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Glimpse of Law Series – Installment 1: The East Corridor Mosaic Vaults

The following is a guest post by Donna Sokol, Special Assistant to the Law Librarian of Congress.  Donna will be your virtual docent for a series of posts related to themes of law in the art and architecture of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building.  In this first installment, Donna provides information about some artwork that previously featured in a Pic of the Week last year, and is also the photo for In Custodia Legis on the home page for all of the Library of Congress blogs.

Tucked behind the Great Hall on the first floor of the Jefferson Building is a vaulted hall known on the blueprints as the “East Corridor.”  Docents typically call this the “Hall of the Bibles” because two of the Library’s treasures – our copy of the Gutenberg Bible on vellum and the Giant Bible of Mainz – anchor either side of the hall.  The mosaic ceiling is Italian marble.  While the rest of the Jefferson Building celebrates achievements and figures from around the world, this particular hall is reserved for native-born Americans who were distinguished in their respective professions.

East corridor, Great Hall. Ceiling mosaic representing Law - Annotated (Photo by Carol Highsmith. Photo by Carol Highsmith, Annotated by Donna Sokol. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The American artist, Herman Schladermundt, drew the designs – known as “cartoons” – for the mosaic ceilings.  He is better known for the stained glass window designs in the Main Reading Room and Great Hall.

Circular ornaments in the mosaic are called “trophies” – not the kind you get after a successful season with your bowling league.  Large trophies represent the three learned professions – Theology, Law, and Medicine – and the small trophies signify the arts and sciences.  Each of the large trophies features two lit oil lamps, common symbols of learning.  Oil lamps light the darkness of night as knowledge illuminates the darkness of ignorance.

Flanking the Law trophy are 10 surnames of Americans prominent in the field of law.  (It is worth noting that the other two professions – Theology and Medicine – list only 5 names each, so the bulk of the names in this hall are related to law!)  Considering that this would have been the main passageway for members of Congress to enter the Main Reading Room, it makes sense that the names of lawyers would have been directly overhead.

When the building first opened in 1897, visitors to the Library of Congress would have instantly recognized the names on the ceiling.  They are the Who’s Who of 19th Century American Law (except for Hamilton, who was 18th century).  Below, in order of appearance, is each man’s full name and highest office served.

To the left of the Law trophy are Justices of the U.S. or State Supreme Courts:

Gibson, John Bannister.  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Story, Joseph.  Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Marshall, John.  Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Taney, Roger Brooke.  Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Shaw, Lemuel.  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.

To the right are prominent lawyers who served in federal or state capacities:

Curtis, Benjamin Robbins. Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Webster, Daniel.  U.S. Secretary of State (twice).

Hamilton, Alexander.  Founding Father and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

Kent, James.  Chancellor (the top post of chancery court).

Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth. U.S. Minister to France.

There will not be a test after the tour, so don’t worry about memorizing the information above, but if you do visit, consider printing the main image above as a handy-dandy cheatsheet.

What might be more interesting than knowing the facts about these men is knowing how they were connected.  (Note how the figures who were opposed to each other in life are represented on opposite sides of the trophy!)

  • John Marshall made Joseph Story locate precedents after writing the decisions for Supreme Court cases.
  • Roger Taney wrote the Dred Scott decision that held that African Americans were not citizens and were not protected by the Constitution.
  • Benjamin Curtis was one of two justices that wrote dissenting opinions on the Dred Scott case and is the only justice ever to resign from the Supreme Court on principle.  (He is the only Supreme Court justice to be featured on the “bar” side of the trophy.)
  • Daniel Webster argued 223 cases before the Supreme Court and was very influential in Marshall’s court.
  • C.C. Pinckney was John Adams’ running mate in the 1800 presidential election.  Alexander Hamilton endorsed Pinckney in New England states, hoping to make him president.
  • Benjamin Curtis – in his capacity as an attorney in Boston – argued in the 1836 case of Commonwealth v. Aves, in which he defended a slave owner’s right to keep her slave even though she had crossed into a free state.  Lemuel Shaw was the Chief Justice presiding over that case in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and ruled against Curtis’ client, establishing that a slave brought into a free state was free upon arrival.
  • Joseph Story counted Hamilton, Marshall, and Webster as his heroes.  Story dedicated his book on the conflict of laws “To the Hon. James Kent, LL. D.”
  • In 1797, President John Adams appointed Marshall, Pinckney, and another man to represent the United States in France.  The three refused to pay bribes to the French, igniting a scandal called the XYZ Affair.  Marshall and Pinckney were kicked out of France.
  • Daniel Webster, in his capacity as Whig leader in the Senate, opposed President Andrew Jackson’s nomination of Roger Taney as Chief Justice after the death of John Marshall.
  • Daniel Webster urged Lemuel Shaw to leave a successful private practice to become Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
  • James Kent wrote in a letter to Joseph Story’s widow, “He has done more by his writing and speeches to diffuse my official and professional character (far indeed beyond my deserts) than any living man.  My obligations to him are incalculable.”
  • John Gibson and Daniel Webster both had large head sizes and accidentally took the other’s hat after a dinner party.  When they happened to pass each other on the street the next day, Webster recognized his own rather ragged hat on Gibson’s head and exchanged hats with the Justice.

Throughout the Jefferson Building are blank plaques that seem to be waiting for a name to be engraved or painted on them.  For the field of law, whose name might you add to the walls?

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