A Capitol Vision From a Self-Taught Architect

In 1792, William Thornton designed America’s defining monument, where a new visitor center opens in December

This 1852 lithograph depicts extensions to Thornton's House and Senate Wings; the additions, authorized in 1851, were not yet constructed. (Library of Congress)
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William Thornton was not a man to be easily dismissed. The affable Thornton—"full of hope, and of a cheerful temper," as his wife, Anna Maria, described him—was a nonconformist by temperament, a man who favored lace-trimmed garments that belied his austere Quaker origins. He was already one of the most celebrated figures of his time, a polymath and inventor. An acquaintance, jurist William Cranch, who would become chief justice of the D.C. federal court, said Thornton was "a little genius at everything." Born on Tortola in 1759, he was sent at age 5 to be educated in England. After completing medical studies at Scotland's University of Edinburgh in his 20s, Thornton began corresponding with the astronomer William Herschel. The young medical student's connections also resulted in an introduction, in Paris, to Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador to France. Thornton's range of interests encompassed natural history, botany, mechanics, linguistics, architecture, government and—in another departure from the sober Quakers—horse racing. He had already helped to finance development of a steamboat and to design its boiler; invented a steam-operated gun; and proposed a "speaking organ to be worked by water or steam and to preach to the whole city." He was the author of a treatise on comets. He also advocated ending bondage by resettling emancipated slaves in Africa, where Thornton envisioned a colony characterized by "the support of places of worship, of schools, and societies for the encouragement of science" and a legal system based on the Anglo-American model. (His ideas would ultimately influence the founding of Liberia.)

In 1786, Thornton embarked for the United States, where, he believed, "virtue and talents were alone sufficient to elevate to office, instead of hereditary rights derived from men whose meanness or vices were the principal causes of their grandeur." The young physician, who would become a citizen in 1788, eventually settled in Philadelphia, where he set up a practice. Soon, he would count James Madison among his friends. (He and Madison lived in the same Philadelphia lodging house during the Constitutional Convention.)

Even far from home, Thornton was preoccupied with liberating his family's slaves. "I am induced to render free all that I am possessed of, by the dictates of conscience, and the uncommon desire I have to see them a happy people," he wrote to a friend in England. "My inclination is however in some degree counter to the prejudices of my parents—prejudices absorbed by a West Indian education, and which, by the continued habit of slavery, are now become shackles to the mind." In 1790, he departed Philadelphia for Tortola. During two frustrating years on the island, Thornton met with intractable opposition from his mother and stepfather, and from local authorities, who regarded him as a dangerous revolutionary whose actions, they feared, would lead to slave rebellion and economic ruin.

It was during this time on Tortola that Thornton learned of the Capitol design competition; he immersed himself in the project with a zeal bordering on passion. "First I thought of the amazing extent of our country, and of the apartments that the representatives of a very numerous people would one day require," he would later recount the genesis of his design to a British friend, Anthony Fothergill. "Secondly I consulted the dignity of appearance, and made minutiae give way to a grand outline, full of broad prominent lights and broad deep shadows." Then, he added, "I sought for all the variety of architecture that could be embraced in the forms I had lain down." Finally, he wrote, "I attended to the minute parts; that we might not be deemed deficient in those touches which a painter would require in the finishing."

Thornton had no formal training in architecture; he took his inspiration largely from examples in books. The design that he drafted was essentially a huge Georgian mansion, its entrance a six-columned portico. In November 1792, Thornton hand-carried that original plan to Philadelphia, still the seat of government. There, he learned of the earlier uninspired entries, the commissioners' request for new drawings from Hallet and of Jefferson's particular admiration for the Pantheon. He also discovered that President Washington had decided that the proposed capitol should incorporate a presidential apartment, as well as a dome—that feature, it was believed, would impart a special grandeur, rendering the structure unique in North America.

In January 1793, Thornton produced a second plan, one which represented a quantum leap in scale and originality. The building would, by American standards, be huge: 352 feet in length, three and a half times longer than Independence Hall in Philadelphia and far more elaborate than anything attempted in the Western Hemisphere. Symmetrically proportioned wings to the north and south provided quarters for the Senate and House of Representatives. The building's focal point was a majestically domed rotunda fronted by a Corinthian portico, its 12 columns set on a one-story gallery. Inside the rotunda, Thornton envisioned a marble equestrian statue of George Washington, "who by his military achievements and noble exertions hath so eminently aided his country in obtaining freedom, who by his services as a statesman, hath...so dignified his station by his exemplary virtuous life."

"Thornton's design," writes William Allen, "was partly an essay in the emerging neoclassical style and partly an orthodox, high-style Georgian building." The dome and portico, he adds, "were both reminiscent of...the Pantheon. Thornton's adaptation of the Pantheon linked the new republic to the classical world and to its ideas of civic virtue and self-government." (Today, photocopies of Thornton's hand-drawn plans are displayed in the Capitol.)

Thornton's design was fully realized: he even imagined a series of statues incorporating a uniquely American iconography. Images including buffalo, elk and Indians would accompany figures from the ancient world, Hercules and Atlas: thus, emblems of the new nation's wilderness and westward expansion would be wedded to classical symbolism. Thornton's design overwhelmed George Washington with its "grandeur, simplicity, and beauty."

By early February, Jefferson made it clear to federal commissioners that Thornton's design enjoyed official favor, noting that it "so captivated the eyes and judgment of all as to leave no doubt you will prefer it." On April 5, the commissioners informed Thornton that "the President has given his formal approbation of your plan." Thornton's reaction to the news is unrecorded. However, he quickly got down to work. Five days later, he submitted a minutely detailed report, outlining plans for everything from placement of windows and water closets to committee rooms and vestibules. He proposed, too, a statue of Atlas holding up Earth, which, Thornton noted, "has an allusion to the members assembled in this house bearing the whole weight of government." (The sculpture would never be commissioned.)

Thornton "succeeded, where others with practical experience had failed, because he grasped and was able to delineate the fundamental idea of the building," writes C. M. Harris, an independent historian who is the editor of Thornton's papers. "His knowledge of the ancient Roman writers allowed him to perceive the form and purpose, the political implications in Jefferson's neoclassical concept of a modern capitol....[His plan] translated the Constitution into architectural form, creating a unique American building type." Thornton, adds Harris, "redefined the sacred element of the temple, enshrining the lawmaking process upon which the success of the new republic depended, rather than any god or the authority of the state."


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