“The square was applied, a symbol of virtue, to make certain that each angle of the stone was perfectly cut. Next, the level, a symbol of equality, was used, it to ascertain that the stone was horizontally correct. At last, the plumb, an emblem of morality and rectitude, showed that the stone was perfectly upright. The stone was declared square, level and plumb and therefore suitable as the foundation for the new building.”
On this day in 1793, President George Washington ceremoniously ordered the placement of the cornerstone along with a silver plate that would form the foundation for what would soon become the Capitol of the United States.
This was undoubtedly a momentous day for our foundling republic, one that has been memorialized in paintings and written documentation.
So with all of the surrounding pomp and circumstance, surely one can go to the U.S. Capitol Building and gaze at the site wherein the famed cornerstone was placed? Well, not exactly….
Interestingly, on September 18th, 1873, a plaque was placed close to the alleged location of the cornerstone and for years after that, all who visited the Capitol and read the historic account on the plaque had no reason to believe that in fact, the cornerstone was not within close proximity. How could this be, one might ask?
Several modifications had been made to the building after the tragic fire set by the British in 1814, thus, the presumed location of the artifact was likely skewed based upon the utilization of renderings and blueprints that no longer reflected the original layout of the Capitol Building.
And archeological excavations performed in the 1950s, clearly showed the 1873 plaque was indeed placed in error as there was no evidence of either the what appeared to be the cornerstone or the silver plate placed with it near their presumed location.
Years passed and no one voiced any real interest in finding the famed cornerstone, until 1990, when Capitol architect, George White, became determined to locate it. The U.S. Geological Survey was enlisted to perform soil evaluations to see if silver levels in the dirt indicated the presence of the original silver plate.
Historical archives were methodically referenced and William Allen, Architectural Historian for the Capitol, found that prior to the 1814 fire, there existed only two chambers, one for the Senate and the other for the House and a connecting walkway.
And since the Senate was the first to be constructed, it was believed that the cornerstone rested under its southeast corner. However, after further examination, it was determined that the foundations for both chambers were laid at the same time.
With that in mind, considering both chambers’ presence, the southeast corner would in fact, be beneath the House chamber.
And thus near what is now the House coffee shop, a yard deep trench was dug and alas, what William Allen believes, based upon its girth and mass, is the original cornerstone placed by George Washington.
But what of the elusive silver plate that accompanied the placement of the cornerstone? Well, after more soil testing, the area surrounding the cornerstone was shown to contain no higher levels of silver than is normally occurring in the soil of that region.
So as to the whereabouts of the plate, that still remains one of our great American mysteries!