Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part Two

In 1833 New York publisher George P. Morris embarked upon the publication of another print depicting the presidential succession. Writing to James Madison on April 13,[1] Morris informed him that he was producing a “Splendid National Engraving.”  He hoped the former President would allow him to borrow one of his portraits in order that it might be engraved by Asher B. Durand for inclusion in the image. Madison, however, informed Morris that his wife Dolley, “to whom the portrait belongs,” had some aversion to the loan of his portrait by Gilbert Stuart on account of previous problems with the shipping of the work.[2] Intent on having Madison’s portrait, Morris sent Durand to Montpelier that fall, where he painted a new portrait of Madison.[3]

Since Gimbrede’s print was created in 1812, there had been three additional presidents peacefully sworn into office–James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. Morris’s presidential group was more emblematic than Gimbrede’s earlier effort. In his depiction the portraits were grouped around a mirror displayed over a pier table, with Washington’s portrait once again given pride of place at the top of the grouping.

The presidents of the United S... Digital ID: 807923. New York Public Library

Although not immediately obvious, the engraving shows the portraits as hung on the wall of a room or hall, the other three walls being evident in the reflection in the mirror. Also reflected in the mirror is a statue of a woman, holding a pole topped by a Phyrgian cap. Since Roman antiquity this cap had served as a symbol of liberty, and therefore the statue is meant to personify Liberty. Thus, the depiction suggests that the portraits of the presidents are displayed in the “hall of liberty.”

Other symbols in the engraving demonstrate the nature of American liberty. On the skirt of the table is found an unusual symbol.

morris-detail

Depicting a spiral club with lightning bolts and wings, this ancient symbol has long been understood to represent the thunder and lightning of Zeus (or Jupiter to the Romans), the king of the Gods in classical mythology.

Char de Jupiter. Digital ID: 1622965. New York Public Library

Therefore the symbol represents supreme power as well as military might. Often used during the French Revolution, the symbol was appropriated by Napoleon to demonstrate his ultimate authority over the French people.

However, here in the hall of American worthies, it is the power of words which has secured authority, and therefore continued liberty, as demonstrated by the quill pen which rests on the top of the table. The rose which accompanies it is perhaps meant to suggest that, unlike previous governments which had relied on military might to secure and hold power, this American liberty is gentle.

Morris promised Madison that he would send him a early proof impression of the engraving, which was intended for his publication, the New-York Mirror. Whether this print ever arrived at Montpelier, or hung on its walls, is not currently known. However, Madison’s own display of the presidents in the Drawing Room was a constant visual demonstration of the power of liberty secured through the pen.[4]

1 George P. Morris to James Madison, April 13, 1833, The James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
2 James Madison to George P. Morris, April, 1833, The James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
3 This portrait is now in the collection of The New-York Historical Society
4 For more on Madison’s Drawing Room arrangement, see Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part One.

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One Response to Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part Two

  1. […] Peaceful Succession of Presidential Power – Part Two « Restoration … […]

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