“First in war – first in peace – and first in the hearts of his countrymen”
Sandwiched between West End and Foggy Bottom, at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue, is Washington Circle. Two concentric circles of sidewalk ring the equestrian statue Lieutenant General George Washington that stands in the middle of the park. Benches line the sidewalks and trees provide shade for pedestrians and students from nearby George Washington University.
The circle was part of L’Enfant’s original plan for the city and the neighborhood has been developed since the mid-19th century, though it didn’t receive its name until sometime after the statue was authorized in 1853. It was sculpted by Clark Mills, who was already famous for his dramatic equestrian statue of Alexander Jackson in front of the White House (in what would become Lafayette Square) and whose foundry would cast the Statue of Freedom that stands atop the Capitol dome.
The design for the statue is based on Washington’s exploits during the Battle of Princeton in the American Revolutionary War. General Washington arrived at the battle to find a brigade of American militiamen fleeing the fight. Rallying the untrained unit, he led them to within 30 yards of the British lines. It is said that his horse was so terrified it would not move closer to the British. Both armies fired a volley and Washington, mounted and ahead of his own lines, came out unscathed. Soon, the British were in retreat and though considered a small victory at the time by the British, the Battle of Princeton would go on to be considered the turning point of the war.
Mills captured the spirit of this moment in his sculpture. Washington is mounted, his face resolute and stoic. His horse, on the other hand, appears to balk, its face terrified. Mills also found inspiration in French artist Jacques-Louis David’s oil painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps. The design of the horse’s mane and tail are taken directly from this painting.
The statue was dedicated on February 22nd, 1860 (Washington’s birthday), by President James Buchanan. It would be the last non-partisan celebration in Washington before the outbreak of the Civil War. Bells were rung throughout the city and storefronts were closed for the occasion. Those who marched in the parade numbered over 1,000, including the President, his cabinet, the Vice President, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and many military units.
Washington was born in Virginia to prosperous parents and, as a young man, worked as a surveyor. He fought in the French and Indian War rising to the rank of colonel in the Virginia militia and was given the name Conotocaurious – or Town Destroyer – by Iroquois natives who supported the French. After this war he retired his commission, married the widow Martha Custis, and diversified his business holdings.
Leading up to the revolution, Washington opposed the many taxes the British imposed on the colonies and was a key figure in instigating the war. He even arrived at the Second Continental Congress in his military uniform, letting the delegates know that he was prepared to fight for independence. His mix of leadership, preparation, perseverance, and daring all but guaranteed victory for the colonies.
After the war ended in 1781, Washington retired his command and returned to his estate in Virginia. He took part in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was unanimously elected president both in 1789 and in 1792. Washington neglected to seek a third term, a precedent that would last for over 100 years, and again returned to his estate in 1797 where he would die two years later from an unknown illness exacerbated by excessive letting of blood.
Washington’s contributions to the United States are too many to be enumerated. His name lives on in cities, universities, and monuments across the nation; his face is on our currency and our stamps; and his integrity is a model of what it means to live in and maintain a free republic.
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