Few places in the United States concentrate as much history in 14 acres as the grounds of the Virginia state capitol. Thomas Jefferson designed the capitol building; Patrick Henry laid its cornerstone; in 1807, Chief Justice John Marshall sat there to preside over the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr. The capitol’s second floor displays a Carrara-marble statue of George Washington made by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, considered the most accurate rendering of its subject. In 1861, a state convention voted there to secede; in 1865, United States Colored Troops re-raised the Stars and Stripes above it as Robert E. Lee’s retreating troops burned the city around them. A few days later, Abraham Lincoln stood at the equestrian statue of George Washington in Capitol Square and—for the first and only time—addressed an audience of freed slaves. In 1990, Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the first African American ever elected governor of a state, was sworn in on the capitol’s north steps.
For more than 200 years, Capitol Square has played an important role in the creation of American self-government, in its near destruction, in its restoration, and in its uncertain, ongoing progress toward reform and reconciliation. If there is holy ground in America, Capitol Square is part of it.
For me, its significance is personal. I grew up a few blocks from the capitol, played on its grounds as a boy, and began my journalistic career there at a time when citizens entered and left the building without any security or challenge. It is the place where I first saw the workings of American self-government, its possibilities and its limits. I mourn any dimming of its civil luster.