• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Statuary: Washington, Holley, Garibaldi

August 2018


Bearded, aged, yet carved with fiery eyes stolen from the grip of a distant youth, Giuseppe Garibaldi looms above New York City. It’s there he stands outside the restraints of time, beyond the grave, and in that city whose inhabitants admit only legends as their own. Astride his very own pedestal, as if restive from the passage of all these years, Garibaldi overlooks the winding trails of New York’s historic Washington Square Park. It’s there you’ll find him, in seasons fair or foul, itching in the stiffness of his bones for life once more. Yet forever he stands in his bronze-cast stoicism, only hoping to leap into the city’s action below. He’s fidgety, and who wouldn’t be, for he endures the unnatural stasis in which he’s been etched while everyone around him dances to the beat of the world.


It’s in this second-most famous park (the sprawling genius of Frederick Law Olmsted’s aptly named, Central Park, still reigns supreme) of this first amongst all famous cities where Garibaldi readies himself for his chance to join the fun. For him, though, the park is merely a temporary “resting place”—a hostel in whose ten acres the Empire City honors but three men amongst whom he finds his enforced repose.


The first, you well know, is he for whom the very park itself is named. For that matter, it’s the man for whom not only this park, but the nation’s capital, her most northwestern state (excepting, of course, Alaska), and thousands of other streets and townships and fields from one coast to the next are deferentially named. That man is, of course, none other than General George Washington himself—that protector, exemplar, warrior, and founder of this once again fragmented country.


Second in the park’s hierarchy of effigy is Alexander Lyman Holley. Son of a prosperous Connecticut inventor and a stay-at-home mom, Holley—unlike President Washington—was amongst a new generation of American children born of the early 19th century who were brought into this world recognizing as “home” only one land (without splintered trans-Atlantic loyalties). More importantly, it was a land over which no foreign colonizer presided. He, a member of his century’s greatest generation, would be able to call himself without reservation an American from his first breath to his last. Washington, though born a Virginian, wasn’t technically nor devoutly an American through and through. America, after all, was a figment and an allowance and ultimately an expense of the crown’s colonial imagination. Washington was never one to be led from the reality on the ground.


From the start, Washington was a Briton, or at least he endeavored to be. Highest amongst his lofty aspirations was to become a decorated general. But a general in particular, he wanted to be. Understandably, he didn’t want to command that backwoods American army of inebriation and ill-repute. His aim was to be the sober, polished British royal brigadier by whose scabbard the world would turn. Such was this unprecedented British army and navy’s effect after seven years’ worth of war from the Caribbean isles to the port of Calcutta. As an unofficial aide-de-camp of the late General Braddock, whose death marked the end of the Monongahela campaign but the beginning of Washington’s vaulting career, the trigger-happy son of Mt. Vernon saw himself climbing the promotional ladder to the very top. In his ambitious mind, he wouldn’t stop until he was garbed in the red raiment of the motherland and the gold epaulets of Ares while standing elbow to elbow with the king.


Tempting is it to follow such paths of unlived history—to think of that steely-eyed Washington not as a rebel for a cause, but as a royal soldier in defense of a crown. More banal is it to return to the overlooked Holley. A significant man in his own right, (though forgivably overshadowed by that first and greatest of presidents) he was no doubt himself a man of steel. Not in the style of Washington, to whom the association came naturally via those who adored and fought him, nor in that of a Stalin, to whom it came attributively by his own hand (“Stalin”, of course, translates into Man of Steel), but rather by way of his profession.


Holley, you see, was a mechanical engineer by trade. Steel was his clay, acumen his kiln, and in time he became a master innovator of the Bessemer process. It was largely by his ingenuity and his effort that the production of steel flourished and, by extension, the country’s newest evolved organ system—that is, the railroad system—came into its being. It would be through this system’s endless labyrinth of arteries and veins that inter-state commerce and nationwide industry would be born.


What then has Garibaldi in relation to these two men? Why is it that his bust appears alongside theirs? He was neither a soldier nor an engineer responsible for bringing into existence this country (Washington, perhaps not unlike Hamilton, was both). More than that, though, Garibaldi wasn’t even an American. A Frenchman as his Italian name belies, he wasn’t the father of this country (as was Washington), nor her beloved homegrown son (a position Holley greatly enjoyed). Garibaldi was but an adopted and desperate refugee to this land in the first quarter of the 1800’s.


Though not born there, he did spend a brief while as a resident of New York. The visit, however, was far from being the Big Apple holiday on which so many Europeans gorge themselves today. It was a quiet, slightly desperate time for the peripatetic and picaresque son of the world. It was less for sights to be seen than for skins to be saved that he flew so far afield. He’d been made to flee for the second time in his already much-too adventurous life the country to which he’d always return and from which his heart never strayed—that country, of course, was Italy.


Know the circumstances of Napoleon’s birth, reverse them, and you have a ready understanding of how Garibaldi came to be the father and savior of modern Italy. Such was the relationship—fraught as too often it was—between Italy and France. From Norman conquests, to Habsburg invasions, to papal schisms, and countless territorial squabbles in between, the two contiguous and competing nations have been forever at odds.


Napoleon, a generation before Garibaldi, had descended from his mother’s undoubtedly Italian womb onto Corsican soil. Nearly equidistant in Mediterranean waters from its southern shore to Rome and its northern to Cannes, Corsica was sold to the French by the Genoan city-state just a year before the young emperor’s birth. Like an enantiomer, whose opposite image is reflected upon itself, Garibaldi was born opposite this artilleryman-turned-Alexander. Garibaldi was born at the coastal city of Nice, which lies but a few miles from the border that France jealously shares with her Italian neighbor. He, like Washington recently before him, was born of one nationality and died of another. Nice, now French, was to become an Italian province of Sardinia—another, albeit larger, island just south of Corsica.

Yet Napoleon’s and Garibaldi’s similarities didn’t cease with the oddities of their confusing births. Above all else, both were ardent nationalists. Napoleon simply added imperialism to the mix. He thought that the nation over which he now reigned was the greatest of all—and he wanted this greatness revealed in its expanse. Should you disagree (as did the Holy Roman Empire), or should you not see its grandeur with appropriate clarity (as the unfortunate Spaniards failed to do), you’d soon be pursued by the point of a sword to understand Napoleon’s nationalistic ardor in all of its imperial subtlety.


Garibaldi’s sense of nationalism was different from that of Napoleon. In fact, it was in large part because of Napoleon’s ambitious designs toward a totally Francized Europe that Garibaldi’s nationalism even came to be. His was more reactive than anything else. Although Italy had long since been balkanized into a country of squabbling and mutually-hostile states, it had never seemed so bad as it was in the post-Napoleonic age. At least Garibaldi didn’t think so (although the barbarian invasions of the 5th century and again in the 16th century might’ve been worse). Napoleon left it to his step-son, Eugene de Beauharnais—an incompetent and not surprisingly insolent youth—to administer the affairs within this freshly annexed state.


It was in the dissolution of Napoleon’s empire and in the almost pre-ordained return of internecine warfare to Italy (a struggle largely fought between the urban and economically prosperous north and the Mezzogiorno, or, the rural and impecunious south) that Garibaldi planted his flag into the pages of history.


With maturity disproportionate to his years, Garibaldi had already travelled the world and fought for and inspired countless movements of liberation and unification. He did so in Uruguay and in Brazil (whither he arrived before his exile to the U.S.), and hoped to continue his galvanizing success in his beloved Italy. It was, frustratingly, the only place on Earth he’d failed at his life-long endeavor of liberty and justice for all. And the Italians were the only people—his people—for whom he couldn’t secure a lasting victory. Unlike Napoleon, Garibaldi wanted rather the unification than the subjugation of his home land. So too did he yearn for the universalization of liberal democracy in the face of military dictatorship which had its shadow everywhere from the Andes to the Apennines.


Eventually, though not without the heartache and the high cost of flesh that is incidental to war, Garibaldi achieved his end. He proved himself the only blade sharp enough, the only spine stiff enough to stand up not once, nor twice, but thrice to his domestic and foreign enemies. In the year 1861—the same in which Alexander II emancipated the Russian serfs—Garibaldi brought about the Risorgimento, or the “resurgence” of Italy into a unified and liberated state. Freedom was in the air, and its circulation was moving with every breath. It wouldn’t be long before another proclamation of emancipation would be announced thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean in 1863.


It was hoped by the solemn author of that Executive edict that Garibaldi, now in the fifth decade of his mythical life (he was, by this time, already being heralded as the “Hero of the Two Worlds”—that is, of the new and now the old), would join his cause. Abraham Lincoln sent to the rustic Sardinian countryside an emissary by the name of Henry Sanford to attempt the recruitment of this veteran Spartan warrior. Should Garibaldi be moved to take up arms rather than his plow and hew the battlefield rather than his pasture, “the name of Lafayette”, Sanford fulsomely assured him, “would indeed not surpass yours”.


And indeed, had Garibaldi signed up to lead the Union troops for what looked to be his last military campaign, it wouldn’t have. So close was he to donning the Yankee blue and singing with the sons of the north that ode to John Brown that he even admitted to a friend that he’d be “very happy to serve a country for which I have so much affection”. One blushes, as rarely a native-born American will do, to hear these words spoken by a foreigner. To think what our country today—riven as she is in a world of division and multiculturalism—would pay to be able to arouse in the hearts of her own sons that same sense of undaunted fidelity is beyond my thinking. Far from affection, a growing number of us today have nothing but scorn for our country—a country to which we owe so much and value so little.


But Garibaldi didn’t need to be convinced of America’s greatness nor of the reasons for her meriting his esteem. Whether he simply knew and cherished her ideals, or felt like a pulse beneath his feet her potential to be more than she was, or whether he just sympathized with the plight of the state he once briefly called home, Garibaldi was ready to intervene on her behalf—and for her better half. He was attracted to the concept of being the rebel’s scourge and the latter-day Lafayette; the north’s savior and the black man’s liberator.


In his mind, it was that last part which was most crucial. To Garibaldi, abolition was of the utmost importance. It was something much greater than a limp campaign promise, or a university debate topic, or a windy attachment to an inaugural speech. Liberty to him was vitality; freedom was life. It was for that reason, for his unflappable adherence to abolition and everything for which that lofty and unpracticed ideal stood, that he would only command the Union Army under two conditions.


The first, surely to be granted if only to remove from Lincoln’s growing list of headaches that feckless George McClellan, was for Garibaldi to be given absolute control over the Union Army. A small cost, one would think, to retain the talents of a hero whose accomplishments bestrode two continents and twenty years. The second condition, Lincoln realized, wouldn’t be so easily met. For this shortcoming, America remains chagrined. Garibaldi desired from Lincoln’s lips to his ears an explicit assurance. He would have to know for certain that the Union was fighting its war to put an end to slavery—and for no other reason more preponderant than that. No other rationale for fratricide would do. Not because of southern intransigence nor quarrels over tariffs—those issues of money and pride mattered to him not. Principle, in Garibaldi’s measurement, would forever weigh more heavily than politics on the scales of life and limb.


And so, he wanted it affirmed for all to hear that this burgeoning war would be fundamentally a moral struggle between evil and good—between slave-driver and emancipator. He literally wanted this brother’s war to be as clear as black and white. But, and this is a point over which most of us quietly skip, to put an end to the institution of slavery on American soil wasn’t atop Lincoln’s agenda. Certainly, it did find itself further down the list, and it quickly rose as the tides of battle drifted his way, but it wasn’t number one from the start. That spot belonged to the preservation of the country as a unified thing, which our dour president wanted more than anything else. The hagiography of Lincoln is wont to overlook this point.


Ultimately, Garibaldi declined Lincoln’s offer to command the Union forces. “You may be sure” he explained to his now desperate American counterpart, who’d only just begun to witness the depths of cowardice to which a man like McClellan could fall, “that had I accepted to draw my sword for the cause of the United States, it would have been for the abolition of slavery—and for that cause unconditionally”. Alas, his allegiance to the northern cause was lost forever.


Perhaps it’s for this reason that in Washington Square Park, Garibaldi can be seen above all passers-by with his hand on his sword. But, and this is important to note, the sword remains cemented in its sheath. We see not the blade itself, only the ardent energy stored like dynamite in groove. And to think, we had almost given him reason to expose his Italian Excalibur all the way. Perhaps, had our government been so wise as to allow him the chance to do just that under his and finally our sole condition of liberty above all else, the park in which he stands today, the place where he exists as some kind of frozen pedantic side conversation and unheard history lesson would bear not Washington’s, but his name. Garibaldi Square Park. Even that can’t contain him.

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