Miami’s George Washington statue that drew controversy traces past to 1790s

The George Washington statue on the Miami University Oxford campus has a long history with parts of it tracing back to the 1790s, according to Miami historians. The statue is located in the rotunda at the school's Alumni Hall. (Photo By Connor Moriarty\Journal-News)
The George Washington statue on the Miami University Oxford campus has a long history with parts of it tracing back to the 1790s, according to Miami historians. The statue is located in the rotunda at the school's Alumni Hall. (Photo By Connor Moriarty\Journal-News)

The history behind Miami University’s George Washington statue stretches back to the 1790s, but it is now part of a modern-day debate about the role of historical monuments in America.

Miami officials have been the target of criticism this week on social media after the Journal-News reported on Washington’s statue being covered in a tarp earlier this fall as part of “class project” to elicit discussions about racism.

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But the statue, which was cast in 1860 and is the centerpiece of the rotunda at Miami’s Alumni Hall, is one of the few of its kind in the world.

And now this sculptured tribute to America’s Founding Father and first president has joined a modern-day discussion that has seen some other similar historical statues of famous Americans protested, vandalized and torn down.

Some across the nation, including Black Lives Matter among other groups, said those monuments were tainted by racism from America’s founding and subsequent past.

The creation of Washington’s marbled likeness, however, was first a gift in 1792 from French sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon, according to a 2019 history compiled by Miami’s McGuffey House and Museum on the Oxford campus.

According to an article featured by the museum, Houdon’s statue “was made from precise measurements of the living George Washington, including molds made from a mask of Washington’s face.”

“The statue is life size showing George Washington at age 53, about 210 pounds, and 6 feet 2.5 inches tall. The statue was so realistic that George Washington himself called it “a verisimilitude” of himself.

“In 1854, Virginia authorized William Hubard to make copies of their Houdon statue. Hubard made molds of the original statue and cast six bronze copies from these molds. The copy now in Alumni Hall of Miami University, was the sixth one made in Hubard’s foundry. It was cast in 1860 and weighs 2,300 pounds.”

According to the museum, “the other Hubard copies are placed at Virginia Military Institute, North Carolina State Capitol, South Carolina State House, St. Louis, Missouri, and New York City Hall.

And in 1909, Virginia decided to give permission to the Gorham Company for more copies to be made of the original marble statue. Now, more than 25 copies stand across the United States, South America, France and Great Britain.

“Miami alumna, Samuel S. Laws, class of 1848, donated the statue to Miami on graduation day in June, 1920,” according to the museum article. “Laws, an admirer of great men, had lived an illustrious life as a minister, an attorney, a physician, a businessman, an educator, and an inventor. Laws was then honored as Miami’s oldest living alum at age 96.”

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The statue has been at a number of locations around the Miami campus, including two years with its base kept in a school storage building.

Locations of the George Washington statue have been: 1920 in the Alumni Library; 1960 in Benton Hall, which was renamed Hall Auditorium in 1968; 1978 in the Art Museum without its base, which was in storage for two years; and then moved back to Alumni Hall in 1981.

According to the museum “Laws was proud to give it to Miami, to be placed in the rotunda of then Alumni Library, and hoped the students would have patriotic feelings as they passed by the statue.”

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