- Historic Sites
A knowledgeable and passionate guide takes us for a walk down Wall Street, and we find the buildings there eloquent of the whole history of American finance
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
Our first President has stood on the pedestal, more or less where he took the oath of office on the balcony of old Federal Hall, since the statue was dedicated on November 26, 1883. The centennial celebrated was Evacuation Day, the anniversary of the redcoats’ departure from New York and one of the city’s great pleasure days until 1916, when it was downplayed in the movement for preparedness after Wilson’s reelection. By 1917 Washington’s pedestal had become the center of gigantic Liberty-bond rallies, with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Jacob Schiff, the financier, haranguing huge crowds.
Walking these blocks to find our history helps us overcome Main Street’s old suspicion that Wall Street is in another country.
The statue of Washington was made by John Quincy Adams Ward, who for years had a virtual monopoly on public statuary in the city. He also designed the statuary group in the pediment of the exchange, called Integrity Protecting the Works of Man.
President Chester Arthur was in attendance at the statue’s dedication on that day; he sat with Gov. Grover Cleveland and others of the dignified classes, while Bishop Henry Codman Potter of the archdioceses of the Protestant Episcopal Church gave the benediction. The bishop believed that Washington’s great personal and public distinction was his gravity, the gravity that had in time been replaced by Jefferson’s simplicity, which in turn had given way to the vulgarity Andrew Jackson wheeled in. His feelings might have mirrored Alexander Hamilton’s in one of those moments when he flayed the people as “a great beast.” The bishop spoke as a man of his day and hour; the modern economy of huge railroad and industrial enterprise had been unleashed, and the tycoon and investment banker were being fashioned as a model, an image to equal Washington’s and to diminish Jefferson’s.
I sit on the steps of the old public building and think that if Washington were asked the question that Whitman once posed—“What is it, then, between us?”—he would hardly answer that it was the cash nexus. George Santayana comes to mind, too, for he found American history a puzzle when it was not an affliction to the overrefined side of his nature. “To be an American,” he said, “is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career.” Walking Wall Street to find the country’s history is an arduous but rewarding task; it is worth walking again and again, if only to overcome Main Street’s old suspicion that Wall Street is in another country.
Here on Wall Street, where it is said people often discount not only the future in booming investments but often the hereafter as well, it is good to look back in the shadow of Trinity, which Whitman called “somber, sulky and proud,” and remind ourselves of another of his admonitions: “The Founders have passed to other spheres—but what are these terrible duties they have left us?”