The Irony Behind the Statue of Freedom

Click to enlarge. Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith collection

Did you know that great, monumental art was once produced in our neck of the woods? A little over a mile away from Brookland, just past the site of Queen’s Chapel, sculptor Clark Mills once had his foundry. Mills moved here from South Carolina in the 1840s when he won a competition for an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson to be placed in Lafayette Park. For that, a temporary foundry was set up near the White House and there Mills and his workers produced one of the first bronze statues ever cast in this country. It was also the first equestrian statue to be balanced solely on the horse’s hind legs. Mills unveiled it in 1853 to great acclaim. Following that success, Mills built a foundry just off Bladensburg Road in the present day Langdon neighborhood. 

1861 map of the area by A. Boschke. Click to enlarge. Library of Congress

There he produced another equestrian statue, this time of George Washington. It too was a success, and was placed in Washington Circle in the West End. 

A hulking octagonal building, the Bladensburg Road foundry could be a hot, dirty place to work. The bronze casting process is difficult and exacting and requires great patience and skill. 

Clark Mills standing in front of his foundry, circa 1862. Architect of the Capitol

Fortunately, Mills had some highly skilled workers, including one enslaved man, named in the records as Philip Reid. In 1862 Mills filed government papers that referred to Reid, whom “he purchased in Charleston, S.C. many years ago, when he was quite a youth. He bought him because of his evident talent for the business … aged 42 years, mulatto color, short in stature, in good health, not prepossessing in appearance, but smart in mind, a good workman in a foundry.”

Mills would be happy he had Reid with him for his next commission — casting Thomas Crawford’s statue of Freedom to sit atop the still-unfinished Capitol dome. The government agreed to rent his foundry, pay him $400 a month, and cover costs of material and labor.

The plaster model of Freedom is on display in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Click to enlarge. 
Architect of the Capitol

Thomas Crawford’s plaster statue was shipped in five pieces and assembled by an Italian sculptor for display in the Capitol. When it was time to move it to the foundry to begin the casting process, the sculptor, perhaps a little smugly, said he wouldn’t take the statue apart for shipping and casting without more pay. The seams where the parts joined had been covered by a thin layer of plaster, and the sculptor figured he was the only one who knew how to separate them again without harming the 19 foot statue. 

Incensed at what he considered extortion, Mills asked Reid if he could figure a way around the impasse. Reid pondered for a bit, then attached a block and tackle and had the men slowly and carefully hoist up the statue. The strain caused a hairline fracture to appear, revealing the location of the top joint. He was then able to remove the top section, which exposed the other join points. Soon all five pieces were separated, and the casting process could begin. 

In recognition of his skills, Reid was paid $1.25 per day, higher than the other workers. But because he was enslaved, the government paid Reid directly for his work only on Sundays, and payment for the other six days of his work week went to Mills, the owner. A payroll voucher shows Reid earned a total of $41.25 for 33 Sundays of work between 1860-61. He signed the voucher with an X. 

The casting work took place in 1860-62, with some delays due to the start of the Civil War.  Freedom was assembled and stood on the Capitol grounds until it was finally mounted on the now-completed dome, the last section going up on December 2, 1863. At the inaugural ceremony there was a 35-gun salute, answered by cannon from the forts ringing Washington. 

Freedom atop the Capitol dome. Architect of the Capitol

No one knows if Philip Reid was there for the celebration. But we do know that on that day he was no longer enslaved. In 1862 Abraham Lincoln had signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, freeing the enslaved people in the District of Columbia. Philip Reid, who had started his work on the statue of Freedom in bondage, ended it as a free man.

Clark Mills died in 1883, a celebrated artist. He is buried at Glenwood Cemetery. Philip Reid changed the spelling of his last name to Reed, his personal preference. He died in 1892, and was buried in Harmony Cemetery on Brentwood Road. When that cemetery closed in the 1960s, he was reinterred in National Harmony Memorial Park in Hyattsville.

After the death of Clark Mills, his property was sold and the foundry remodeled into a factory building. Around the turn of the 19th century margarine was being made there. Today the site is a Metrobus facility.

The caption reads: “West front of the U.S. Capitol at Washington D.C. as it appeared the moment the statue was completed and placed in position by Charles F. Thomas. Dec. 2nd 1863.” Click to enlarge. Library of Congress.

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