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“Majestic in His Wrath: The Life of Frederick Douglass”

“Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation”

For an unabashed radical, Frederick Douglass did all right by America. A runaway slave, his take on the pursuit of happiness would have made the founding fathers cringe. Yet he made the transition from soapbox to pedestal in a country and age that worshiped wild ambition. Indeed, his life story might have been lifted from a Victorian melodrama. His father (identity unknown) was white; his mother was a slave. He entered the world a piece of property, but later purchased a gentrified estate in Anacostia (zoned for whites only). He married an illiterate black woman and divorced her to remarry a white seminary graduate. This is the essence of Douglass: Rather than toe the color line, he crossed it every chance he got.

Of late, Douglass has been inducted into the Library of America and toasted in a PBS documentary (When the Lion Wrote History). And he’s currently the subject of “Majestic in His Wrath: The Life of Frederick Douglass,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Most of our classic agitators (Harriet Tubman, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones) don’t draw an audience the way he can. This fugitive slave turned government minister has become our most marketable radical.

The exhibit takes an admiring, albeit complex, view of a man whose life spanned much of the 19th century. It begins with his origins in Talbot County, Md., (b. 1818?); three rooms of Douglass memorabilia chart a life that ended in 1895—the 1995 centennial occasions this homage to the godfather of American civil rights. The artifacts—which range from lithographs and oils to cartoons, newspapers, books, and daguerreotypes—also chart America’s social evolution, brassy political broadsides (a legacy of the Revolution) giving way to the more sedate photographic poses of the Victorian era.

“Majestic” dispels some common misconceptions. The beatings that Douglass endured as a slave are plainly described, but an 1870 photograph of his master (perhaps his father), Thomas Auld, carries the written caveat that whatever his failings, Auld’s uncustomary leniency after Douglass’ failed escape attempt made it possible for the young slave to abscond later. While the show is hardly an apologia for slavery, it reminds one that the institution was mediated by complex human relations, something Douglass admitted years later when he paid a personal—and amicable—visit to Auld in the face of public criticism.

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Some 80 objects are accompanied by densely printed wall panels—pesky but critical footnotes to the Douglass saga. A lithograph celebrating the 15th Amendment (and bearing a cotton-field-to-classroom montage) is undercut by a reminder that black suffrage was later negated through much of the South. A recruiting poster illustrating Douglass’ advocacy of black troops in the Civil War is leavened by the observation that he resigned as a recruiter because of rampant racism. And a miniature of the Thomas Ball statue that stands in Lincoln Park—of President Lincoln unshackling a slave—acknowledges that Douglass was frustrated by the president’s shrewd manipulation of the slavery issue. Here, artifacts and facts engage in a quiet struggle of their own.

Douglass’ family, friends, and associates—white and black—are amply represented in the show, underscoring how integrated his life was before and after slavery. There are fine photographs of his sons and rare ones of his diplomatic tour in Haiti. A large 1859 oil of visionary preacher John Brown (by Peter Hansen Balling) is more bone-chilling than any Raymond Massey movie scowl: His hair standing on end, blue eyes gazing heavenward, Brown looks like a divine candidate for electric shock. (The portrait bears an eerie resemblance to the photo of slave-owner Auld.) Also noted are Douglass’ lifelong support of the women’s suffrage movement and his involvement with the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells.

In the manner of portraits, “Majestic in His Wrath” is framed to reveal only certain parts of its subject. For instance, Douglass’ own mixed racial heritage—suggested by every likeness of him in the exhibit—is never mentioned. Also missing is his ambivalent view of Africa, and his belief that Native Americans, however wronged, had no choice but to blend into the melting pot. Common enough opinions in his day, their absence here suggests a profile given a smartly contemporary trim. Douglass’ opposition to the early stages of the Great Migration—one of his least prescient views—gets no voice at all. His disagreements with the women’s movement over the priorities of enfranchisement are similarly absent.

The collection includes memorabilia as well as art. On display is the document by which Douglass finally purchased his freedom from Auld. There is the slave boy’s copy of The Columbian Orator, bought with wages earned from blacking boots (years before Horatio Alger made his name). From Douglass’ later career as a gentleman comes a brocade smoking hat, a gold-knobbed cane, and the document appointing him minister to Haiti in 1889. My personal favorite is a piece of sheet music from 1845 called “The Fugitive’s Song,” dedicated to the man it proudly describes as a “graduate from the Peculiar Institution.”

“Majestic in His Wrath” marks a welcome departure for the Portrait Gallery. Visitors accustomed to its traditional fare—from George Catlin on Black Hawk to Norman Rockwell on Richard Nixon—will find this a provocative contrast to the stuff of the museum’s permanent collection. This exhibition on Douglass has been a long time coming, but his kind of wrath—the bluff growl of the ceremonial lion—is rare. Though the NAACP has been so honored, Malcolm X, one suspects, will have a harder time getting a show.

While Douglass was moving up from slavery, Washington’s most enduring symbol of liberty was being rebuilt and expanded at its perch on Capitol Hill. The Library of Congress has mounted a major exhibition, “Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation,” that examines the phases of “America’s most important public building,” a structure that (thankfully) has been amended almost as many times as the U.S. Constitution, from the first design competition in 1792 until after the Civil War.

“Temple of Liberty” adopts the conceit, popular among curators, that buildings are built by architects, not just designed by them. Indeed, the exhibit is filled with myriad floor plans, cross-sections, and single-point perspectives, an impressive array of multicolor design documents in watercolors, ink, and pencil. Hard as it is to imagine today, the Capitol was raised by fits and starts, the vision of a series of architects, each building on the work of his predecessor in a kind of bloodless dance of dueling blueprints.

The exhibit circles two floors of the Madison Gallery, nicely alluding to the Capitol’s own rotunda. First planned as a mausoleum for Washington, we learn, the rotunda later evolved into a tribute to Revolutionary War heroes and was eventually altered to its current state as a gallery narrating the discovery and settlement of America. Miniature acrylic and cast urethane models—specially commissioned for the show—allow the viewer to visualize the stages of the Capitol’s evolution, the design a matter of downsizing the wildly pretentious into the merely grand.

Engravings and watercolors at the show’s entrance announce its exploration of how America chose its trademark symbols—from the bald eagle to Hercules, from the goddess Athena/Minerva to Lady Liberty. Such personifications were to grace the construction of what would become an inspired “temple of freedom.” Even the word “propaganda” is used to characterize these efforts, though that idea is never mined for its more disturbing implications.

“Temple of Liberty” is about the design—not the building—of the Capitol, its promising subtitle notwithstanding. That America’s best-known temple was put up in considerable part by slave labor, for example, is not mentioned in 5,000 square feet of exhibit space. (This bashfulness is nothing new—Capitol documents of the age typically refer to slaves as “Negro hires.”) But an exhibit that acknowledges the design influence of the Roman Pantheon fails to note an obvious parallel with the classical world: Many an ancient temple was also raised on the backs of forced labor.

We do learn that Jefferson Davis opposed the presence of a liberty cap on the statue of Freedom crowning the dome—he didn’t like the allusion to a hat worn by freed Roman slaves. But the fact that American slaves cast that same statue (what might they have thought of the “temple”?) goes unexplored. We read that architect Benjamin Latrobe had Corinthian capitals carved from Italian marble—not that, in 1805, he refused a request by (white) masons, working sunrise to sunset, for shorter working hours. The exhibit does make a stab at analyzing how abolitionists used the Capitol dome as an ironic emblem for their cause. But for all the allusions to democracy, the exhibit ignores those who turned a patch of high ground near a malarial swamp into America’s greatest public building.

“Temple of Liberty” is grand and well-coiffed—it cost almost half a million dollars to mount. Fans of design will be enthralled; the exhibition sheds enormous light on the process of the Capitol’s evolution, although it would have us believe that the building somehow assembled itself. Just as the statuary and artwork of the Capitol are virtually mute on the subject of the greatest controversy of its age, so too is “Temple of Liberty.” Rather than probe the deeper allegory of the building, the exhibit succumbs to its lures.

The show’s final section considers use of the dome in commercial advertising—Quaker Wheat Berries, Coca-Cola, the National Tobacco Co.—picking up again the theme of “nice” propaganda. (It’s only a coincidence, I think, that Philip Morris underwrote a significant part of the exhibit.) At the exit is a video loop from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which features Jimmy Stewart pointing to the dome and saying, “I want to make that come to life for every boy in the land.” Not this time, unless they want to read the plans.