A woman named America stands on top of the Capitol dome in Washington D.C., and for which she stands is Freedom! No more perfect icon for the United States of America exists, and yet she remains hidden in plain sight.
When the Statue of Freedom first came to my attention, she actually spoke to me. I heard her voice in my mind, and I am not the only one. That was in 1993 when the statue was being restored. Intrigued, and with a feeling of responsibility, I began asking questions about her. The reality is, as was then, she is barely known. The following is a brief story of my research and discoveries over the past 25 years as I gave into my passions to bring this Lady of Freedom to light and life. We need her now more than ever.
My initial search brought me to the Architect of the Capitol thinking that they would certainly know who was standing on top of the most important building in the country let alone the world. I met with Curator Barbara Wolanin who was in charge of historic documents for all Art at the Capitol. She had collected important documents about the Statue of Freedom which were housed in her office located in the basement of the Capitol building.
I was not disappointed and would end up going back to her every few years to share relevant images and make copies of other documents that eventually began to come together like a great jig-saw puzzle. As a metalsmith and symbolist, I am a visual person and therefore see patterns. I began to notice that the Statue of Freedom had many different names.
Don Kennon, Senior Historian of the United States Capitol Historical Society supported my efforts suggesting various books. He invited me to write articles for their educational magazine, “The Capitol Dome.” They published the two I wrote in 2007 and 2011. The PDFs can be found on my website www.KatyaMiller.com
Libraries in the District of Columbia became my home away from home. My unanswered questions also took me to the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, The Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Boston Athenaeum. After years of painstaking research, I thought I knew most of the statue’s history until the first month when I was awarded a Fellowship by the Architect of the Capitol and the United States Capitol Historical Society. It was then I began to wonder if I would ever really know her.
Looking back now, I was just at the beginning and didn’t know it. From that time, there are many people and places that stand out in my mind that I wish to honor and share with you, such as the Rare Book Room in the Library of Congress….
There I saw a “broadside” document with a speech to be given during the Civil War ceremony to raise the statue to her pinnacle on Dec. 2, 1863. The Speech was not allowed to be given and was surely lost in time, until found in a carefully opened file! The sixth Chapter of my book will be named after that documents title, “The Greatest Event in History.” Don Kennon wrote a Blog post about The Speech That Was Never Given.
Overall, The Museum of the American Indian was most memorable, and meeting Suzan Harjo, who is now a Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient and author of the Treaty Exhibit "Nation to Nation,” was a great honor. Finding out how native symbols and dress may have influenced Freedom’s designs were crucial. Suzan gave me important leads into fur fashions of the time that may be associated with the Statue’s fur-trimmed robe.
I also met with Chris Turner, Curator at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu). He guided me to pertinent books that would have been in circulation during the time the sculptor of the statue, Thomas Crawford, was designing her in the years 1830-1850. For example, military expeditions and Indian trading were in full swing in the early 1800's with many artists painting native people. Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Thomas McKenney compiled visual documentation for the government and the public in his book History of the Indian Tribes of North America which the sculptor would have seen. To know Crawford is to better know the statue.
In regards to the many names associated with the Statue of Freedom, I found significant drawings in the Library of Congress’ Print and Photography Division that helped me to understand why there were so many different versions. During the Revolutionary era, images of "America" and "Liberty" were merged into one woman. ‘Harper Weekly,’ Journal of Civilization also created images of the statue and labeled her America in the pre and post-Civil War period. The Personification of America is a story which needs its own book. I will begin my understanding of that story in Woman Named America, which is the first chapter in my book, Beloved Freedom, Secret on the Capitol Dome.
Lastly, I cannot end this blog without the mention of Ralph Ehrenberg, head of the Mapping and Geography Division of the Library of Congress. He welcomed me into the temperature-controlled rooms, (which I will never forget) and showed me 15th and 16th century maps and atlases containing images of America and other continents. Today, I understand the use of America as a name well-founded from a 500-year-old history clearly shown on European maps. These treasures are visual indicators of early personification of America as representative of the continent, the land and the people.
Katya Miller, Kristen Farquhar