The coin minted by Brutus (et tu, Brute?)
to celebrate the assassination of Caesar and
restoration of Roman “freedom” – with unintended irony
I will finish “Selling the New Nixon” presently. Meantime, I am too busy unwrapping cakes and eating presents (or is that the other way ’round?) to fully give attention to a blog today. HOWEVER, I would like to ask you, Gentle Reader, to honor my Birthday Wish and help to make this dream come true. And, no, it’s not “peace on Earth” or “Good Will to Men” or any other pie-in-the-sky notion. It’s just that I’d really like us to fix a certain statue that was messed up by Jefferson Davis before the Civil War.
And my wish is not for me; it’s every bit as much for you and your children. Because symbols MATTER. I wish I may; I wish I might …
From 28 NOVEMBER 2008 · 11:42 PM:
Regular readers will recall the Phrygian cap*, which the “Sons of Liberty” adopted about 1766 as the emblem of our Revolution. Many of the militia who served in the Revolutionary War wore the “Liberty cap” with “Liberty” or “Liberty or Death” or “Congress” embroidered on the headband.
[* “Who Stole Our American Hat?” 5 September 2008]
You don’t see that much in the movies, of course. Nor, does the “Liberty cap” mean much anymore — although at one time, it was not only the emblem of the American Revolution, but was incorporated into the coats of arms of several states (New York and New Jersey, for instance) and chunks of the federal government. The Liberty cap is at the center of the Army seal on the Army flag. It is on the seal of the Senate, and on a very nice stained glass window with that seal IN the Senate.
The Phrygian cap in the U.S. Senate Seal
It was on our first national coin, the famous “Liberty cap penny,” and seems to have vanished somewhere between World War I and World War II. Lady Liberty, the Goddess of Liberty, etc. ALWAYS had the Phrygian cap, which had been an attribute of Libertas, the Goddess of Liberty in Rome.
And, between the Roman era and the American Revolution, the Goddess and the meaning of the cap were forgotten.
We, the Americans, revived the liberty cap, and everyone understood what it meant: we were throwing off the slavery of the King of England. The hypocrisy as regards slavery was a big sticking point in the deliberations that produced the Declaration of Independence, of course, but the SYMBOL reverberated around the world far more than any shot did.
The French Revolution ADOPTED the Libery Cap, and the portrait of Marianne always portrays her wearing a Liberty cap. It is in the official seal of Nicaragua.
Many of the anti-colonial revolutions in Mexico and South America were heavily inspired by the imagery and slogans of the American and French Revolutions. As a result, the cap has appeared on the coats of arms of many Latin American nations.
The cap had also been displayed on certain Mexican coins (most notably the old 8 reales coin) through the late 19th century into the mid 20th century. Today, it is featured on the coats of arms or national flags of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, Colombia, Haiti, Cuba, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Here it is on the flag of Paraguay:
And here it is on a Mexican coin from 1899:
And it was SUPPOSED to be on the statue atop of the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. but a funny thing happened, which is why we have the weird Turkey Headdress that currently adorns the statue. It’s more than aesthetically ugly. It’s morally and historically ugly. (And Wikipedia gets this part wrong.)
Let me tell you why.
First, we have to back up a little, and let me explain something about the “Founding Fathers” and their society. They were a classically-educated group of Enlightenment thinkers. They had all read the Roman Histories, the Greek Myths, the writings of the philosophers from Socrates and Aristotle to Marcus Aurelius.
And, as such, the Phrygian cap was an important and instantly understood symbol to them. You see, in ancient Rome, upon manumission (the freeing of a slave), the freedman would shave his head and put on the red Phrygian cap. Which meant, to the Romans, here was someone who had gained their freedom.
The metaphor was so significant even to the Romans that when Caesar was assassinated by a group of Senators (because they feared that their “Republic” would end with an emperor), Marcus Brutus (yes, THAT Brutus) had a commemorative coin minted (no doubt through the Appian Mint™) showing a liberty cap between two daggers.
Like I said, it caught on. It became a universally accepted American symbol with two notable exceptions. First, the Statue of Liberty, which has that spiky thing, in place of the Phrygian cap. And, secondly, in the Statue of Liberty on the Dome of the Capitol, which was constructed during the Civil War (Lincoln and Congress thought it important as a symbol of something rising as the nation itself was reunited).
Only problem was, Jefferson Davis didn’t like the meaning of the Phrygian cap, even though it had been as American as … well, Apple Pie.
Here is what the Architect of the Capitol (who oughta know) has to say on the matter:
The bronze Statue of Freedom by Thomas Crawford is the crowning feature of the dome of the United States Capitol. The statue is a classical female figure of Freedom wearing flowing draperies. Her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sheathed sword; her left holds a laurel wreath of victory and the shield of the United States with thirteen stripes. Her helmet is encircled by stars and features a crest composed of an eagle’s head, feathers, and talons, a reference to the costume of Native Americans. A brooch inscribed “U.S.” secures her fringed robes. She stands on a cast-iron globe encircled with the national motto, E Pluribus Unum. The lower part of the base is decorated with fasces and wreaths. Ten bronze points tipped with platinum are attached to her headdress, shoulders, and shield for protection from lightning. The bronze statue stands 19 feet 6 inches tall and weighs approximately 15,000 pounds. Her crest rises 288 feet above the east front plaza.
A monumental statue for the top of the national Capitol appeared in Architect Thomas U. Walter’s original drawing for the new cast-iron dome, which was authorized in 1855. Walter’s drawing showed the outline of a statue representing Liberty; Crawford proposed an allegorical figure of “Freedom triumphant in War and Peace.” After Secretary of War Jefferson Davis objected to the sculptor’s intention to include a liberty cap, the symbol of freed slaves, Crawford replaced it with a crested Roman helmet. [emphasis added]
And here’s the picture of the original model, before Jefferson Davis forced the turkey bonnet on the statue:
This is not only preferable to the abomination decreed by Jefferson Davis, but would, with this election, be the fitting and proper statue on top of the Capitol Dome.
Because the meaning of the Phrygian cap needs to return to us. It, along with the Goddess of Liberty are still so powerful a symbol that the Chinese in Tienanmen Square created a “Goddess of Democracy” not exactly with a Liberty cap (more Sonic the Hedgehog, actually):
Now is the moment, and I cannot think of a more proper and fitting instant in history to remove the abomination of slavery’s representative, Jefferson Davis, and return to the true meaning of the Declaration — that all men are created equal. And to our Liberty cap.
Do you “get” it? The Liberty cap was CENSORED from the statue in the 1850s because of Southern Antebellum Political Correctness. (Or, should I say, ‘Keerecktnis’?). That craven action needs to be rectified.
That would not only correct a grievous aesthetic and historical mistake, but would renew the meaning of the Liberty cap to the world — the same world that we renewed its meaning to once before, in 1766.]
And it would be a statement on racial equality not requiring any statement on racial equality. It is what it is, ever since Thomas Jefferson reminded us that certain rights are inalienable (or, as Adams had the printer emend: “unalienable”).
I think that “fixing” the Statue of Freedom would be a perfect “capper” for Congress to fix this. They’ve already removed the statue once, in 1993 for cleaning. It wouldn’t be a great matter of dollars to do it again.
But it would be a monumental matter of symbolism. And not just for us, the U.S.
Remember, Americans wearing the Liberty cap were fighting and dying for the Congress now under that dome, before there WAS a Constitution and before there was a Declaration of Independence. No one, to my knowledge, has ever died for our country under Jefferson Davis’ turkey headdress (except, possibly, some Las Vegas showgirls).
Jeff Davis’ Turkey headdress from above (the spikes are ‘lightning points’) in 1993
Fix it. Fix it now. The timing will never be better.
That’s my modest proposal.
It is Gaudete Sunday (“Joy Sunday”), the Third Sunday of Advent, as it was when I was born. Joy to you.
A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a veteran of Texas and a survivor of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently berths in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his birthday cake.