“In his quiet Roman workshop months the sculptor toiled; at length
All completed rose the model in its glory and its strength.
Then beyond the Alps they bore it, statue of the deathless name,
To the distant German city there to be baptised in flame.”
“Opening Ode” by John Reuben Thompson, Inauguration of the Equestrian Statue of Washington, 22 February 1858
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T his week, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts unveiled ‘Rumors of War,’ an equestrian statue by renowned artist Kehinde Wiley, featuring a young African American man in modern clothing. Equestrian statues are, of course, nothing new in Richmond. In addition to the Monument Avenue statues of Lee (1890), Stuart (1907), and Jackson (1919), Capitol Square prominently features a large equestrian statue of George Washington, our nation’s first president and commander in chief of the Continental Army. Although Washington is by no means an entirely uncontroversial figure, he has received far less scrutiny than the other figures represented on horseback in Richmond’s public art. However, the very process of memorialization is often a complicated one, based less on the merits of the person or thing memorialized and more on the values of the ones doing the memorializing. We decided to take a deeper look at the creation of Richmond’s biggest Washington monument.
George Washington is one of the most celebrated, mythologized, and memorialized figures in American history. One state, 30 counties, at least 11 universities, and a multitude of cities, townships, streets, parks, bridges, neighborhoods, and forts have all been named for him. Hundreds of memorials and monuments dot the country, including the famous obelisk in Washington, D.C. His death on 14 December 1799 gave rise to an entire industry of commemorative objects, songs, literature, and prints. Washington became an almost mythic figure, with images of his apotheosis (or deification) appearing on creamware jugs, and a highly fictionalized version of his life captured in Mason Locke Weems’s A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, first published in 1800. While Virginia already had a statue of Washington in its Capitol—the frequently copied life-size marble by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, commissioned by the state in 1784—there was a desire to do something on a grander scale.
Both the state of Virginia and the federal government wanted to remove the president’s remains from his Mount Vernon estate and place them in an ornate public shrine. In 1811 and 1815, the Virginia General Assembly authorized a Board of Commissioners to collect subscriptions to finance a funerary monument near the State Capitol. Although many Virginians venerated the late general and wished to honor him, they did not immediately put their money where their mouths were. Commissioners in various localities wrote to the governor and the General Assembly complaining of their inability to secure contributions. Following a legislative resolution in 1816, the governor wrote to Bushrod Washington to inquire about moving the remains of George and Martha Washington to Richmond, but the family declined, choosing to honor the wishes of the couple. By 1822, Governor Thomas Mann Randolph decided the state would build a cenotaph, or empty monument, instead. Six years later, the General Assembly made provisions for the money that had already been collected to be invested in state stock as the “Washington Monument Fund.”
In 1848, the Virginia Historical Society led the drive to use the now-sufficient funds for a public monument to Washington. The General Assembly passed a bill on 22 February 1849, Washington’s birthday, to appoint a Board of Commissioners and move forward with selecting a design. In the fall, an advertisement seeking proposals appeared in Richmond newspapers and was soon picked up by the major newspapers across the country. It offered a prize of $500 for a monument to “be located on the Capitol square, in the City of Richmond, be constructed of Virginia granite or marble, or a combination of both, and cost one hundred thousand dollars.” The proposals, with cost estimates, were due by December 1 of that year, and, despite the short response time, the commissioners received nearly seventy entries.
The monument proposals received by the Board of Commissioners ranged from simple architectural structures, such as Charleston architect Edward Brickell White’s classical column, to elaborate assemblages. The winning design was that of Thomas Crawford (1814-1857), a New York-born sculptor who lived in Rome. Crawford’s design featured an equestrian figure of Washington surrounded by standing figures representing other important Virginians. The state moved forward quickly with Crawford’s design, and a five-ton granite cornerstone was laid in February 1850. With President Zachary Taylor, ex-President John Tyler, and Governor John Buchanan Floyd in attendance, Freemasons poured corn, wine, and oil on the cornerstone and then ceremonially handed a square, level, and plumb to Crawford.
In its completed form, the Virginia Washington Monument contains three layers of statues radiating out in a six-sided star shape within a circular granite plaza. At the center and highest point of the star is the bronze statue of Washington, dressed in military uniform and mounted on a rearing horse. Below Washington’s pedestal, at each of the six points, are circular granite pedestals upon which stand bronze statues of important Virginians. On a lower level, smaller rectangular granite pedestals support bronze female allegorical figures embodying significant events or themes associated with those men. The statue of Andrew Lewis stands behind the allegorical figure representing the colonial campaigns; Patrick Henry, the Revolution; George Mason, the Bill of Rights; Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence; Thomas Nelson, finance; and John Marshall, justice.
The Virginia Washington Monument was fraught with controversy from the very beginning. The design choices—depicting Washington as a military hero versus a civilian leader, the inclusion of other notable Virginians—were debated by the General Assembly and the public. The artists behind the losing proposals also cried foul, saying that the use of additional popular figures such as John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson gave Crawford’s monument “an undue advantage by throwing into the scale the weight of five such men.” The very need for a monument was called into question. Delegate William Burwell was quoted in the Alexandria Gazette saying that he “did not like this piling up of stone and mortar… [but] thought the best Monument for this State to Washington would be a Cotton Factory or a School House.” In the heightened political climate leading up to the Civil War, other criticism focused on the placement of the monument in Richmond. The New-York Daily Tribune wrote, “We are only sorry that so grand and imposing a work of art as his equestrian statue of Washington […] should be thrown away on a dilapidated, seedy little provincial town like Richmond.”
Once work began, more issues arose. The project faced problems with the quarries, complaints regarding management, and numerous pleas for pay from all levels of workers. They wrote directly to Gov. John Floyd, explaining that they wanted to work ten hour days rather than eleven, and receive $2.25 per day rather than $2.20. They also complained about the quality of their tools, saying they were forced to buy “worthless patent hammers.” There were also worries about whether the originally selected quarry would be able to provide enough marble to complete the monument.
The monument fund purchased or rented several enslaved men to work in the quarry during the construction of the monument’s base. These men were sold after its completion to profit the association. In May 1850, Silas Omohundro noted that he had that day “bargained and sold to the Commonwealth of Virginia one Negro [sic] Slave named Stephen, for the some [sic] of Seven hundred Dollars, the right and title of said slave I warrant and defend against the claims of all persons whatsoever and likewise warrant him sound & healthy up to this day.” In July 1851, the Washington Monument Fund paid $800 “for the purchase of one Negro Slave named Jacob” from Robert Alvis. E.S. Gay noted that he made the purchase “by authority from the Governor of Virginia.” A list of expenses for 1851 included rations for the enslaved workers “employed by the year on the monument.” Each ration consisted of “1 ½ pks. Meal, 3 “ bacon, 1 doz. Herrings, 1 qt molasses, 1/4 “ soup and 1 gill salt.” The quarry work was often dangerous, and another bill of sale from 1851 included a “supply of medicine at quarry for slaves hired by the year,” while still another listed cotton “to make bed for sick Negro at Quarry.”
The monument faced further setbacks when Crawford began losing his sight in 1856, hampering his ability to work. He was eventually diagnosed with cancer of the eye and brain, and died on 10 October 1857 in London. His death threw the monument project into a crisis. Supporters of various notable sculptors began arguing over who should finish the monument, some implying their man had the imprimatur of Crawford. One piece, published on November 17 by the Richmond Enquirer, went so far as to suggest that, due to ill health, much of Crawford’s recent work had been the product of workmen in his Rome studio, and it would be better to employ a Richmond-based artist, such as “J. W. Hubard” (William James Hubard, 1807-1862).
In the end, the Governor and Commissioners chose Randolph Rogers (1825-1892), a fellow expatriate sculptor living in Rome. Prior to Crawford’s death, he and Rogers had worked together on modeling doors for the U.S. Capitol. The Commissioners felt Rogers would be best able to follow Crawford’s models and intentions, thereby keeping the unity of the monument as much as possible. Even this decision did not calm the controversy, with one Charles H. Ward, accusing Rogers of being “a stranger artist” who would “reap a reflected glory from [Crawford’s] works.”
There remained some question about what remained for Rogers to complete. At Crawford’s death, the equestrian figure and those of Henry and Jefferson had been cast, and all three statues were in Richmond by the end of 1857. The state ultimately paid Crawford’s estate for half of the Mason figure, with the other half going to Rogers along with $9,000 each for Nelson, Marshall, and Lewis. In May 1860, the Governor and Commissioners also reviewed and approved Rogers’ designs for allegorical figures to occupy the lower plinths, instead of the eagles Crawford had intended.
With the eruption of the Civil War in 1861, work on the monument ground to a halt. The monument, albeit incomplete, became an important symbol during the conflict. Both sides of the Civil War claimed to stand for the values that Washington – and by extension, the monument – represented. The Confederate States included a modified image of it in their Great Seal, and in 1862 Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as full president of the Confederate States of America below the watchful eye of Washington, an event later commemorated by a bronze plaque. The monument survived the deprivations of war and the burning of Richmond during the Confederate retreat in 1865. When Union troops subsequently entered the city, contemporary accounts claimed that they flocked to view and admire the monument and that the new freedmen of Richmond held a jubilee at its base. Work on the monument had resumed by early 1867, when the General Assembly moved to pay Randolph Rogers and the statue of John Marshall arrived in Richmond. The final placement of allegorical figures in 1869 passed with little notice, compared to the grand processions led by presidents and governors at the cornerstone laying and 1858 unveiling.
For 150 years the completed Virginia Washington Monument has stood guard over Capitol Square, serving as one of Richmond’s most iconic landmarks. It has overseen political swings and gubernatorial inaugurations, undergone countless cleanings and restorations, and remained a steady presence downtown even as the buildings around it have risen and fallen. But its very ubiquitousness for generations of Virginians has obscured its early history of dispute and controversy. By offering this overview of its long and convoluted creation, we hope to add depth to the narrative surrounding the monument and show that even the most well established and best loved of statues result from long processes of give and take.
– Meghan Townes, Visual Studies Collection Registrar, and Claire Radcliffe, State Records Archivist