Front view of Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia, 1865. courtesy Library of Congress

While visiting Richmond, Va., in 1796, newly immigrated British architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe painted two watercolors of the state’s new capitol building. In translucent hues, one of the watercolors depicted the stately white temple in the distance, sitting nobly atop Shockoe Hill, overlooking the town’s sparsely populated pastoral landscape. One of the earliest examples of American civic architecture, the capitol building, which had been completed in 1788, was designed by statesman, architect, planter, and slave owner Thomas Jefferson and modeled in part on the Maison Carrée, a first-century Roman temple in Nimês, France.

In 1776, 20 years before Latrobe’s visit, Virginia had drafted and ratified its state constitution, of which Jefferson had been a key author; the document established a separation of powers that would go on to become a model for the organization of the federal government. The new building Jefferson envisioned in 1776 to house Virginia’s governmental functions needed both to symbolize and to enable the power of “the people” to govern and adjudicate the laws of the new state. The self-trained architect also intended the Neoclassical state capitol to serve as a model for civic architecture throughout the 13 states, as well as in the yet-to-be determined seat of the federal government.

It is critical that we understand how “the people” of Virginia—and by extension “the people” of the United States of America—were identified and defined during this period of revolutionary action and postrevolutionary planning; it is important to trace the various rationales conceived to identify who made up “the people” of Virginia, and by extension “the people” of the United States of America. In other words, who were Virginians or American citizens, endowed with constitutional rights, and who were not? A survey of the population of the port town of Richmond reveals the racial contours of this division. The city’s white residents, who were America’s newly minted citizenry, staffed and served in its government seat; patronized its taverns, shops, stables, and inns; profited from its docks along the James River and from its warehouses trading in tobacco and slaves; and lived in the wood-framed houses shown in the foreground of Latrobe’s watercolor.

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