The Capitol Begins to Rise

Workmen began digging the Capitol’s foundations in August 1793, and President Washington laid the cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony on September 18. After the speeches, the crowd feasted on a 500-pound barbecued ox.

Labor and money shortages hampered the pace of construction. Funds came mostly from selling city lots, and sales proved sluggish. Workmen were scarce in the sparsely populated area. Stone carvers were recruited from Scotland, joining a diverse workforce of immigrant and native-born craftsmen. Slaves provided additional labor, earning $5 a month—for their owners.

By American standards, the Capitol was an immense building. It overwhelmed city resources, forcing commissioners to seek loans from Dutch banks and the Maryland legislature. In 1796, the commissioners decided to forgo two-thirds of the building and finish only the north wing for the time being. Opened in 1800, the building was made available to the Washington community when not in use by Congress. Religious services and other civic events were regularly held there.

  • Watercolor View of the Capitol, by William Birch, ca. 1800

    The Capitol was still under construction when Congress first met here in 1800.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • President Washington laying the Capitol’s cornerstone, September 18, 1793, is shown in one of the Capitol’s bronze doors designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford in 1855-1857

    President Washington laying the Capitol’s cornerstone, September 18, 1793, is shown in one of the Capitol’s bronze doors designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford in 1855-1857.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Religious services were often held in the newly built Capitol

    Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress

  • Receipts, such as this one, document work done by the slaves who helped build the Capitol

    Receipts, such as this one, document work done by the slaves who helped build the Capitol.  Slaves performed the most grueling construction tasks: extracting blocks of sandstone from the quarry, loading it onto boats, and hoisting it to the top of the Capitol’s walls.

    General Records of the Department of the Treasury, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.