WASHINGTON (AP) _ The bronze statue Freedom was hoisted back atop the Capitol dome today by helicopter as President Clinton and thousands of spectators watched from the plaza below.

The bright orange heavy lift helicopter bore the statue with precision ease above the trees rimming the Capitol at the literal high point of ceremonies commemorating the 200th anniversary of the meeting place of Congress.

The event to return the 130-year-old sculpture was a month late and a cornerstone short, but the message for the nation, said Capitol architect George White, is ''Freedom reigns again.''

''Liberty is again in her place,'' said historian David McCullough as he opened the ceremony.

And Clinton, who followed a parade of congressional speakers, noted that Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War the work on the Capitol and its crowning statue would continue because, ''if people see the Captiol going on, it is a symbol that we intend the union to go on.''

Clinton reached back to the theme of his own campaign for the presidency, saying the founders of the Capitol and of the nation shared a link to the present generation, ''because our forebears also never stopped thinking about tomorrow.''

He called the ceremony ''a moment of unity in this great city of ours so often known for its conflicts.''

''It is not enough to be mere stewards of our forebears,'' he said. ''We must always be the architects of renewal.''

Poet Laureate Rita Dove composed a poem for the occasion, and Liza Minelli sang ''America the Beautiful.''

Actors in period costumes re-enacted the Masonic ceremony in which President Washington laid the Capitol cornerstone on Sept. 18, 1793.

The official 200th anniversary celebration is being held a month late for a number of reasons, including conflicts on the anniversary date with Clinton's White House schedule.

And despite months of digging, the cornerstone which Washington laid in the southeast foundations of the Capitol has not been found.

White, the Capitol architect, said that a large cut stone found in the right spot in the Capitol foundations is the likeliest candidate for the stone Washington set in place.

But White said the engraved silver plate which would identify the cornerstone was probably lost when the East Front of the Capitol was extended in the 1950s and the original foundations were underpinned with a layer of concrete.

''I'm about to declare victory, say that stone is in fact the cornerstone, and let the scholars argue about it for the next 100 years,'' White said.

Although the statue of Freedom has nothing to do with the anniversary of the cornerstone, it attracted so much attention during its time on the ground that Capitol officials decided to make its return part of the ceremonies.

During the repair job more than 700 holes were filled with bronze plugs, rusty iron supports in its hollow interior were removed and its corroded metal skin was restored to dark bronze-green.

The entire project cost $780,000, all of it paid by private contributions and the proceeds of the sale of the gold coins that were issued in 1989 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Congress.

''I would say it would last about 230 years,'' said architect White.

Then he added: ''If it doesn't, you come see me.''