.
It was the third design submitted by sculptor Thomas Crawford. Originally, the Capitol architect Thomas U. Walter envisioned a 16-foot statue holding a “liberty cap” on the long rod with which a slave would be symbolically touched during a ceremony bestowing his freedom in ancient Rome. Crawford scrapped his first design after seeing drawings of Walter’s dome, realizing the statue would need to be taller and stand atop a more prominent pedestal. His second design featured a graceful figure in a classical dress wearing a liberty cap encircled with stars, holding a shield, wreath, and sword, which he said represented Armed Liberty.
In an ironic twist of fate, the decision to approve the final design rested with Jefferson Davis, who was then Secretary of War (and would later become President of the Confederacy) and in charge of overall construction at the Capitol. When Davis saw the liberty cap above the statue’s crown of stars, he “exploded with rage.” Davis and Crawford had already clashed over a liberty cap that Crawford had included on the interior decoration of the Capitol, so he dispatched his aide, Captain Montgomery Meigs, with orders to remove the cap, saying that “its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and should not be enslaved.” Davis, a militant slaveholder, took it as a direct affront. Crawford responded by designing a crested version of a Roman helmet, with an eagle’s head and feathers suggestive of Native American garb.
Davis approved the third design in April 1856. Crawford died of brain cancer in October 1857, before the model left his studio in Rome. Louisa Cutler Ward, his widow, packed the model into six crates and sent it in a small sailing vessel in the spring of 1858. After several mishaps at sea, the crates finally arrived in Washington in March 1859.
In December 1863, even though we were in the midst of the Civil War, we took time to celebrate the completion of the 15,000-pound, 19-foot bronze statue and its placement upon an 18-foot pedestal, with a salute of 35 guns answered by the guns of the 12 forts around Washington.
In May 1993, the pedestal had developed a dangerous crack, necessitating the removal of the statue so that pedestal could be repaired and the statue could be restored.
During the 158 years that the Statue of Freedom has faced the rising sun over the cradle of democracy, our nation has experienced many mishaps. This weekend, as we spent long hours reflecting on the state of our union while watching scenes of Washington in lockdown, we talked about the long, painful history and lasting impact of slavery in America. And whether it’s Jefferson Davis demanding the Statue of Freedom be redesigned so as not to enshrine emancipation or Donald Trump demanding the election results be overturned because he couldn’t admit to being a loser, we will face a reckoning on white supremacy.
This isn’t the first time that the military has been called in to secure the Capitol, and likely won’t be the last. It’s not the first time we’ve experienced enormous division while pleading for unity, nor will it be the last. It’s not the first time that the very foundation of freedom has developed a dangerous crack, and it won’t be the last.
It is time, however, for us to take on the difficult task of restoration.