Nicholas Graham’s revelation of Carrboro’s backstory — how UNC president and chemist Francis P. Venable gratefully handed over title to the town’s name to the way less modest Julian Shakespeare Carr — reminded me of other instances in which North Carolina’s intent to honor the intelligentsia proved challenging:
— Conover is named for the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova.
— Murphy is named for the North Carolina educator Archibald Murphey.
— And the namesake town of the New England writer Oliver Wendell Holmes gets the spelling right — but calls itself (as acknowledged by the Gazetteer with a rare pronunciation tip) Wen-DELL.
Other examples, anyone?
” ‘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)
On this day in 1816: Responding to a letter from Sen. Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, Thomas Jefferson offers his opinion “On the subject of the statue of George Washington, which the legislature of North Carolina has ordered to be procured, and set up in their Capitol.”
Jefferson, retired at Monticello at age 73, proposes the state use an Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova, and Italian stone, Carrara marble. Washington, he adds, should be depicted in Roman costume: “I am sure the artist, and every person of taste in Europe would be for the Roman. . . Our boots and regimentals have a very puny effect.”
North Carolina follows Jefferson’s advice, and the Canova statue will be a source of state pride until it is crushed in the Capitol fire of 1831.
In 1970, following heated debate in the General Assembly over the appropriateness of Washington’s “miniskirt,” a privately financed copy of the statue is installed in the Capitol.