Thomas Crawford, George Washington Equestrian Monument

Thomas Crawford, George Washington Equestrian Monument, cast 1857 in Munich, partly erected 1858 (Washington, Henry, Jefferson, and Mason), remaining figures completed by Randolph Rogers in 1869, bronze, granite, the equestrian bronze element is 21 feet high (State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in Richmond, Virginia, atop a large hill with the State Capitol. Just beside it is this extraordinary sculptural confection with George Washington mounted on a steed at its top.

Tyler Green: [0:20] This sculpture of Washington was made by Thomas Crawford. Crawford begins the commission in 1850. Crawford dies in ’57. This is not completed until 1869, by Randolph Rogers.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] The idea of having an equestrian sculpture is significant.

Tyler: [0:38] Crawford bases his design of this sculpture on a famous Roman sculpture of Marcus Aurelius. We have Washington pointing up slightly, as if to say, “The nation is moving west.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] But Crawford is known for more than this sculpture.

Tyler: [0:54] Crawford was proposing and designing a statue of Freedom, which now sits atop the U.S. Capitol dome, roughly concurrent with when he’s making this sculpture in Richmond.

[1:04] Crawford first conceived the Statue of Freedom as wearing a Phrygian cap. That was a cap worn by former Roman slaves who had been freed to indicate that they were freedmen. A senator in the U.S. Senate objected to such a symbol of individual freedom in the context of a formerly enslaved person being atop the U.S. Capitol dome. That objecting senator was Jefferson Davis.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] I think it’s impossible to overstate the tensions that existed in the years immediately before the Civil War between the North and the South. This period that we call the antebellum period.

Tyler: [1:41] This sculpture is an argument about what North and South agree upon, and what both halves of America’s ideological argument agree upon is republicanism. Not only do we have Washington represented in a manner recalling Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, but a republican. But he is surrounded by signifiers of Roman liberty and triumph, such as the laurel wreaths around the plinth.

[2:07] Thomas Jefferson, which is one of the figures carved by Crawford, is wearing a cloaky garment that recalls a Roman toga. The allegorical figures at the base of the monument, all created by Randolph Rogers, are wearing garments that can also be read as referencing Rome. This confectionery plinth arrangement references how sculptures would have been installed in republican Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] What I find successful about the sculptural representation of Washington and this horse is its sense of dynamism. Almost every part of the animal is in motion, and yet Washington seems steady. He seems as if he is in complete control of his troops.

Tyler: [2:48] The first thing that strikes me about this sculpture is the horse’s tail. It is flowing. We see the movement in the tail extended through the saddle blanket that rests across the horse. We see movement in the horse’s mane. We see movement in the horse’s eyes.

Dr. Zucker: [3:03] Here, this is Washington as a military genius. This martial representation is quite different from the famous sculpture that exists just a few yards away inside the Capitol building, which was a late 18th century sculpture of George Washington by the French artist Houdon, where Washington has taken off his sword and is holding now a walking stick.

[3:23] Washington is shown having relinquished his military power and is returning to his role as a country gentleman. What does it mean in 1850 to re-emphasize the military career of George Washington as opposed to George Washington as either statesman or as country gentleman?

Tyler: [3:40] In the 1850s, one of the ways in which Washington was considered remarkable is that he was a Southerner who was empowered by Northerners to lead the army that brought to fruition New England ideas about liberty. Washington as a uniter.

Dr. Zucker: [3:58] Importantly, each of the standing figures that were chosen for the base of the monument are themselves Virginians, but the meaning of this work changes. In this sculpture, there is such a lag between its inception in 1850 — that is, before the Civil War — and its completion in 1869, after the Civil War has concluded.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] In between 1850, when Crawford starts, and 1869 when Rogers finishes, this sculpture is the site of Jefferson Davis’ second inauguration as the president of the Confederacy.

[4:30] While for the North and South across the 1850s, Washington is a symbol of how the two sides can work together, in 1862, Davis realizes that this sculpture being in Richmond provides him with an opportunity to make an argument for Washington as the Southern leader.

[4:48] This monument is enormously important to both Virginia and then to what will become the Confederacy. For example, the Confederacy will use the Washington of this monument, Washington on a horse, on the Confederate state seal.

[5:01] This is a period during which Confederates, Southerners, are extending an argument they made in the late 1850s: that if the 13 colonies could declare their independence from Britain, why couldn’t the South declare its independence from, effectively, the North?

Dr. Zucker: [5:15] So Washington as symbol is being reclaimed by the South as their native son and the South is the inheritor of the true republicanism of the revolutionary period.

Tyler: [5:27] The North and South in this period have different ideas of what republicanism and liberty mean. For the North, freedom and republicanism are about valuing the whole more than individual’s own self-interest.

[5:42] In the South, freedom was about property. Of course, that property was enslaved humans.

[5:48] [music]

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Cite this page as: Tyler Green and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Thomas Crawford, George Washington Equestrian Monument," in Smarthistory, July 29, 2022, accessed July 20, 2024,