10 Aug 2015


Lost Capitol Hill: A Model ‘Constitution’

James BuchananIn February of 1857, excitement at the impending inauguration of James Buchanan raced through Washington D.C., including at the Navy Yard. Determined to impress everyone who came to cheer the new President, they went all-out in building two floats for the parade that would go – as was the custom in those years – from the Willard Hotel to the Capitol, prior to the actual swearing-in.

The first was a liberty pole, which was a float with a 70-foot flagpole, on which hung a 30-foot-long flag. Not satisfied with this, they (as the Evening Star reported about a week before the actual festivities) “festooned [it] with flags, evergreen and flowers [and] embellished [it] with various figures and devices emblematic of Wisdom, Justice, Peace, War, Mechanism, the Fine Arts, Commerce, Agriculture, Civilization, and the Aborigine” surmounting the whole “with a glowing representation of the Genius of America.”

The ‘Genius’ presumably being the ability to praise both war and peace simultaneously.

But this was not the Navy Yard’s finest effort. That went to the ship that they built. Originally thrown together for the “public demonstration in honor of the election of Buchanan and Breckinridge,” it was now “thoroughly refitted in armament and rigging, and her hull improved by the addition of a new cutwater and stern, thus presenting, in every part the graceful appearance of a ship of war.” The Star then opined that “she will not only excite the admiration of the masses, but win the praises of nautical connoisseurs.”

What any “nautical connoisseurs” had to say about the ship is lost to history. Certainly, these two additions to the parade were admired by both the organizers of the parade, but also the observers. The former showed their appreciation by their placement of the two floats: The liberty pole, along with a ‘goddess’ that had been unmentioned previously, were placed directly before President Pierce and President-Elect Buchanan, while the latter – listed as “the magnificent ship from the Navy Yard” came right after the “marshal and aids” who followed the incoming and outgoing presidents.

The crowd out to witness this spectacle was “a most picturesque and animated moving panorama” of citizens from far and near, including a “prim Bostonian in his milk and molasses colored cloth gaiters” and a “New Yorker in his light colored overcoat” with an “undisguised look of disparagement of an inaugural procession” as well as a “Philadelphian in his gold rimmed spectacles, and with his carefully brushed teeth, fairly glistening in the sunshine.” The Star also reported that a local favorite was there: “Beau Hickman, was, of course, circulating about in the crowd, ‘ringing’ his way gracefully through and effecting small loans from his lieges.” More on this remarkable gentleman can be read here.

The Star continued on with a close description of the ship, which had been named “Constitution” and was drawn by six horses, and “manned by several youths dressed in sailor costume.” She also sported two American ensigns and, incongruously, a Union Jack.

Detail of engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated newspaper of March 21 1857. (LOC)

Detail of engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated newspaper of March 21 1857. (LOC)

That at least some in the crowd were impressed by the work wrought at the Navy Yard can be assessed by the picture of the parade published in Frank Leslie’s newspaper following the inauguration. Instead of showing, say, the President and President-elect, the artist chose to put the boat front and center in his engraving, with a large number of faceless men and women lining the sidewalks and following along in a procession that seems to stretch to the horizon.

It is, to judge from the picture, indeed ‘magnificent.’ What happened to it after it arrived at the Capitol is not recorded; presumably it was soon consigned to oblivion. But for a brief moment, the workers of the Navy Yard had indeed shown the whole country what they could do.

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