National Statuary Hall Collection
National Statuary Hall, also known as the Old Hall of the House, is the large, two-story, semicircular room south of the Rotunda of the U.S. Capital. This historic space was the meeting place of the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly 50 years (1807-1857) and now serves as the main exhibition space for the National Statuary Hall Collection (NSHC). Several of my “Notable Kin” are represented in this collection.
National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building is built in the shape of an ancient amphitheater and is one of the earliest examples of Greek revival architecture in America. While most wall surfaces are painted plaster, the low gallery walls and pilasters are of sandstone. Around the room’s perimeter stand colossal columns of variegated Breccia marble quarried along the Potomac River. The Corinthian capitals of white marble were carved in Carrara, Italy. A lantern in the fireproof cast-steel ceiling admits natural light into the Hall. The chamber floor is laid with black and white marble tiles; the black marble was purchased specifically for the chamber, while the white marble was scrap material from the U.S. Capitol extension project. The four fireplaces on the south side of the room, in conjunction with an ingenious central heating system, warmed the room during cold months.
Only two of the many statues presently in the room were commissioned for display in the original Hall of the House. Enrico Causici’s neoclassical plaster Liberty and the Eagle looks out over the Hall from a niche above the colonnade behind what was once the Speaker’s rostrum. The sandstone relief eagle in the frieze of the entablature below was carved by Giuseppe Valaperta. Above the door leading into the Rotunda is the Car of History by Carlo Franzoni. This neoclassical marble sculpture depicts Clio, the Muse of History, riding in the chariot of Time and recording events in the chamber below. The wheel of the chariot contains the chamber clock; the works are by Simon Willard.
The NSHC comprises statues donated by individual states to honor persons notable in their history. Originally set up in the old Hall of the House of Representatives, renamed National Statuary Hall, the expanding collection has since been spread throughout the Capitol. With the addition of New Mexico’s second statue in 2005, the collection is now complete with 100 statues contributed by 50 states. Alabama, California, Kansas, and Michigan each replaced one of their first two statues a few years after Congress authorized replacements.
The concept of a National Statuary Hall originated in the middle of the nineteenth century, even before the completion of the present House wing in 1857. At that time, the House of Representatives moved into its new larger chamber, and the old vacant chamber became a thoroughfare between the Rotunda and the House wing. Suggestions for the use of the chamber were made as early as 1853 by Gouverneur Kemble, a former member of the House, who pressed for its use as a gallery of historical paintings. The space between the columns seemed too limited for this purpose, but it was well suited for the display of busts and statuary.
On 19 Apr 1864, Representative Justin S. Morrill asked:
“To what end more useful or grand, and at the same time simple and inexpensive, can we devote it [the Chamber] than to ordain that it shall be set apart for the reception of such statuary as each State shall elect to be deserving of in this lasting commemoration?”
His proposal to create a National Statuary Hall became law on 2 Jul 1864:
[…] the President is hereby authorized to invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration; and when so furnished the same shall be placed in the Old Hall of the House of Representatives, in the Capitol of the United States, which is set apart, or so much thereof as may be necessary, as a national statuary hall for the purpose herein indicated.
Originally, all state statues were placed in National Statuary Hall. However, the aesthetic appearance of the Hall began to suffer from overcrowding until, in 1933, the situation became unbearable. At that time the Hall held 65 statues, which stood, in some cases, three deep. More important, the structure of the chamber would not support the weight of any more statues. Therefore, in 1933 Congress passed a resolution that:
…the Architect of the Capitol, upon the approval of the Joint Committee on the Library, with the advice of the Commission of Fine Arts, is hereby authorized and directed to relocate within the Capitol any of the statues already received and placed in Statuary Hall, and to provide for the reception and location of the statues received hereafter from the States.
Under authority of this resolution it was decided that only one statue from each state should be placed in Statuary Hall. The others would be given prominent locations in designated areas and corridors of the Capitol. A second rearrangement of the statues was made in 1976 by authorization of the Joint Committee on the Library. To improve the crowded appearance of the collection, thirty-eight statues were rearranged in Statuary Hall according to height and material. Statues representing ten of the thirteen original colonies were moved to the Central Hall of the East Front Extension on the first floor of the Capitol. The remainder of the statues were distributed throughout the Capitol, mainly in the Hall of Columns and the connecting corridors of the House and Senate wings. Legislation has been introduced in 2005 that would authorize the collection to include one statue from each U.S. Territory, and another bill provides for the District of Columbia to participate.
Each statue is the gift of a state, not of an individual or group of citizens. Proceedings for the donation of a statue usually begin in the state legislature with the enactment of a resolution that names the citizen to be commemorated and cites his or her qualifications, specifies a committee or commission to represent the state in selecting the sculptor, and provides for a method of obtaining the necessary funds to carry the resolution into effect. In recent years, the statues have been unveiled during ceremonies in the Rotunda and displayed there for up to six months. They are then moved to a permanent location approved by the Joint Committee on the Library. An act of Congress (2 U.S.C. §2132), enacted in 2000, permits states to provide replacements and repossess the earlier one.
The following individuals, represented by statues in the NSHC, are discussed in greater detail in articles under “Notable Kin”:
Hannibal Hamlin (Maine)
Hannibal Hamlin (1809-1891) was the 15th Vice President of the United States (1861-1865), serving under President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. He was the first Vice President from the Republican Party. Prior to his election in 1860, Hamlin served in the United States Senate and House of Representatives, and briefly as the 26th Governor of Maine.
Samuel Adams (Massachusetts)
Samuel Adams (1722-1803) was an American statesman, political philosopher and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. As a politician in colonial Massachusetts, Adams was a leader of the movement that became the American Revolution, and he was one of the architects of the principles of American republicanism that shaped the political culture of the United States. He was a second cousin to President John Adams, discussed under the Adams Family of Massachusetts.
Jefferson Davis (Mississippi)
Jefferson Finis Davis (1808-1889) was an American statesman and leader of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, serving as President of the Confederate States of America for its entire history, from 1861-1865. Davis was born in Kentucky to Samuel and Jane (Cook) Davis. After attending Transylvania University, Davis graduated from West Point and fought in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of a volunteer regiment. He served as the United States Secretary of War under Democratic President Franklin Pierce. Both before and after his time in the Pierce administration, he served as a Democratic U.S. Senator representing the State of Mississippi. As a senator, he argued against secession, but did agree that each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union.
James Garfield (Ohio)
James Abram Garfield (1831-1881) served as the 20th President of the United States, after completing nine consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Garfield’s accomplishments as President included a controversial resurgence of Presidential authority above Senatorial courtesy in executive appointments, energizing U.S. naval power and purging corruption in the Post Office Department. Garfield made notable diplomatic and judiciary appointments, including a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He also appointed several African-Americans to prominent federal positions. Garfield’s presidency lasted just 200 days, from 4 Mar 1881 until his death on 19 Sep 1881, as a result of being shot by assassin Charles J. Guiteau on 2 Jul 1881. Only William Henry Harrison’s presidency, of 32 days, was shorter. Garfield was the second of four United States Presidents who were assassinated. President Garfield advocated a bi-metal monetary system, agricultural technology, an educated electorate and civil rights for African-Americans. He proposed substantial civil service reform, eventually passed by Congress in 1883 and signed into law by his successor, Chester A. Arthur, as the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.
Nathanael Greene (Rhode Island)
Nathanael Greene (1742-1786), frequently misspelled “Nathaniel”, was a major general of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. When the war began, Greene was a militia private, the lowest rank possible. He emerged from the war with a reputation as George Washington’s most gifted and dependable officer. Many places in the United States are named for him. Greene suffered financial difficulties in the post-war years and died suddenly of sunstroke in Savannah, Georgia in 1786.
Roger Williams (Rhode Island)
Roger Williams (1603-1683) was an English Protestant theologian who was an early proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In 1636, he began the colony of Providence Plantation, which provided a refuge for religious minorities. Williams started the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence. He was a student of Native American languages and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans. Williams was arguably the very first abolitionist in North America, having organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in any of the original thirteen colonies.
Ethan Allen (Vermont)
Ethan Allen (1737/8-1789) was a farmer, businessman, land speculator, philosopher, writer and American Revolutionary War patriot, hero and politician. He is best known as one of the founders of the U.S. state of Vermont, and for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga early in the American Revolutionary War. Allen wrote accounts of his exploits in the Revolutionary War that were widely read in the 19th century, as well as philosophical treatises and documents relating to the politics of Vermont’s formation. His business dealings included successful farming operations, one of Connecticut’s early iron works and land speculation in the Vermont territory. Land purchased by Allen and his brothers included tracts of land that eventually became Burlington, Vermont.
Robert E. Lee (Virginia)
Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. The son of Revolutionary War officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III and a top graduate of the United States Military Academy, Robert E. Lee distinguished himself as an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War and served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his personal desire for the Union to stay intact and despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln had offered Lee command of a Union Army. He soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning numerous battles against larger Union armies. However, Lee ultimately surrendered in 1865. Lee became the great Southern hero of the War, a postwar icon of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” to some. But his popularity grew even in the North, especially after his death in 1870. He remains an iconic figure of American military leadership.
George Washington (Virginia)
George Washington (1731/2-1799) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, serving as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He also presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution established the position of President of the republic, which Washington was the first to hold. Washington was elected President as the unanimous choice of the 69 electors in 1788, and he served two terms in office. He oversaw the creation of a strong, well-financed national government that maintained neutrality in the wars raging in Europe, suppressed rebellion and won acceptance among Americans of all types. His leadership style established many forms and rituals of government that have been used since, such as using a cabinet system and delivering an inaugural address. Washington is universally regarded as the “father of his country.” Washington had a vision of a great and powerful nation that would be built on republican lines using federal power. He sought to use the national government to preserve liberty, improve infrastructure, open the western lands, promote commerce, found a permanent capital, reduce regional tensions and promote a spirit of American nationalism. At his death, Washington was hailed as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party but for many years, the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence and delayed building the Washington Monument. As the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire in world history, Washington became an international icon for liberation and nationalism, especially in France and Latin America. He is consistently ranked among the top three presidents of the United States, according to polls of both scholars and the general public.