The original Washington monument is not the large obelisk which towers over the National Mall. That monument was dedicated in 1885. Neither is it the even earlier monument depicting George Washington on horseback. That statue was dedicated in 1860. Both the iconic obelisk and the equestrian statue were created after our nation’s original monument to its first President. The original Washington Monument was commissioned for the centennial of President George Washington’s birth, and was dedicated in 1841, almost two decades earlier than either of those monuments.
In 1832 Congress commissioned American sculptor Horatio Greenough to create a monument to George Washington for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building. Known as “Enthroned Washington,” the statue is modeled after Phidias’ Statue of Olympian Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It depicts a seated and sandal-wearing figure draped in a toga and naked from the waist up. With his right upraised index finger he is pointing toward heaven. And with his left hand he is cradling a sheathed sword, hilt forward, symbolizing the turning over of power to the people of the newly-formed country at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.
However, within the first few weeks after it was installed in the Capitol rotunda, complaints from the public began to flood in. The complaints centered on President Washington’s semi-nude, nipple-baring state, which many believed to be inappropriate and undignified, especially for an American president. As a result, the statue quickly became the “butt” of many jokes. Following their constituent’s lead, many Congressmen also began to voice objections to the statue. In fact, enough legislators found it to be so risqué and controversial that Congress voted the following year to move it out of the U.S. Capitol Building. It was initially moved outside, to the east lawn of the Capitol grounds. The statue eventually became part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection and, in 1908, was moved to the “Smithsonian Castle.” It remained there until 1962 when it crossed the National Mall to the new Museum of History and Technology, which is now the National Museum of American History (MAP). It was there that I was able to visit it during this lunchtime bike ride. And even though I had to leave the bike outside, it was worth going inside to view it.
Left – African American school children facing the Horatio Greenough statue of George Washington at the U.S. Capitol. (Library of Congress Control Number 91482755. Contributor: Frances Benjamin Johnston. Circa 1899.)
Right – Crowd at the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes, on the east front grounds of the U.S. Capitol, surrounding Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington (Library of Congress Control Number 91482755. Contributor: Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries. Circa 1877.)
Note: Historic photos obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.