The Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal are the two highest awards that can be bestowed upon a civilian in the United States – unless they’ve worked in government. For those who have led distinguished lives devoted to public service, there is one even loftier honor: lying in State in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, a final recognition of one’s contributions.
It’s a tradition that has its roots in ceremonies performed back in the middle ages when kings and queens were displayed upon passing so that their subjects could pay their respects one last time. In the United States, it dates back to 1852 and has been bestowed upon just 35 people. The honor has been offered to every president, though only 12 of them have accepted; otherwise, it requires a concurrent resolution by the House of Representatives and Senate, the two bodies in control of the rotunda.
While it’s a rare honor, it has been bestowed more often over in recent years, including upon the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She joins a list of remarkable Americans, some of which are highlighted below:
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The second-ever woman to sit on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was a trailblazing lawyer, champion of civil rights, liberal icon and later on, even a meme. She put herself through Harvard Law School at a time when it hardly selected any women, served as a law professor at Rutgers University and then made her name by winning a string of landmark cases before the Supreme Court that helped codify legal gender equality in the United States.
She co-founded the ACLU’s Women's Rights Project, the organization through which she set legal precedent after legal precedent. In a 1971 case, she argued that discrimination against women should be illegal under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, and her success in doing so became the bedrock for decades’ worth of lawsuits and reforms.
Ginsburg was named to the federal bench in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter and was nominated to the high court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her tenure on the court was marked by a deep personal respect for her fellow justices — she was famously best friends with Justice Antonin Scalia — and often, bitter legal disagreements. She became known for her fiery dissents to decisions made by the court’s conservative majority, which ultimately earned her a late-in-life cultural celebrity and fervent fandom.
To generations of women who admired her indomitable spirit and history-shaping work, not to mention her rigorous workout routines, Ginsburg became the Notorious RBG. When she died in September 2020, in the heat of a presidential election and political firestorm, it set off a period of mourning unprecedented for any Supreme Court justice.
John Lewis was fearless as a civil rights leader and later a legislator, carrying the torch of the great movements of the 1950s and ‘60s into the modern era and serving as an inspiration and conscience of a nation.
As a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was one of the leading peaceful revolutionaries of the Black civil rights movement. He was everywhere in those two decades, at historic events and even quiet struggles that never made headlines. Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders, led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, helped organize the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and was nearly killed by police and racist locals on Selma’s “Bloody Sunday.”
The abuse he took on that fateful day helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just over 20 years later, Lewis himself was elected to Congress, determined to make “good trouble,” as he called it. He served in the House of Representatives for 33 years and used his last days this summer to offer guiding and galvanizing words to a new generation of Black protestors fighting for civil rights. Lewis died in July 2020 at the age of 80.
The first person to lay in state in 1852, Henry Clay was one of the defining leaders of the early-to-mid 1800s. A Kentuckian born during the Revolutionary War, Clay entered Congress in 1810 and ultimately served as Speaker of the House, Secretary of State and as a Senator.
Clay’s career was prodigious. He led the charge in the War of 1812 as Speaker of the House, a role he assumed at just 34 years old, then brokered a peace deal with Britain. He organized the Missouri Compromise that kept the union together (for a while, at least), was as a presidential candidate at the center of the “Corrupt Bargain” that threw the election of 1824 to John Quincy Adams and earned him the position of Secretary of State. After Adams lost re-election, Clay was elected to the U.S. Senate.
His legacy, though, is a complicated one. Like many southerners born to wealthy families at the time, he inherited enslaved people but also said he abhorred everything about the system. He argued at times on behalf of emancipation but also did not free his own enslaved people; the Missouri Compromise preserved the union for nearly 40 years because it also preserved slavery in the U.S. Later in life he wrote a letter that attacked slavery and likely cost him his last chance at being president. Upon his death, the enslaved people he owned were freed by his will.
Abraham Lincoln became the second person to lie in state after his tragic assassination in 1865. His death shocked the nation and mourning Americans lined the streets of Washington, D.C. waiting to pay their final respects to the man who had just recently defeated the Confederacy.
Newspapers estimated at the time that between 20,000 and 30,000 people waited between two and six hours to see Lincoln’s coffin. The casket was supported by a massive catafalque, which was made of pine boards and draped with a black cloth. At the time, it measured 11 feet high by 16 feet long by 10 feet wide. It is still used today to support the caskets of every other person who lies in state.
While every president is offered the honor upon their death, not all of them have taken it up. Ten other presidents have accepted: James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, William Taft, John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam Conflict, WWI, WWII and Korean War
On November 9, 1921, Congress voted to place in the rotunda the coffin of an unknown soldier who was killed in France during World War I. The event honored the over 115,000 American soldiers who died in World War I, then known as The Great War. Over 90,000 people paid their respects over two days, and then on November 11, the coffin was moved and buried at the new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Years later, in 1958, the coffins of three unknown soldiers were also honored at the Capitol. Two were from World War II, exhumed years later, one representing the European theater and the other representing the Pacific. A third coffin held the remains of a soldier who died during the Korean War. A soldier from the Vietnam War was honored in 1984.
There have been several military leaders honored with a viewing in the Capitol rotunda. General Douglas MacArthur earned his place in history by leading the United States through the Pacific theater, overcoming initial setbacks in the Philippines to storm through the South Pacific and liberate the islands.
MacArthur was denied a Medal of Honor despite his bravery in World War I, then given the award during some of his darkest hours in the early days of World War II, a political decision that helped rally his troops and burnish his image back home. After retaking the Philippines and helping to defeat the Japanese, MacArthur was named the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. He oversaw the reconstruction of the country between 1945 and 1949, and helped institute democracy and capitalism in the country during a fraught time, leaving a mixed legacy.
After his time in Japan, MacArthur oversaw U.S. troops during the Korean War until he was relieved of his duties by President Harry S. Truman. His greatest success, the Landing at Inchon, was followed by setbacks and clashes that led to his dismissal.
J. Edgar Hoover
The long-serving, remarkably controversial head of the FBI for nearly four decades, J. Edgar Hoover is perhaps the most infamous American to lie in state at the Capitol. He was instrumental in expanding the power of law enforcement in the country and, but often did so through blackmail, wiretaps and other abuses of power.
Hoover kept files on many great and prominent Americans, hoping to sabotage their careers or even imprison them. These included King and other civil rights leaders, Supreme Court Justices, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe and over 430,000 other Americans. He had a positive public image, though, as his abuses mostly came out after his death.
One of the first congressional leaders from Hawaii and then one of its two senators from between 1963 and 2012, Inouye was a decorated war hero and distinguished lawmaker who was in the middle of some of the most prominent moments in the Capitol building.
Inouye grew up in Hawaii, he volunteered as a medic when Pearl Harbor was bombed and then joined the military when the ban on Japanese Americans was lifted. He was in a segregated all-Japanese unit and served in Europe, where his unit distinguished itself by rescuing a lost battalion of soldiers cut off by German soldiers. Inouye lost his right arm when it was hit by a grenade in a battle several years later.
One of the most beloved members of Congress, Elijah Cummings was born the son of sharecroppers and died in 2019 as a titan of Washington, D.C. He was elected in 1996 to represent Baltimore, becoming a champion of the city’s people and of civil rights across the country.
Cummings was known for his empathy and friendships with people across the aisle, earning praise from Republicans even in a time of remarkable partisanship. At the time of his passing, he was the chair of the House Oversight Committee, investigating President Donald Trump, with whom he battled in the press.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant
Born in France, Pierre Charles L’Enfant was a civil engineer who was tapped by President George Washington to design a city that would bear the president’s name. At the time, it was a plot of land along the Potomac River, but his plan — known as the L’Enfant Plan — turned it into a smartly designed city that became the center of world power.
L'Enfant’s plans were ambitious, with monuments and parks and canals along with massive buildings — the National Mall and Washington Monument represent two of his greatest plans. He was ultimately dismissed for being difficult to work with and it would take nearly a century for his plans to be almost fully realized. He was honored early in the 20th century, being chosen to lie in state and then buried at Arlington National Cemetery.