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Members' Research Report Archive

Building Race and Nation: How Slavery Influenced the Civic Architecture of Antebellum America

Mabel O. Wilson, Columbia University
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, 2015–2016


William S. Dorr, Slave Market of America, broadside condemning the sale and keeping of slaves in the District of Columbia, American Anti-Slavery Society, New York, 1836

The decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War form a critical moment during which American civic architecture developed its particular stylistic character and symbolic significance. It was also in this period that notions of citizenship and the formation of the racial paradigm of human difference merged with myths of a bountiful continent that would nurture an American civilization, whose cultural values its new civic architecture was designed to symbolize. Drawn from centuries of European colonial encounters with peoples in the New World, Asia, and Africa, formulations in Enlightenment philosophy debated why and how these regions had evolved different characteristics of “race.” In the United States, physical attributes of race linked to capacity for reason influenced social perceptions and legal definitions that determined who enjoyed the rights and privileges of freedom and who was destined to toil enslaved in perpetuity. Paradoxically, enslaved blacks, defined solely as “property” lacking the faculties to be self-aware and self-possessed, built a significant number of the civic buildings designed by the nation’s first architects: Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), and William Thornton (1759–1828). How race informed the discourses on slavery, nationalism, aesthetics, and architecture during this formative period is the core thesis of “Building Race and Nation: How Slavery Influenced Early American Civic Architecture,” the book that I have been writing during my fellowship at CASVA. Discussions throughout the year with my colleagues proved invaluable for shaping my central argument.

For my colloquy I presented research from my first chapter, “Notes on the Virginia Statehouse: Race and Slavery in Jefferson’s America.” In my talk I compared Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), by statesman, planter, naturalist, and architect Thomas Jefferson, with his preliminary architectural designs for a new statehouse in Richmond. Jefferson based the final design, which he completed in the late 1780s, on the Maison Carrée, an ancient Roman temple in Nîmes, France. Jefferson hoped the symmetrical temple form and classical details of the design would offer “proof of national good taste.” The building would, he thought, provide a model of good architecture and set a high aesthetic standard that his fellow countrymen could emulate in other parts of the nation. Jefferson proposed to construct the new statehouse by employing European craftsmen knowledgeable in working wood and stone, who would oversee crews of enslaved blacks leased to the state by their white owners. These two efforts—the text of Notes on the State of Virginia and the initial statehouse designs—imagined a new social order of free men leading a democratic government that would serve as a model for national citizenshipand the future architecture of Washington, DC, and other civic buildings throughout the country. But, as I argue, not everyone living within the territory of Virginia—free whites, Native Americans, and enslaved and free blacks—was considered worthy of the rights and freedoms of citizenship. My presentation probed the way in which the dialectic between slavery and liberty, informed by racial difference, influenced Jefferson’s representations of citizenship and government as well as the architectural aesthetic and style of the statehouse.

While at CASVA, I dedicated significant time to research in local archives, with trips to Richmond and Philadelphia to collect archival materials for the book’s five chapters, which I plan to complete over the next two years. One important study charts the development of Washington, DC, its territory formed from land in Maryland and Virginia through the compromise of the congressional Residence Act (1790), which ended a stalemate between the southern and northern states. This decision resulted in the migration of the new capital from the temporary meeting place of Philadelphia, a hotbed of abolitionist activity, southward to the slaveholding Chesapeake region. In combing through the National Archives’ records of the original three-man commission set up in 1791 to oversee the development of the federal district and its government buildings, I was able to document how enslaved labor was used in all phases of construction. Under surveyors Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754–1825) and Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820), enslaved and free black men cleared land, dug foundation trenches, produced bricks and mortar, quarried stone, and carried out other central tasks. The concisely drawn geometric boundaries of the District of Columbia, including the civic center of Washington City, whose architecture was to embody the virtues of liberty and equality, were surrounded by the region’s slave economy of depots, auction houses, tobacco plantations, and ports that welcomed slavers.

The remaining chapters explore how African Americans found spaces of refuge and resistance in Washington and how the abolitionist and colonization movements that emerged in the 1820s took different positions as to whether blacks should reside after emancipation in the United States or elsewhere. The book’s final chapter considers how racialized representations of national identity changed with the emergence of scientific theories of race following the creation and construction of the Smithsonian Institution in the 1840s. The Smithsonian’s neo-Romanesque architecture, representing a distinct northern European origin of American national identity, promised to displace the Greco-Roman neoclassicism that was favored by Jefferson, Charles Bulfinch, Latrobe, and other architects of the early republic.