Monday, January 19, 2009

Freedom's Lonely Vigil

Here she is, the beautiful woman who has been atop the Capitol Building since 1863. Her name is Freedom. I wonder what she has been  thinking as she looks out above the rooftops of  Washington D.C.

She was created by an American architect Thomas Crawford, who lived in Rome, Italy.  He was commissioned to build the Statue  in 1855. He sculpted, in clay, a classical female figure wearing flowing robes, an allegorical “Freedom Triumphant in war and peace.” Crawford died in 1857  before she was completed. The plaster model of the statue, packed in six crates, survived storms and a leaky ship on her  journey from Rome,  to Washington, D.C.  
Her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sheathed sword  and she holds a laurel wreath of victory and the  shield of the United States, with 13 stripes, in her left hand. 
She has the magnificent height of  19 feet, 6 inches and weighs  about 15,000 pounds. Her cost, exclusive of installation, was $23,796.82.

After Freedom arrived in D.C.  Philip Reid, 42, a black slave, was put in charge of the casting to complete the work of art. He was respected for his work and  he improvised a method to cast the parts in bronze. Freedom was assembled and hoisted atop the Capitol in 1863, a year after President Lincoln freed Washington slaves.  It is believed that Reid was free at that time.

Slaves helped build most of the buildings and grounds of Congress, their owners earned $5 per month for the labor. Between 1790 and 1863 there were slaves laboring in the quarries of Virginia, excavating and cutting the stone that would be used in the building's construction.

Before 1850, slave pens, slave jails, and auction blocks were a common sight in the nation’s capital, which was a hub of the domestic slave trade. Although slave-trade in Washington was prohibited after 1850, the harsh reality of slavery was still visible everywhere in the city. On April 16, 1862, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill (passed earlier by congress) into law ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Passage of this act came nine months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves more widely.

Freedom was 100 years old when she heard Dr. Martin Luther King's  "We shall overcome" speech. She has witnessed picketing and demonstrations made by millions of people who came protesting war and asking  for fairness and justice along with changes in laws that were considered unfair.

Did she know that each time they came that they were getting just a little closer to freedom. Even when the marchers often went home feeling little hope for change. 

For the past 145 years she has kept vigil over the many presidents who walked in the grounds below her,  from Lincoln to George W. Bush. Did she guess that on this occasion the people of the United States would choose Barack Obama as their choice.

Maybe as she looks out tomorrow, on Inauguration Day,  she will have  tears flowing from her eyes and a sweet smile of joy on her lips.  She can rest from her vigil now knowing that the descendants of  slave owners and the descendants of slaves have finally decided to join together in harmony. People who have elected a man of African descent, as the leader of the country. Freedom is finally proud of her name.
"The secret of Happiness is Freedom, and the secret of Freedom is Courage." - Thucydides

Thank you Freedom for your lonely vigil. We are finally on our way!

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