African American Labor & the Construction of the Capitol, 1794-1801
“The Commissioners Resolve to hire good laboring Negroes by the year . . . paying sixty Dollars a year wages.”
— Commissioners’ Proceedings, Nov. 2, 1794
Original documents at the National Archives tell the story of enslaved African Americans whose labor helped build the U.S. Capitol.
The records cover the period 1794-1800 when the officials in charge of the construction rented slaves to cut timber, haul stone, and perform a wide variety of construction chores. Owners received sixty to seventy dollars a year in payment. The slaves themselves were only paid if they worked nights, Sundays, or holidays. This “hiring out” system was common in the slave economy of the Chesapeake area.
EXPLOITATION: The Land of the Free … The Home of the Oppressed
“[A]s several members were standing in the street near the new Capitol, a drove of manacled colored people were passing by . . . [when] one of them raising his manacles . . . commenced singing the favorite National Song ‘Hail Columbia! happy land.”
— Jesse Torrey, American Slave Trade (1822)
African Americans, enslaved and free, continued to be employed at the Capitol throughout the nineteenth century. Construction work was hard, tedious, and sometimes dangerous, as the newspaper clipping about the accidental death of Nathaniel Bowen indicated. At least one slave is known to have run away from his job at the Capitol.
Opponents of slavery focused attention on the Capitol. “The Land of the Free,” one antislavery poster proclaimed, had become “The Home of the Oppressed.” Members of Congress could see groups of slaves, some manacled, being marched by the Capitol on the way to auction.