IT'S HARD TO imagine anything controversial about the many memorials to Washington and Lincoln that abound in and around D.C., yet the serene monuments to the two great presidents whose births are commemorated this weekend were once, like most things here, subjects of criticism, debate, wrath and fury.
Congress' first memorial to Washington appeared to be a monumental mistake, causing the Capitol rotunda's floor to sink, nudists to proclaim the First President an early member of their group, and costing more than $40,000 in pre-1850 dollars. Congressional efforts to memorialize Lincoln led to innuendos of a Senate-seducing sculptress and "cusswords" from a famed Speaker of the House.
The Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia in August 1783, during the First President's lifetime, resolved "that an equestrian statue of General Washington be erected at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established." After Washington's death at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799, Congress further resolved to build an elaborate national monument in D.C. with an equestrian statue topping a mausoleum in which Washington's remains would be interred.
While Congress procrastinated over these ideas, the nation's first monument to George Washington was erected on a mountain top in Maryland by the patriotic citizens of Boonsboro on July 4, 1827. The edifice they built stands in Maryland's Washington Monument State Park, a 55-minute drive from downtown D.C. There on picturesque South Mountain on a clear day, visitors can see a panoramic three-state view from the top of the monument one tourist described as "a stone jug for a giant's table."
Five years after the Boonsboro citizens erected their Washington Monument, on the February 1832 centennial of Washington's birth, the House of Representatives "Resolved, That the President of the United States be authorized to employ Horatio Greenough, of Massachusetts, to execute in marble a full-length pedestrian statue of Washington, to be placed in the center of the rotunda of the Capitol." Believed to be the first American to dedicate himself exclusively to sculpting, Greenough received the first major public commission awarded to a native American, which he was "to execute in four years for $20,000."
In 1840, 22 yoke of oxen hauled Greenough's completed George Washington from the sculptor's studio in Florence, Italy, to Genoa, while pious people, mistaking it for a religious figure, knelt along the roadside as the colossal caravan passed. The famous old frigate Ohio couldn't accommodate the 12-ton statue lest it capsize the vessel, so a merchant ship, its sides strengthened and hatches enlarged, brought the massive memorial to the United States at a cost of $7,700. The statue arrived safely at Washington's Navy Yard only a mile from the Capitol. Getting the gigantic George there cost another $5,000, since the doorways to the Rotunda had to be widened to bring the statue into the Capitol, where new supports eventually were added to the floor to bear the weighty Washington.
Congress and citizens were shocked to see that Greenough had chiseled a 10 1/2-foot Washington "nude to the waist," according to Walterston's 1842 New Guide to Washington. Clad only in a classic Grecian-style drape and sandals, his massive right arm raised with finger pointing skyward, while the left hand grasped a short scabbard, Washington was said to be crying "I said soap, not sword!" Even Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Capitol, feared the statue would "only give the idea of entering or leaving a bath."
Virginia statesman Henry A. Wise said in the House of Representatives that the work affected him as it did "the Gentleman who, after looking at the statue for a few seconds, turned from it as he said the Father of His Country would do, who was the most modest of men."
In 1844 Congress evicted Greenough's giant to the grounds east of the Capitol, where it was exposed to the elements "and, still worse," wrote historian Lorado Taft, "to the newspaper paragraphers. They were pitiless. One of them wrote one day that Washington was supposed to be saying, as he pointed in two directions, 'My body is at Mount Vernon, my clothes are in the Patent Office.' "
"Practical jokers never seem to tire of playing jokes on George Washington, or rather Horatio Greenough's effigy of the father of an undutiful country," reported The Washington Post on July 11, 1892, commenting on "the trick of some two years ago, by which George was converted into a cross-eyed caricature of himself."
"It will also be remembered that George sits with his right hand uplifted in reproving style, as if warning Congress not to make fools of themselves," The Post continued. "Between the third and fourth finger of this hand some Fourth of July joker inserted the remains of a Roman candle . . . giving George the appearance of having just removed a gigantic cigarette from his lips. During the Marine Band concert the other evening a little boy, who had evidently just been lectured on the evils of smoking, glancing up at the statue nudged his mother and said: 'There, ma, you needn't talk to me anymore about cigarettes; George Washington smokes 'em.' "
A Capitol display case shows a 1908 photo of teams of horses pulling the statue on a gigantic wagon from its Capitol site to the Smithsonian, where it sits today before an attractive blue backdrop in a spacious, well lit area in the National Museum of American History.
"What's he doing?" a young girl on a recent Smithsonian visit asked as she stared up from the statue's huge sandaled feet to its bare torso.
"Pointing to the escalator," replied a visitor, nodding towards the mechanical staircase that is, indeed, not far from the First President's raised finger.
Congress never did get its originally requested equestrian statue of George Washington, but D.C. has two. Washington Circle's bronze Lieutenant General George Washington's terrified horse recoils not from the oncoming traffic as a student at nearby George Washington University suggests, but because the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army is depicted riding the scared stallion near the front lines at the Battle of Princeton. The Lieutenant General George Washington on horseback outside Washington Cathedral is unique for the horse's Egyptian-style glass eyes, and its bright satin gold finish. A pedestrian George Washington, as stipulated in Greenough's commission, stands in the Capitol rotunda today, a 7 1/2-foot bronze statue cast in 1909 from Antoine Houdon's original 1788 marble work.
The capital's real Washington Monument -- the one on the Mall -- was not without controversy: It was only 152 feet high when work was suspended in 1855, after a scandal involving one of the many unusual stones that were donated for the structure's interior. In March, 1854, an anti-foreign, anti-Catholic political party stole a stone donated by Pope Pius IX. The ensuing political incident, the Civil War and a shortage of funds left the unfinished monument looking "like a factory chimney with her top broken off," said Mark Twain. Construction did not resume for more than 20 years.
Similarly, the Lincoln Memorial was sometimes a matter of dispute. When its then isolated, remote site was proposed, powerful personages such as Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon objected, "I'll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that damned swamp."
But it was Congress' choice of an unknown young female to sculpt a statue of the slain Great Emancipator for the Capitol rotunda that caused as much furor as Greenough's statue of Washington had done 24 years before.
In a sense, the artist actually was selected before Lincoln's death and by Lincoln himself. Like Lincoln, Vinnie Ream was born in a log cabin. When her financially hard-pressed family moved to Washington in 1861, Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, an old friend of her father's, helped the family out by boarding with them, and the 15-year-old Vinnie took a clerk's job in the Post Office.
Vinnie's free time was spent as a student-helper in the studio of America's foremost sculptor, Clark Mills. She confided her ambition to sculpt a head of Lincoln to another senator who told the President that she was young and poor. The weary Great Emancipator replied in the vernacular: "So she's young and poor, is she? Well, that's nothin' agin her. You may tell her she can come."
"He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need. Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world, I am quite sure I would have been refused," Ream later wrote. The 90-pound teen-ager spent a half hour daily for five months in Lincoln's presence, quietly sculpting a clay model of his head as he worked. Vinnie, whose work was almost finished when she spent her usual half hour with Lincoln on April 14, 1865, said she "was moved beyond measure at the death of Lincoln," who was assassinated that evening.
Congress moved almost immediately to commission a statue of the slain President for the Capitol rotunda. Vinnie, knowing that every famous sculptor in the country wanted the job, had to be prodded into applying by her family and Senator Ross. In July, 1866, she won the $10,000 contract, the first commission ever awarded a woman sculptor by the U.S. government.
The granting of this award to a young woman over 20 better known competitors generated instant criticism. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts condemned his fellow senators for giving the assignment to an immature child, while women writers were among the most vocal critics. "Her cajoling a commission out of the Government was more a work of art than her statue," said one derogatory article.
"A big, strong man broken by grief is always a tragic thing to see, but never was there grief equal to Lincoln's. It was this I put into my statue," Vinnie wrote. Almost a century after the young sculptor and thousands of other mourners passed by Lincoln's catafalque in the Capitol rotunda, a stricken nation watched on television as the assassinated President Kennedy lay in state there beneath the sorrowful gaze of Vinnie Ream's Abraham Lincoln.
Elizabeth Slattery Clare is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong interest in her hometown's history.