IN the late forenoon of December 2, 1868, a crowd had gathered on the Capitol lawn at Washington. Senators and Congressmen mingled with masons and artisans, while blue-clad sentries leaned idly on their bayoneted muskets. Thad Stevens' gaunt figure was conspicuous; he regarded the scene with a sardonic smile. Cannons boomed forth their salute as a long queue of workmen plied at a rope through block and tackle, carrying aloft the headpiece of the great Statue of Freedom to crown the Capitol dome, veritably a symbol of Liberty triumphant in the midst of Civil War. As the last section swung into place, applause burst from the assembled thousands. Above the statue, the flag of Union was unfolded to the breeze.
During the war, work had continued on the Federal Capitol, and its great dome, surmounted by the colossal Statue of Freedom, "secure in its bright bronzed armor and lifting its flasing helmet to the sunlight," had been "completed in the midst of the darkest hour of the nation's life." It did not escape acid-tongued Thad Stevens' notice that Freedom was standing "with her face toward the loyal States, and her back turned to the Rebellion."
Most of the throng of onlookers were happy at the symbolic spectacle; but to a reflective few, it was invested with a sense of ironic mockery. Thus Greeley, in his Tribune, thought the figure might prove either "a mentor, a censor, a scoffer, or a satirist," or perhaps "no more than a mocking memorial of fading traditions and of virtues which have grown antique," and wondered whether it would not have been best to have left aloft on the dome the unfinished and uncrowned torso. None the less the scene had drawn to war-girt Washington an unusual throng of visitors, and had hastened the tardy advent of the members of the nation's legislative arm, due that day to open the short December term.
When Thad Stevens left his home at Lancaster, Pa., on the early morning of the first of December, he might well have remarked upon the safety and dispatch of the trip to Washington. Some thirty years before, when he had first to make this journey, it took a full week, but in 1863, it could be done in