Academic journal article Humanitas

Sources of American Republicanism: Ancient Models in the U.S. Capitol

Academic journal article Humanitas

Sources of American Republicanism: Ancient Models in the U.S. Capitol

Article excerpt

The American people have collectively channeled ancient models through the building that houses their lawmakers. The U. S. Capitol was first conceived in the 1790s, and its current footprint was completed by the 1860s. During those eight decades it underwent substantial changes, and it remains an evolving building to the current day. Its ongoing alterations reflect the shifting civic sentiments of the American people as they have attempted to capture what their republic embodies. Its design and decoration showcase the models that inspired America, especially those from ancient history. The ancient polities emphasized in the Capitol are the Hebraic Republic, Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. The Capitol portrays aspects of these ancient polities--their moral character, institutional strengths, and civic virtues--but it also hints at the corrupting influences that can undermine republics both ancient and modern. The building thus provides the discerning citizen with a choice based on the examples of ancient history. Though the models presented have been portrayed historically as offering a straightforward choice--i.e., America is a new Jerusalem, a new Sparta, or a new Rome--I will suggest that it is more helpful to understand the ancient examples as providing a choice between two broader alternatives. The United States can either be: (1) a limited republic of self-reliant citizens or (2) a consolidated, magisterial republic worthy of glorification.

Historical analogies are a tricky business, but modern nations such as the United States have demonstrated a penchant for them, which, for historically conscious observers, deserve more reflection. Playing with history like this may make professional historians justifiably uncomfortable, but employing historical models is a time-honored use of the past that keeps history alive and applicable. Using the muse of the Capitol, I will summarize how the ancient models were applied by the founders and modified by later generations. First, I will examine the influence of the Hebraic Republic, which was transferred from early modern Europe to the American colonies. Second, I will explore the application of the classical models, especially Rome. Third, I will tease out the tensions in these ancient polities as displayed in the Capitol. Its architecture and decoration raise the question of which qualities should inspire American republicans the most. I will conclude by recommending that the best way to heed the Capitol's best features is to promote the United States as a limited republic of self-reliant citizens.

A New Jerusalem?

From his perch in the rear of the U.S. House Chamber, Moses oversees the lower body of America's legislature. As in the famous statue by Michelangelo in Rome, the legendary Israelite is etched with the charisma of a young face and the wisdom of a flowing beard. His is also the only artistically disfigured among the 23 reliefs of lawgivers because the artists of the 1949-50 House Chamber remodel followed Michelangelo in giving him the famous divine "horns." These horns reflected the residual spark of divinity that remained on Moses when he met YHWH face to face. Moses' relief is given pride of place in the House Chamber. He resides in the center of the north wall, directly across from the speaker's platform. And he is the only lawgiver privileged with a frontal profile, with each of the other 22 lawgivers featured in side profile.

The Architect of the Capitol's official website mistakenly explains that all the side profiles look back to Moses, which would be a remarkable artistic choice because the history of human law, including American law, would all hearken back to Moses. In fact, each of the lawgivers instead faces a quotation from the nineteenth-century U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Webster asks America's lawgivers to remember the legal models of history and strive to "see whether we also in our day and generation may not perform something worthy to be remembered. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.