Sally Webster is Professor Emerita of American Art at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. An authority on historical murals and monuments, her latest book, The Nation’s First Monument and the Origins of the American Memorial Tradition, was published by Ashgate in April 2015. The book explores the largely unstudied legacy of the Continental Congress’s memorial commissions, the first of which, the Montgomery Monument, is installed in the East Portico of St. Paul’s Chapel.
Sally Webster spent her career studying late nineteenth century American art. She became interested in the Montgomery Monument, an eighteenth century piece, about ten years ago, and shared her ‘discovery’ of the monument.
“It’s one of my favorite stories,” she said. “I had just taught a course at the Graduate Center on historic American monuments from Bunker Hill through Mount Rushmore, and at the end of the semester I thought, ‘I have a book here.’ But the cornerstone of Bunker Hill was laid in 1825, and I thought there must be an earlier monument.”
She was right: buried deep in the National Parks Service website was a national memorial timeline, and at the top of the list was the Montgomery Monument.
“I thought, I am writing a book on American monuments and I had never heard of it!”
The Montgomery Monument
The Montgomery Monument, as Webster would learn, was the very first memorial commissioned by the Continental Congress. It honored General Richard Montgomery, who was killed at the Siege of Quebec in December 1775, the first American offensive of the Revolutionary War.
Congress quickly approved funds for a public memorial in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Benjamin Franklin commissioned French sculptor Jean-Jacques Caffiéri to create the monument. The disassembled monument was shipped across the Atlantic, but because of the war was diverted to North Carolina, where it remained until 1787, when it was finally installed not in Philadelphia but on the porch of St. Paul’s Chapel. The installation was overseen by Pierre L’Enfant, who created the Glory Altarpiece that masks the monument’s shadow on the interior of St. Paul’s. L’Enfant went on to design much of Washington, D.C.
The Continental Congress authorized construction of 11 other monuments, but, as Webster discovered, the Montgomery Monument was the only one completed during the eighteenth century. (As far as it is known, two others were finished during the nineteenth century.)
“The monument meant to me that this commemorative tradition was established simultaneously with the Patriots’ desire for independence and nationhood,” Webster said. “It says, ‘We know how to do this, we know how to be a nation.’ It communicates our nationhood to ourselves and to others.”
Webster made several major discoveries during her research, including that the monument was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1777.
“This is huge from my point of view. The sculptor and Franklin thought that the monument was significant and important enough to put on public view. It’s a declaration from Franklin, saying 'This is it, folks! We are a nation!' And this is before we had recognition from the French government [as a nation.]”
Left to right: Sally Webster, Trinity Archives summer intern Kevin McWilliams, and former archivist Gwynedd Cannan during the 2011 restoration of the monument.
Webster shares credit for the second discovery with Gwynedd Cannan, former Trinity archivist. In the course of Webster’s research, Cannan shared a 1920s-era photo of the carved frame Pierre L’Enfant made for the Montgomery Monument.
The 1920s photo of the frame created by L'Enfant
“I’d never seen anything like this—one of the few objects by L’Enfant!” Webster says.
At the time, both Cannan and Webster believed the frame was lost. Then one dark evening Cannan walked by St. Paul’s Chapel when the chapel was lit from the inside. She looked up, and the frame around the monument, typically obscured by dirty windows, was visible. It was the back of the Glory Altarpiece, and it framed the monument from the inside of the chapel.
“I can’t tell you how excited we were,” Webster says.
After an extensive restoration project the L’Enfant frame is now clearly visible around the monument.
L'Enfant's frame is now clearly visible around the monument.
One of the lingering questions Webster has is why the monument, intended for Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, ended up in a church formerly affiliated with the Church of England in a notoriously Loyalist city.
Webster has theories. New York, a loyalist town, had to be recreated as an American city. St. Paul’s was one of the few buildings ready to accept and display the monument, and its placement allows it to be viewed from street level. Like Westminster Abbey, famed for its monuments, St. Paul’s was closest thing the new nation had to a national church. Placing the monument there was, ironically, in keeping with British tradition the founding fathers knew.
In addition L'Enfant also renovated New York's city hall as Federal Hall where Congress met and Washington was inaugurated in 1789. Afterwards, as Webster explains, “the inaugural party repaired to St. Paul's. Greeting them as they entered was the Montgomery monument.” Washington walked to St. Paul’s Chapel, where he prayed in the shadow of the monument. Webster's conclusion is that the Montgomery Monument and its frame by L'Enfant were an integral part of the founding fathers’ efforts to forge our national identity.
So what’s next for Webster?
“Right now I’m enjoying the enthusiastic reception of book,” she says.
She recently spoke to a group of academics and experts at the Smithsonian, and on May 18 she’ll offer an informal talk at a book launch at St. Paul’s Chapel. She continues as a writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library’s Wertheim Study.