I have written over the past two weeks of the statue of George Washington by Horatio Greenough, the criticisms that it brought forth, and how it was moved around the Capitol grounds before ending up in the Smithsonian.
Along the way, I discovered is that the base of the statue has had a similarly peripatetic existence. Here is its story.
A statue the likes of Greenough’s needs to be elevated above the throng, to allow it to preside over the mundane concerns of mere mortals. It needs a base. And not any one will do. In fact, along with criticisms of the statue, the original stone on which it was placed also came under scrutiny. An unsigned letter to the Alexandria Gazette, and published January 27, 1843, which is mainly trying to counter the negative opinions of the statue, does allow that
The great fault is in the pedestal on which the Committee of Congress have placed the statue. It is made of an artificial granite. It ought to be of polished marble, and then it would correspond with the statue and show to advantage.
This, the writer concluded, would, for the statue, “secure admiration of all.”
Somebody must have been listening, because some seven months later, the New York Express reported that
a pedestal composed of two blocks of beautifully hammered Quincy granite, the base one weighing fifteen tons and the die twenty three tons, has recently been forwarded from Boston to Washington, upon which is to be placed Greenough’s Statue of Washington. On the die part is tastefully wrought the following appropriate sentiment: – ‘First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.’
The phrase is from Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s eulogy to Washington.
This new base came too late – the statue had already been moved to the east front of the Capitol, where it would remain there for the next 60 years.
With the opening of the new National Museum, there was finally a proper place indoors for Greenough’s statue, and so it was moved. This left the base unused. Fortunately, Elliott Woods, who was in charge of the Capitol grounds had an idea – use the old pedestal as a cornerstone for the Capitol power plant, which was then under construction.
There were, of course, some complaints about this. Such august papers as the Fargo, North Dakota, Forum and Daily Republican went so far as to call it “an insult to Washington.” Nonetheless, Woods’s plan was put into operation and in May, 1909, the pedestal was installed at the power plant, with the words “First in war” still visible from the outside. The Washington Times reported:
Passersby gazed curiously at first, then became interested and finally some of them became indignant. There were many who believed that a portion of Greenough’s famous statue, although it never did entirely win public favor so long as it stood in front of the Capitol, deserve a better fate than to be used for commercial purposes.
But used for “commercial purposes” it was. And so it remains today, though today it is the words “First in peace” that can be seen.
By Robert Pohl No Comments Views