On this day in 1831: In Raleigh, a workman who goes to breakfast in the midst of soldering leaks in the zinc roof accidentally burns down the Capitol.
Backers of Fayetteville, a larger town with livelier commerce — that was just recovering from its own disastrous fire — will lobby unsuccessfully to have the capital relocated there.
” ‘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 1865: As Raleigh awaits Sherman, Union Lt. George Round is sent ahead to set up a Signal Corps flag station. Scaling the eerily empty Capitol, Round makes a crucial misstep: “I … leaped gently to what I supposed to be the solid top of the dome,” he will write later. “I heard a sudden crash, and the top of the dome gave way beneath my feet. I had actually jumped into the circular glass skylight….
“The next instant I found myself grasping at railing and stonework and heard the broken glass of the skylight ring sharply on the stone floor of the rotunda one hundred feet below me.”
Round’s fall is broken by a wire net, and he survives with only “a terrible fright, a lacerated wrist and, on the next day, a lame shoulder.”
— Did Civil War actually claim more Virginians than North Carolinians? Don’t miss this one — keen reportage by Cameron McWhirter of the Wall Street Journal.
— Won’t you come home, George Washington?
— Asheville’s monumental forgetfulness
— Pa, you can cancel that tsunami insurance….
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.
Instead of (or in addition to) lamenting the shrunkenness of your Sunday paper, check out these digital destinations:
— Who knew that Charlotte as recently as 1931 was home to a post of the Grand Army of the Republic?
— Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Ralph Ellison… Jim Ross.
— Can’t see the Capitol for the trees? Here’s why.
— Preliminary pruning reduces North Carolina’s Civil War death toll to 36,000 tops.
— “Did German U-boat sailors see a movie in Southport during World War II?”
— Charlotte’s role in Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”