The first capitol in Richmond was temporary. Later, its present site on Shockoe Hill was selected, and the corner stone laid on August 18, 1785. Its real architect was Thomas Jefferson who, in his design, followed the classic line of the Maison Carree of Nismes. The building may be said to have introduced the classic style of architecture to the United States.
The Capitol was for many years considered one of the imposing buildings of America. It lacked the steps in front, and the wings, both of which were added to the structure some twenty years ago.
The building contains the Houdon statue of Washington, which is the most important memorial of the “Father of His Country” in existence. In 1784 the Virginia legislature took steps to have a statue of Washington made. Jefferson, then in France, was communicated with, and he engaged the distinguished French sculptor for the task. Houdon came to America in the next year, 1785, visiting Washington at Mount Vernon, where he was given every opportunity to study his subject. In spite of the custom to drape figures for monuments in classic robes, Houdon preferred to represent Washington in his actual dress-and Washington himself preferred it. To this fortunate decision is due the fact that we are able to be-hold Washington exactly as he was in life. The statue was erected in 1788, and is the most valuable single possession of the State of Virginia.
The trial of Aaron Burr for treason was the most dramatic event that ever took place within the walls of the Capitol. This was held in 1807 in the old Hall of the House of Delegates-now restored.
The most important meetings ever held in the Capitol were those of the Secession Convention. This convention, which had been elected for the purpose of considering the question of Virginia’s secession from the Union and its reassertion of complete sovereignty, met in the Hall of the House of Delegates on February 13, 1861. For fifty-four days secession was bitterly debated by the ablest public men of the State. On April 17, 1861, the convention passed an ordinance `To repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under the said Constitution.”
The convention, after thus withdrawing Virginia from the Union, prepared for defense. Robert E. Lee, then a colonel in the United States army, resigned his commission and came back to Virginia to throw in his lot with his native State. Lee arrived in Richmond on April 22, 1861. On the same day Governor Letcher sent a message to the convention that he had nominated and would appoint, with its consent, Colonel Lee as commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia. The convention at once endorsed this action, making Lee a major-general, and set the next day for him to appear before it.
At noon, on April 23, 1861, Lee entered the Hall of the House of Delegates. The convention arose to receive him. As Lee came forward the chairman of the convention, John Janney, greeted him.
“Major-General Lee,” he said, “in the name of the people of our native State here represented I bid you a cordial and heartfelt welcome to this hall, in which we may yet almost hear the echo of the voices of the statesmen and soldiers and sages of bygone days who have borne your name, whose blood now flows in your veins. When the necessity became apparent of having a leader for our forces, all hearts and all eyes, with an instinct which is a surer guide than reason itself, turned to the old County of Westmoreland. * * * Yesterday your mother, Virginia, placed her sword in your hands upon the implied condition * * * that you will draw it only in defense, and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than that the object for which it is placed there should fail.”
Lee, standing near the speaker’s chair, answered: “Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention: Profoundly impressed by the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had the choice fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose be-half alone will I ever again draw my sword.”
When Richmond became the Capital of the Confederacy this building became the Capitol. The first permanent Confederate Congress convened here on February 18, 1862. The House of Representatives occupied the Hall of the Virginia House of Delegates; the Senate was housed in a smaller room. It continued to meet there until its last session in March, 1865.
One of the most poignant scenes connected with the Capitol was the funeral of Stonewall Jackson. The great general’s body was carried into the hall in the south end of the building, then the Senate chamber, on May 12, 1862. It remained there all day and was viewed by thousands of people. The next day, May 13, it was carried to Lexington for burial.
In 1870, while a trial was being held in the old court room of the Court of Appeals, the floor caved in, killing and wounding many people.