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Painting "The Life of George Washington: The Farmer," by Junius Stearns

Chapter 03

Paradox of Liberty & the Founding of America

The paradox of the American Revolution―the fight for liberty in an era of widespread slavery―is embedded in the foundations of the United States. The tension between slavery and freedom—who belongs and who is excluded—resonates through the nation’s history and spurs the American people to wrestle constantly with building “a more perfect Union.” This paradox was embedded in national institutions that are still vital in the nation to this day.

Illustration of the north front of the President's house

Section VBuilding the Nation

Enslaved African Americans contributed to the creation of the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Castle, laying the foundation for the seat of the nation.

Illustrated 1791 Map of the Federal City

1791 Map of the Federal City

Shaping the Capital City

Illustrated 1791 Map of the Federal City

1791 Map of the Federal City

Enslaved African Americans, leased out by their enslavers, mined sandstone from local quarries and built the United States Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Castle. Congress, the institution that guarded the peoples’ freedom, held sessions in a building constructed by forced labor, and the legislators would have witnessed lines of shackled African Americans marching by daily en route to the Deep South.

Photograph of a block of sandstone

Sandstone Block from the U.S. Capitol

Illustration of Capitol

The Capitol at Washington

Photograph of a block of sandstone

Sandstone Block from the U.S. Capitol

Illustration of Capitol

The Capitol at Washington

Enslaved African Americans helped build the United States Capitol. This sandstone block represents just one part of their labor. The block was quarried near Aquia Creek, Virginia, by free and enslaved workers and used in the construction of the Capitol building in 1824.

Illustration of the north front of the President's house

North Front of the President's House

A red clay brick that was once part of the structure of the White House. The brick is a standard solid style brick, slightly uneven in shape. It is a reddish-brown color, and is covered with faint remnants of white-colored mortar on all sides. There are slight losses at two corners.

Building Bricks Removed from the White House

Black People Built the White House

Illustration of the north front of the President's house

North Front of the President's House

A red clay brick that was once part of the structure of the White House. The brick is a standard solid style brick, slightly uneven in shape. It is a reddish-brown color, and is covered with faint remnants of white-colored mortar on all sides. There are slight losses at two corners.

Building Bricks Removed from the White House

Enslaved African American brickmakers, carpenters, and stonemasons worked seven days a week to construct the White House, one of the symbols of representative democracy.

Illustration of slave trade in Washington, DC

Slavery and Slave Trade at the Nation’s Capital, 1830

I went to see the ‘slaves' pen’—a wretched hovel, ‘right against’ the Capitol. . . . It is surrounded by a wooden paling fourteen or fifteen feet in height . . . to prevent escape.

Edward Strutt Abdy, 1835