America Has Been Fighting Over Statues Since the Founding
President Trump may be infuriating and offending many with his calls to save our “great statues/heritage,” but the unending uproar over Confederate monuments isn’t the first time Americans have feuded over whom we should preserve in plaster—and who’s best left forgotten.
That’s a clash that is literally as old as the nation itself. It began more than 200 years ago with a vicious debate over how the country should celebrate the founding of the American Republic—a debate that continued well into the 20th century.
Story Continued Below
The controversy started the moment Thomas Jefferson opted to form an op position party to contest the policies of the George Washington administration, particularly those of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, whom Jefferson believed was a monarchist, if not an outright British agent. Over the ensuing years, Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans battled it out—not just over whose party should govern the country but also over which side’s principles had been most instrumental in and representative of the birth of the United States.
This battle to spin the story of the founding was fought largely in print. A ferocious newpaper war raged throughout the 1790s, with America’s political factions accusing each other of betraying the “Spirit of 1776.” Hamilton’s Federalists were convinced that Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were devotees of all things French, including Godless atheism, while Jefferson and his followers believed that Federalists were intent on restoring the British throne. Hamilton was “bewitched and perverted by the British example” and favored a “monarchy bottomed on corruption,” Jefferson alleged.
But there was another front in this bitter war: Statuary. While Jefferson and his followers tended to oppose monuments devoted to any of the nation’s founders—such effects were were trappings of monarchy, Jefferson maintained—they were positively apoplectic over any suggestion that Hamilton was worthy of commemoration. In the aftermath of Hamilton’s duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in July, 1804, Jefferson and his lieutenants were concerned that the emotional response to Hamilton’s death might lead to the erection of statues celebrating a man they despised. John Armstrong, a Jeffersonian lieutenant, reported to James Madison from New York City four days after the duel that “the public sympathy is a good deal excited for Hamilton and his family, whether this is spontaneous or artificial I do not know, but it probably partakes of both characters.” The city of New York “took the direction and assumed the expense of his funeral, and the English interest talk of erecting a statue to his memory,” Armstrong reported.
Armstrong’s dreaded “English interest” succeeded in erecting a marble statue of a toga-wearing Hamilton in 1835. The sculpture was placed in the rotunda of the New York Stock Exchange, and was the first marble statue produced in the United States. In the minds of Jefferson’s heirs, the fact that a statue of Hamilton graced the New York Stock Exchange simply confirmed his role as the founding plutocrat. The idea that Hamilton was the champion of wealth and privilege would be invoked for decades by Democratic Party politicians long after Hamilton’s death.
For example, this caricature of Hamilton was accepted as Gospel by Andrew Jackson and his supporters. “Old Hickory” had accorded Burr a hero’s welcome to Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, in Tennessee after Burr murdered Hamilton. Jackson’s protégé, James K. Polk, shared his mentor’s admiration for Jefferson, and enthusiastically endorsed a proposal to move a statue of Jefferson from the Capitol rotunda—which was unveiled in 1834—to the White House where it remained on the lawn of the executive mansion until it began to deteriorate in the 1870s. It is unlikely that the incumbent president at the time, the famous Union Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, shed a tear at the departure of a statue that honored one of the largest slave owners in Virginia and a champion of states’ rights.
The statue of Thomas Jefferson is seen inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. | Getty Images
In the early 20th century, the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton surfaced again, this time at Hamilton’s alma mater, Columbia University (known as King’s College in Hamilton’s time). The college unveiled a statue of Hamilton in 1908, at the behest of Columbia’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, who believed that Hamilton was “our master statesman.” These accolades for Hamilton did not sit well with Joseph Pulitzer, who, before he passed away in 1911, insisted in his will that a statue of Jefferson be built outside the school of journalism he funded and that opened in 1912. Pulitzer revered Jefferson, and despite the fact that the Sage of Monticello lacked any connection to Columbia, a statue of Jefferson was indeed erected in 1914 and still sits outside the nation’s first school of journalism.
In 1923, President Warren G. Harding and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon dedicated a statue of Hamilton on the grounds of the Treasury Department, one of the few memorials to Hamilton in the nation’s capital. Sculptor James Earle Fraser, the designer of the Indian-head nickel, wanted to express “the force of a man who wore lace ruffles and yet had to combat Jefferson and Madison.” Democrats retaliated in 1927 by proposing that a statue of Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s treasury secretary, be placed in a more prominent location on Pennsylvania Avenue. A Republican-controlled Congress refused to appropriate public funds for the Gallatin memorial, but after a lengthy private fund raising campaign the Gallatin statue was erected in 1947 at the height of New Deal and Fair Deal hostility to Hamilton.
It was President Franklin Roosevelt who did most to elevate Thomas Jefferson into the pantheon of American immortals and tried to airbrush Hamilton out of the founding. Roosevelt campaigned against President Herbert Hoover in 1932 by presenting himself as a 20th century Jefferson running against the Hamiltonian Hoover. Roosevelt led the effort to erect the beautiful Tidal Basin memorial to Jefferson and insisted that the sage’s face adorn both the nickel and a popular U.S. postage stamp. (Hamilton had graced the 10 dollar bill since 1928.) “When the Democratic administration came back in 1933, we all decided to have a memorial to Thomas Jefferson,” said Roosevelt, who was a board member of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. By so doing, he added, the nation was “adding the name of Thomas Jefferson to the names of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.” The Tidal Basin Jefferson, according to legend, has his gaze permanently fixed on the statue of Hamilton that Harding erected on the Treasury grounds, perhaps still searching for evidence of Hamilton pilfering Treasury funds.
And so it has gone for nearly 200 years: Hamilton vs. Jefferson. In fact, it’s something of an iron law in American historiography that as one of those great founders falls the other rises. With Jefferson’s ascent in the 20th century, Hamilton remained in eclipse. However, in a more diverse 21st century America, Hamilton’s status as an immigrant whose record on race was far more progressive than Jefferson’s should hold him in good stead. Based on Broadway ticket sales, it already has.
Jefferson put it best when he kept a bust of Hamilton, his arch anemy, facing a bust of himself in the entrance to his plantation. When visitors expressed their puzzlement at the interior decorating, he is said to have had a quick rejoinder: “opposed in death as in life.”
Stephen F. Knott is the co-author of Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America and a professor at the United States Naval War College.
More from POLITICO Magazine
via Politico http://politi.co/2lnbIsw
October 27, 2017 at 03:08PM