The Peoples House: A Temple of Democracy 150th Anniversary of the Volunteer State Capitol

March 31, 2009

The Peoples House: A Temple of Democracy 150th
Anniversary of the Volunteer State Capitol 

NASHVILLE, TN.- This year marks the 150th anniversary of the landmark Tennessee State Capitol building, which was ompleted in 1859. A special sesquicentennial exhibit, open to the public from April 1 through August 9, 2009, showcases the rich history of this magnificent building and the accomplishments of state government.

Visitors will learn about the construction of the Capitol, which was a triumph of both architecture and engineering, while discovering many exciting stories from the Capitol’s past and the state’s heritage. State Museum Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell calls the Capitol “the ultimate symbol of our state’s achievements and its rich history — it is a true temple of democracy.”

The State Museum is honored to present this exhibit in partnership with the Tennessee General Assembly Arts Caucus and the Tennessee Arts Commission. “In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Volunteer State Capitol, members of the Tennessee General Assembly’s Arts Caucus have had the distinct pleasure to work with the State Museum and to choose artifacts for this historic exhibition,” Arts Caucus chairman Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) noted. “Our Capitol has many interesting stories that reflect the rich history of our state. Personal statements made by the individual Arts Caucus members will provide insight behind each object, along with the history that accompanies it. Tennesseans who visit the Museum this spring will have an extraordinary opportunity learn about the tremendous impact that the Capitol has had on our state and on our nation.”

The Tennessee State Capitol stands today, as it did when it was completed a century and a half ago, as a lasting tribute to the people of the state of Tennessee. This graceful structure was designed by preeminent Philadelphia architect William Strickland, who considered it to be his crowning achievement. When Strickland died in 1854, he was laid to rest in the building’s northeast corner, in a tomb of his own design.

The influence of the State Capitol on our nation’s history is shown through the many varied artifacts on exhibit. Shortly after the capitol building was completed in 1859, the Civil War began. Photographs in the exhibit show the Capitol served as a Union fort during the war. In the fall of 1862, the Union army began fortifying the Capitol with earthworks and cannons. From the tall cupola, Union soldiers could scan the surrounding countryside for approaching Confederate soldiers. The building served as an army hospital after the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro and as a troop barracks. During this time, Military Governor Andrew Johnson led state government from within the heavily guarded structure. Locals referred to the Capitol as “Fort Johnson.”

The General Assembly voted to ratify the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1866, which granted African-Americans citizenship and paved the way for Tennessee to be readmitted to the Union. African-American men in Tennessee won the right to vote in February 1867 through an act passed by the General Assembly, well before the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1870. A print illustrating African-Americans gaining rights during Reconstruction is one of the many highlights of the exhibit.

In 1920, the Capitol was once again the scene of a dramatic, historic vote, as the ratification of the 19th amendment enabled women to go to the polls for the first time. Newspaper reporters and supporters crowded the House of Representatives as the vote was taken; several earlier procedural votes ended in a tie. Harry Burn, a young representative from McMinn County, had previously voted against the amendment. After receiving a letter from his mother asking him to support the amendment, he changed his vote and the amendment was ratified. A section of the exhibition will include photographs and stories about three prominent Tennessee women officials who impacted this significant time in American history.

Other exhibit highlights include: an original letter from David Crockett, written in 1834, while he served as a Tennessee congressman; a flag carried by Fifth Confederate Regiment from 1862 -1864; secretary desk with bookcase, 1845-1865, owned by Governor Isham Harris; and the inaugural gown worn by First Lady Betty Dunn in 1971.

This exhibit, offering visitors an intriguing look at the Capitol’s history and our state’s heritage, will feature approximately 100 artifacts including historic documents, paintings, photographs, furniture, and many other items. While highlighting a major milestone in the life of this historic structure, the exhibit will also provide the public with an entertaining and educational look at the Capitol’s fascinating history.

The People’s House: A Temple of Democracy, 150th Anniversary of the Volunteer State Capitol opens at the State Museum on April 1 and continues through August 9, 2009. The Tennessee State Museum is located at Fifth and Deaderick streets in downtown Nashville. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The museum, which is closed on Mondays, is free to the public.


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