A video of this post is here.
On October 12, 2018, an eight-foot-tall sculpture of Alexander Hamilton was unveiled at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Details follow on the roles of the Class of ’63, the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, landscape architect Brian Kent, and sculptor Ben Victor. But first, some photos of the sculpture!
Hamilton and the Genesis of the Coast Guard
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton created – almost single-handedly – a plan for paying off the enormous debts incurred by the United States in its battle for independence, and for funding the operations of the federal government. As income, Hamilton relied mainly on taxes on imports. Congress had established the U.S. Customs service on July 31, 1789, to collect customs duties. After approving Hamilton’s financial proposals, Congress passed on August 4, 1790, “an act to provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels.” The Revenue-Marine, now the U.S. Coast Guard, began with ten ships. It is America’s oldest continuous seagoing service. (The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines were established in April 1798.)
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy Class of ’63
In 2013, the Class of ’63 began considering a gift to the Coast Guard Academy in celebration of their fiftieth anniversary. The Academy’s grounds in New London, Connecticut, abound in memorials, as I saw when I wandered through them on the day of the dedication. But none of the outdoor memorials is a large-scale figurative sculpture. The Class of ’63 had the wonderful idea of commissioning an eight-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Alexander Hamilton, the Father of the Coast Guard.
Why? As one of the plaques behind the sculpture says:
We ardently hope this monument, placed before the hallowed hall that bears his name, will foster future generations’ understanding and appreciation of his perseverance and courageous leadership, and be, therefore, even better prepared than we to be Always Ready to serve Country and Humanity. (photo of the plaque is below)
Raising the funds, finding a sculptor, planning a setting, and getting all the necessary permissions was the work of a committee of Class of ’63 members led by Mike Burdian, Dave Andrews, Rudy Peschel, and Ed DeMuzzio. Their goal was to have the sculpture ready to dedicate at Alumni Weekend in October 2018, marking their fifty-fifth anniversary.
The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society
When they decided to commission a sculpture of Hamilton, the Class of ’63 contacted Rand Scholet, president and founder of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society. The AHA Society is a national nonprofit educational organization dedicated to presenting scholarly and accurate information about Alexander Hamilton in an engaging way. Nicole Scholet de Villavicencio, vice-president and co-founder of the AHA Society, has photos of every known Hamilton sculpture in the United States – an invaluable resource for anyone creating a new sculpture. The AHA Society also has close contacts with Hamilton scholars throughout the country.
Rand Scholet suggested to the Class of ’63 and sculptor Ben Victor that Hamilton’s facial expression reflect his true nature as a visionary with an engaging personality. “In order to get many of his architected systems and programs enacted by Congress, Hamilton had to develop a good rapport with many in the House and Senate, as there was, at times, a subset of strong opposition he had to overcome,” notes Rand.
Landscape Architect Brian Kent
A sculpture can gain great impact via its setting. The Straus Memorial would be less serene if it weren’t in a park. Farragut would be less evocative without its pedestal. Glory of Commerce without Grand Central Terminal behind it would be simply odd.
It was decided to place the sculpture in front of Hamilton Hall. Since Hamilton Hall is a very large, brick building, even an eight-foot-tall figure could be lost against it. The Class of ’63 called on Brian Kent to design an appropriate setting. He created a brick approach to the sculpture and a low wall behind it. On the wall are five plaques that set the context for Hamilton in the Academy.
Here are the five plaques, from left to right.
Sculptor Benjamin Victor
Monumental bronze sculptures are not made overnight. In fact, they’re not usually made within a year. For a work on a site such as the USCG Academy, a design has to be approved by numerous organizations. Then a small model is created for the approval of committee members. Once approved, the model is scaled up. The full-size model is cast in bronze, and the sculptor files away by hand the bits and pieces left from the casting process. Then he polishes the sculpture and applies the patina. Finally, the sculpture is carefully packed and hauled to the site, where it’s installed on its pedestal with enough invisible underpinnings to hold it permanently in upright.
The Class of ’63 was intent on dedicating the sculpture on Alumni Weekend in 2018, the fifty-fifth anniversary of their graduation. By early 2018, Brian Kent’s plans for the setting of the new Hamilton sculpture were well under way … but the sculpture was not. The artist who originally took the commission and submitted a preliminary sketch was not able to continue with the project. In February 2018, the committee of the Class of ’63 decided to find another sculptor.
Dave Andrews interviewed or reviewed in detail six sculptors. Two well-qualified sculptors could not meet the October 2018 deadline. Three others did not have a sufficient body of work or had other issues that precluded commissioning them. Ben Victor had a stellar resume, including two sculptures in Statuary Hall in the Capitol.
The Class of ’63 and the Academy’s Superintendent had approved, in a preliminary sketch by the original sculptor, a large standing figure of Hamilton. That sketch showed a figure with one foot on a rock. Ben suggested that Hamilton stand on flat ground, because large bronze sculptures need to be firmly attached to their support, and attaching to an irregular surface such as a rock is far more difficult than attaching to a flat surface such as a pedestal.
Hamilton holds a sheaf of papers: the Letter of Instruction to the Commanding Officers of the Revenue Cutters, dated June 4, 1791.
They will always keep in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit.
They will, therefore, refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult …
They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty – by address and moderation, rather than by vehemence or violence. (transcribed from the plaque behind the statue)
Rand Scholet provided a high-resolution digital image of the original manuscript of the these instructions to Revenue-Marine officers. Ben and his assistants traced the words onto clay, reproducing Hamilton’s handwriting. If you’re tall enough, you can read Hamilton’s signature on the papers he’s holding. If you’re not, it’s also reproduced on the plaque behind Hamilton.
Normally Ben would do his own historical research, but the looming deadline didn’t allow for that. So one day in March, Rand shared extensive details about Hamilton’s life, legacy, good deeds for others, and key relationships. Members of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society (including me) were consulted about appropriate costume and even such details as the shape and length of Hamilton’s ponytail.
To save time, Ben skipped the small models and began working directly on the full-size clay model. It was cast in a foundry in Wyoming in September and early October. The finished sculpture traveled 2,200 miles to the Academy, where it was installed on Wednesday October 10 – a mere two days before the dedication.
Regimental Review of Academy Corps of Cadets
After the dedication and a celebratory lunch that included remarks from members of the Class of ’63, the sculptor, the architect, and the president of the AHA Society, participants were invited to the regimental review of the Academy’s Corps of Cadets. I’d never seen such a review, and found it moving … an odd word for a military exercise, but the right one. Seeing an action done very precisely by people who are clearly proud of their work often has that effect on me.
And because I have a PhD in Classics and can’t resist a good Latin phrase: the motto of the U.S. Coast Guard is Semper paratus, “always ready”. The motto of the USCG’s Academy is Scientiae cedit mare, “The sea yields to knowledge.” The mottoes are on banners that line the thoroughfare in front of Hamilton Hall.
Thanks to all who made this sculpture and this event possible – and many thanks for inviting me to participate!
- You can visit the Academy if you have a valid photo ID: details here.
- I posted a few weeks ago on the Art Renewal Center (ARC) exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. I didn’t realize at the time that Ben Victor’s Angel was on display there – one of the few sculptures in the show. It won a First Place / Sculpture Award from the ARC.
- The video of this blog post was created with the support of my Patreon subscribers. Thank you all!
- For a discussion of what makes a memorable memorial, see “From Portraits to Puddles,” which appears as a series of blog posts on this site (see the Portraits to Puddles tag) and in video, paperback and ebook formats: details in this post.
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