When I first proposed writing an Independence Day article about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution in Washington Square it was meant to be a fun piece. I planned to share some of the trivia and neat facts I had learned about this monument while doing research about Washington Square. Then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police officers and protests erupted all over the United States. Writing a light story about a monument was no longer an option.
During the past few years, and the past few weeks in particular, monuments have been the focus of demonstrations, civil disobedience, news articles, opinion pieces, political discourse, and political action throughout the country. Philadelphia, of course, has seen the removal of former Mayor Frank Rizzo from the Municipal Services Building and the boxing in of Christopher Columbus both at Marconi Plaza and Penn’s Landing.
Monuments are consequential. They are a physical manifestation of choices made by the powerful about what and whom should be permanently honored.
Until the erection of the Octavius V. Catto memorial on the south side of City Hall in 2018, Black residents of Philadelphia could not walk by a statue of an individual African American figure on any public land in the city. It is not surprising that this new landmark was the venue for several of the protests and vigils that followed the police murder of George Floyd.
Although the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution and its accompanying statue of George Washington have not attracted the same level of controversy as Rizzo or Columbus, the monument was vandalized with graffiti during the upheaval of May and June.
Let’s examine the history of the monument and then consider the reasons it may have been targeted by angry people with cans of spray paint.
The area we know as Washington Square was originally laid out as Southeast Square in William Penn and Thomas Holmes’ plan for the city. It was used as a potter’s field for more than a century. At different points during the Revolutionary War, American and then British prisoners of war were housed in the Walnut Street Jail that ran along the square’s eastern edge. Conditions were so terrible that thousands of soldiers were buried in the adjacent potter’s field.
In 1825, when the field had been transformed into the center of a stylish residential neighborhood, the park was officially named Washington Square. In 1833, City Council approved the erection of a George Washington statue in the square, but sufficient funds were never raised. It would take another 124 years to bring Washington to Washington Square.
For much of the 19th century the streets lining the square were almost entirely residential. As commerce and city government moved westward toward City Hall, the city’s elite moved to Rittenhouse Square and the streetcar suburbs. During the first decades of the 20th century, many elegant townhouses were demolished.
Most were replaced with the headquarters of publishing companies like Lippincott, Curtis, W.B. Saunders, the Farm Journal, and Lea & Febiger. The Penn Mutual Insurance Company and the advertising firm N. W. Ayer & Sons were other businesses located in office buildings on the site.
Jane Jacobs vividly and damningly describes Washington Square in her 1961 classic, The Life and Death of Great American Cities: “…the center of an area that was at one time the heart of downtown, but is now specialized as a massive office center—insurance companies, publishing, advertising. Several decades ago Washington Square became Philadelphia’s pervert park, to the point where it was shunned by office lunchers and was an unmanageable vice and crime problem to park workers and police.”
The square had deteriorated so badly that in the mid-1950s it was closed and overhauled as part of the broader effort by city planner Edmund Bacon, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, and other city leaders to bring urban renewal to Society Hill and Washington Square West. The vision included emphasizing the colonial charm of the area. The time had finally arrived to put George Washington in Washington Square.
Prominent architect and preservationist G. Edwin Brumbaugh designed the refurbished park. Brumbaugh was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, and a winner of the Arthur Spayd Brooke medal, an honor that was also earned by Julian Abele and Louis Kahn. Brumbaugh’s additions to Washington Square included Franklin-style lampposts, a central circular fountain, and a large memorial on the square’s western side. The purpose of the monument was to honor both George Washington and an unknown soldier from the Revolutionary War.
Finding an unknown soldier was no easy feat nearly 200 years after the American War for Independence. Archaeologists dug holes in several areas of the former potter’s field. The remains of a body with a dented skull–perhaps caused by a musket ball–was found and placed in a stone sarcophagus. Whether that body belonged to a British or American soldier, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, a pauper, or an African American laid to rest in the community’s longtime communal burial ground, may never be known. Nevertheless, a plaque in the sidewalk in front of the tomb reads, “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.” An eternal flame was installed in front of the plaque in 1976 for the nation’s bicentennial.
The bronze statue of Washington at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is a replica of a marble sculpture that sits in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly commissioned a statue of George Washington. French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was chosen at the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale sent drawings of Washington to Houdon in France, but Houdon found these insufficient.
Houdon, Franklin, and several assistants set sail for Mt. Vernon where the sculptor took detailed measurements of Washington’s frame and made a life mask of his face. Houdon’s work is considered the most accurate depiction of our first president.
The granite wall behind the Washington statue isinscribed with an acknowledgement of the dead soldiers buried in the park and an excerpt from Washington’s farewell address. Large font across the top of the wall declares, “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.” A concise and catchy phrase. Both inspiring and pithy, as it should be. These are not the words of our first president, but rather of an advertising copywriter who worked on Washington Square.
It is on this wall that someone scrawled, “Committed GENOCIDE” in early June. I was confused by this accusation. As a former teacher of African American history, I know the following about George Washington:
He and his wife Martha owned hundreds of enslaved people.
When he came to Philadelphia to serve as president he brought with him several enslaved people to serve in the President’s House. In so doing, he violated both the spirit of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 as well as the letter of a 1788 addendum to that act.
In 1793, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring the return of the self-emancipated (i.e. runaway slaves) to their owners.
After 20-year-old Ona Judge fled enslavement at the President’s House in 1796, George Washington pursued her for the rest of his life.
For much more on Washington and slavery, be sure to visit the President’s House at 6th and Market Streets.
As I dug deeper, however, I did find some evidence that the graffiti was not necessarily off base. As a young man, Washington was a surveyor and a landowner eager to expand his holdings, often through one-sided negotiations with Indigenous inhabitants.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington hoped to maintain peace with Native Americans to prevent the Continental Army from diverting resources from the fight against the Redcoats. Most tribes, however, sided with the British. Native Americans, led by Loyalist rangers, launched several attacks against settlers in Western Pennsylvania and New York. In Cherry Valley, New York, 30 settlers, mostly women and children, were killed during a joint Iroquois and Loyalist invasion.
In retaliation, Washington organized a campaign to obliterate the Iroquois confederacy. General John Sullivan was ordered by Washington to assemble 5,000 Continental troops to “not merely overrun, but destroy” Iroquois settlements. “The immediate objects,” wrote Washington, “are the total destruction and devastation of these settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible.” Washington also specified that “you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected.”
As Sullivan’s troops advanced, they found recently abandoned villages which they burned to the ground along with cropland and orchards. After a month of pillaging through Iroquois territory, Sullivan’s troops reversed course, destroying any settlements or cropland they had missed on their westward trek.
In all, 40 Iroquois towns and villages were destroyed. The former inhabitants fled to British protection in Ontario where many died of starvation and exposure the following winter. According to Dartmouth professor Colin Calloway, the Sullivan Expedition was micromanaged by Washington who saw it as an opportunity not just for retribution, but also to claim this particularly fertile land which we now know as the Finger Lakes region of New York.
As president, Washington met frequently with Native American leaders who were considered visiting heads of state rather than American subjects. He attempted to purchase tribal land through bargaining, treaties, and offers to assimilate Indigenous people into American-style civilization. When he met resistance, Washington resorted to heavy handed tactics, explaining that “recalcitrant savages” had to be “extirpated” from their land. By the end of his life, Washington had appropriated vast swaths of Native American land, both for himself and for the new nation.
Perhaps Washington’s land-hungry and periodically murderous treatment of Indigenous people links him to the description of “committed GENOCIDE.” I would not have known the story of the Sullivan Expedition or anything else about Washington’s dealings with Native Americans had this graffiti never been sprayed. My hunch is that this information is new to you as well. I believe that knowing more about our past, especially the ugly parts, is a major key to moving forward.
I am not endorsing vandalism, but how would you feel as a Native American seeing a usurper of land and destroyer of your ancestor’s communities revered as a national hero?
Is revealing the unsavory aspects of George Washington’s relations with Native Americans important enough to justify spray paint?
Certainly food for thought as we celebrate our nation’s founding this Independence Day.