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Washington in NYC

February 29, 2016

The first book in my presidential biography project is, fittingly, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I started this hefty tome the day after Presidents Day, and I suspect I’ll need lots of ideas for posts about it before my final review: at 900+ pages, it’ll take some time to read!

How coincidental (sorta) that I found myself running into Washington during a short visit to New York City. “Well, duh!” you might say, given the connections Washington had to the city and the area, not to mention his significance as the first president of the United States. Honestly, though, 240 years later, we don’t really think so deeply about the names of streets and squares and bridges when we travel over them.

So I confess that I felt an immediate personal connection to George when I hopped off the N train to meet my sister at Union Square and discovered the impressive monument to him there. I mean, how often do you run into the subject of your current book when you’re just meeting a friend in the city?

The statue of GW, situated on the south end of the square, was commissioned and sculpted by Henry Kirke Brown, who had already done an impressive statue of De Witt Clinton, U.S. Senator and governor of New York who made the Erie Canal happen. (Presidential side note: Brown’s assistant, John Quincy Adams Ward, was presumably named for the sixth president.) Brown depicted Washington on Evacuation Day, when the British left the city and GW led the Continental Army across the Harlem River and all the way down to the Battery. (Based on that Wikipedia entry, I’m looking forward to reading about this event!)

The monument belongs to the New York City Parks system, and its description of the monument reminded me that the statue (and park) became a spontaneous memorial after the 9/11 tragedy. It also was the scene of the largest (at that time) public demonstration in the nation, when massive crowds gathered to show support and loyalty to the Union after the assault on Fort Sumter. Check out the archival photos showing the monument in its previous location in this article from the New York Times.

It seems that George (I confess to an affection that makes it difficult to refrain from using his first name, although I think he’d be appalled by it) has been memorialized in several other spots in the greatest city in the world: In the Village there’s another square named for him (and it’s so ingrained for New Yorkers that Henry James gave his excellent novel that name), and I highly recommend a visit to see the stunning arch.

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Washington Square arch

Down on Wall Street, another statue of GW, this time horseless, stands in front of Federal Hall, where he took the oath of office as our first President. And, of course, I can’t forget that beautiful bridge that leads us into and out of the city every time we visit.

Washington may have been born in Virginia, fought for and represented his home county and state, but we New Yorkers know his roles as first U.S. president and leader of the Continental Army in the Revolution were his crowning achievements and should be remembered, even when we’re just meeting a friend for lunch.

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  1. George Washington: A Life | Book Shares

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