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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

President Washington laying the Capitol’s cornerstone

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.