Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Complex Peace

After nine long years, George Washington had had enough of war. Returning to his beloved home, Mount Vernon, he directed his architect, Joseph Rakestraw, to create a weathervane crowned by a Dove of Peace to adorn the cupola. His instructions were specific: "I should like to have a bird (in place of the Vain) with an olive branch in its Mouth..."

While the message of the weathervane was clear, it says a lot about Washington’s practical nature and his obsession with the weather that it had to be fully functional. Accordingly, he was adamant that it be installed carefully and correctly. Writing from Philadelphia at the time the Dove of Peace was delivered to Mount Vernon, he stated: "Great pains...must be taken to fix the points truly; otherwise they will deceive rather than direct-(if they vary from the North, South, East, and West)-one way of doing this may be by my Compass being placed in a direct North line on the ground at some distance from the House."

A recent trip to Mount Vernon underscored the importance of the weathervane to the estate. It is the one object that can be seen from everywhere, and its high perch is a constant reminder of its owner’s high hopes that he and the new nation would enjoy extended peace and prosperity. The Dove of Peace  atop the cupola seen by visitors to Mount Vernon is now, of course, a replica of the original, although the other elements of the weathervane structure, including the mast, ball, and directional, are all in the same prominent location they were so carefully placed at Washington’s direction in 1787.

The Dove can still be seen, although it has been moved to an indoor gallery in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center as part of the “At Home with the Washingtons” exhibition. It is quite startling to see the Dove up close and at eye level, but it is still a stunning example of early American metalwork. It is also in fine shape, having undergone its most recent restoration in 2008. Photographs are not allowed in the gallery, but I did find this one image from a visitor’s web album.

It is an interesting aside that the Dove’s first documented restoration coincided with another era in which the longing to Peace prevailed: 1946, in the wake of the Second World War. As an masterfully executed folk image representing a precious ideal, the Dove remains (admittedly, along with the newly restored slave quarters) one of the things that stays on your mind long after leaving Mount Vernon. As always, history is best defined by its contradictions.

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