“In the fall of 1814 [after the British burning of Washington] Congress crowded into one of the few surviving public buildings, the Patent Office (now the National Museum of American Art), and debated whether the capital should be moved someplace else, perhaps inland, to a location ‘with greater security and less inconvenience.’
“Congressmen who supported remaining in Washington argued on more defiant symbolic grounds. ‘I would rather sit under canvas in the city than remove one mile out of it to a palace,’ declared Samuel Farrow of South Carolina. Or, as Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina warned: ‘If the seat of government is once set on wheels, there is no saying where it will stop.’ ”
— From “American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address” by Stephen Puleo (2016)
Given Macon’s reputation for fiscal tightfistedness, he might also have wanted to avoid the expense of relocation.
” ‘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)
“Slavery became the lens through which Southerners looked at every question, the red dye that tainted every American conflict….
“North Carolina senator Nathaniel Macon suspected, as early as 1818, that ‘the passage of a bill granting money for internal improvements’ would also make ‘possible a bill for the emancipation of the negroes,’ and he ‘desired to put North Carolinians on their guard, and not simply North Carolinians, but all Southerners.'”
— From “Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction” by Allen C. Guelzo (2012)
In 1819 Thomas Jefferson, retired at Monticello, wrote Sen. Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina that “I read no newspaper now but Ritchie’s, and in that chiefly the advertisements, for they contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper. I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has passed two or three thousand years ago, than in what is now passing.” (from “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” Volume 15)
For 41 years Thomas Ritchie was the influential editor and publisher of the thrice-weekly Richmond Enquirer. On another occasion Jefferson referred to the Enquirer as “the best that is published or ever has been published in America.”
Despite his disappointment with newspapers and his preference for books, Jefferson was an unwavering advocate of journalistic freedom. “The only security of all is in a free press,” he wrote Lafayette in 1823. “The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
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.