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Thomas Jefferson Designs the Virginia State Capitol

1785

One of the major concerns of the American government in the latter decades of the 18th century was of a much more artistic nature than the more predictable worries of foreign policy and economics. The new government needed to construct buildings in which to house its workings and the question of what those buildings would look like was one of great importance to the men in power. With the construction of governmental buildings, they were fashioning a nation and they, consequently, wanted those buildings to be the most true reflection possible of this new United States of America. The Founding Fathers wanted the people to see all that they had just fought for in the buildings from which their government was going to work.

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The man most directly concerned with the question of how the buildings should be styled was Thomas Jefferson. Architecture was one of the many areas that Jefferson possessed abilities in, and he was eager to use his knowledge for the benefit of the American people. It was not simply an aesthetic question for Jefferson, because he believed that art had the power to inspire virtue in people and he believed that virtue was necessary to the success of America. Jefferson approached the question of architecture from a strong background in the philosophical tradition of the Enlightenment. This background led him to hold the Classical society of Ancient Greece and Rome as the height of political perfection. Intellectuals of the 18th century were fascinated by the idea of democracy, and they viewed the Classical world as the only historical evidence of successful democracy. The people driving the Enlightenment were intrigued by Classical writings and art; they invested great energy in trying to emulate the traditions of Greece and Rome. Jefferson was no different from the rest of the intellectuals of his day, and he spent hours studying architectural drawings of the ancient temples and stadiums. Jefferson believed that the sight of these buildings gave birth to thoughts about the virtue that the Greeks and particularly the Romans were famous for.

 

Virginia State Capital Maison Carree
The Virginia State Capitol
Maison Carree

This confidence in the power of the Classical style to influence the morals of the people who saw them led Jefferson to believe that one of the easiest ways to inspire virtue in the American people was by exposing them to the same buildings that the Romans had been exposed to on a daily basis. Since it was impossible to bring everyone in America to Rome, he had to bring Rome to America. Jefferson began the Neoclassical tradition in America with the construction of the Virginia State Capitol Building in Richmond in 1785. He drew the architectural plans for the building as an almost exact copy of the Roman temple, Maison Carree at Nimes. This was the first instance of a temple being the inspiration of a public building and it started a trend that spread across America and Europe. Almost all of the rest of American governmental buildings, including the entire Capitol city of Washington, D. C. itself, followed the example that Jefferson had set in Richmond. The American Republic was forever linked to the Classical Republics through its leader’s desire to inspire virtue and the architectural style which made that possible.


Notes:

The image of Maison Carree <http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/arch/roman/carree03.jpg> is from the Digital Archive of Architecture by Prof. Jeffery Howe at Boston College. Used by permission.

The image of the Virginia State Capitol <http://classics.holycross.edu/wziobro/ClassicalAmerica/VACapHP2.JPG> is from Classical America by William Ziobro of Holy Cross University. Used by permission.


Sources:

Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Irwin, David. Neoclassicism. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.


Edited, Researched and Written by:
Amanda Kay McVety
December 15, 1999

 

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