Nathaniel Macon’s big flip-flop on monuments

” ‘Since the invention of types [printing], monuments are good for nothing,’ North Carolina congressman Nathaniel Macon declared on the House floor in 1800. Working himself up to a fever pitch, he explained why he could not support a lavish memorial in the nation’s capital even for the most deserving of men, George Washington. Words, not stones or statues, preserved the memory of great men, he said….

“Macon’s speech… continued to endure in national memory and was still quoted in newspapers as late as 1821. Yet in the late 1810s, this slaveholder from North Carolina helped his home state procure an elaborate monument to Washington for the State House in Raleigh, perhaps the most ambitious sculptural monument erected in the United States to that date — a seated figure in Roman military garb designed by the most famous sculptor in Europe, Antonio Canova.

“This was an amazing act of self-promotion for North Carolina, aggrandizing the local planter elite who claimed Washington as one of their own, though in typical ‘republican’ fashion the monument misrepresented the plantation’s social order by depicting Washington, in a subsidiary image, as a modest farmer outside a rude cabin.”

— From “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape” by Kirk Savage (2011)

 

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