Robert Francis: The Capitol: More than a building

Photo of U.S. Capitol taken in 1980 by Robert L. Francis

I took personal umbrage on Wednesday when I saw the melee that broke out at the U.S. Capitol.

What particularly galled me was when I saw these hordes of people parading around the Capitol showing no respect for the building or what it represents. They treated it like it was some motel on a forgotten state highway in Oklahoma.

The building represents a lot. Representative government was hardly the status quo when the Capitol was built. A building with that heft – as well as its prominent iron dome – basically says, “Hey, world. Listen up. We’re here to stay. You go ahead and keep your monarchies and tyrants. We’ve got a better idea.”

I was also appalled because I spent a lot of my early years working and wandering its halls trying to absorb all the history, ideas and ideals contained within. I had spent years in school studying history and here it was right in front of me. I wasn’t going to miss it.

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Oh, I know our representatives that we send to Congress don’t always live up to those ideals contained within the walls of the hallowed chambers. Mr. or Mrs. Smith rarely makes it in Washington, no matter his or her best intentions.

But no matter, every stone, statue or column in that building represents something important to our country and its ideals. We can only hope that being in that building will impart some wisdom from our Founding Fathers and Mothers into the most addlebrained elected official.

I worked there when I attended the University of Maryland, which was in College Park, just outside the District of Columbia. I found myself working in the U.S. Senate Mail Room to pay my way through school. Most of the people there were doing the same. It was a good gig and one of the side benefits was that you were an employee of the U.S. Capitol so you had access to places the general public might not see. First, we worked in the Russell Senate Office Building across from the Capitol, connected by a tunnel. The Russell was the oldest of the Senate Office Buildings so we lovingly called it the “Old SOB.”

The job kept us all moving pretty quick when Congress was in session, but when the Senate was not in session – that happened quite a lot, your tax dollars at work – we usually had free time on our hands. Because I was always interested in history, I would wander around the Capitol building, sometimes taking a tour. I did that enough that some tour guides began to recognize me and they would point out little bits of history of interest to Texans.

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In 1864, Congress allowed states to send two statues to the Capitol for display and Texas submitted two statues by the sculptor Elisabet Ney: Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. The tour guides would point those out if I was on the tour or if I happened to be walking by. One note of trivia on the Austin statue. It is apparently the only statue in the Capitol holding a rifle. Make of that what you will, cowboy. Houston holds a sword, but lots of statues have swords.

There is also a bust of Lyndon B. Johnson as well as a room named after him as he was both Majority Leader of the Senate and Vice President (the Vice President serves as president of the Senate). So there is plenty of bits of Texas to be seen.

If Congress was out of session and I worked late at night I would sometimes go to the slightly spooky U.S. Capitol Crypt. It’s not exactly a crypt, but it is a circular room below the Rotunda. The room has 40 Doric columns and a stone compass star in the center, where Washington, D.C.’s sometimes confusing four quadrants meet. Also in the room are statues of prominent individuals from the nation’s original 13 colonies.

The Crypt was part of the proposed interment location for President George Washington and Martha Washington. Washington and his wife were to be interred below the Crypt with a 10-foot circular opening left in the center of the Crypt so visitors could view the tomb. That plan was scrapped when Washington’s family decided he belonged at Mount Vernon.

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In times like that, on a cool, quiet spring night with the moon hanging low in the sky like Paul Revere’s lantern and wandering around the U.S. Capitol, you could feel those ideas of freedom, representation and democracy speak to you in a way no history book could convey.  

The building and particularly the large dome is, in essence, one giant upraised-finger FU to thousands of years of monarchy and tyranny. We often forget that simple basic fact about our country. We shouldn’t.

That was a real revolution. Those people marauding through its halls on Wednesday, they hadn’t a clue.