Filed Under Military

(Still) Waiting for Washington

“On the President’s landing, he was welcomed by a federal discharge of Cannon, and the Ringing of Bells. The Concourse of People was prodigious. The Procession was conducted with great Decorum, and exceeded anything of the Kind before exhibited in this Town.”
- Providence Gazette and Country Journal (August 21,1790)

Have you ever seen the windows of University Hall illuminated by candles? We can thank George Washington’s stroll on the Main Green after Rhode Island joined the Union in May 1790 for this enduring tradition, which has persisted for 228 years.

You are looking at a plaque commemorating this momentous yet brief visit on the west side of University Hall. He was to stay the night on Benefit Street at one Mr. Daggett’s home, but before he retired for bed, he was told that the university students had prepared a special illumination of University Hall and that they would be honored if he witnessed the spectacle. Despite the slight rain, he climbed College Hill with a few friends and “there beheld the college building completely illuminated with candle lights in every window.”

The next day, Washington met President Manning at University Hall, where Washington said, “I am sure to find in the measures adopted by the guardians of literature in this place, for improving the morals of the rising generation, and inculcating upon their minds principles peculiarly calculated for the preservation of our rights and liberties.” From the year that Rhode Island joined the Union, Washington’s visit legitimized the University as a place for “guardians of literature” for hundreds of years.

The strength and endurance of the tradition is evidence of Brown’s high regard of Washington as a fundamental character in the history of the university. Founded in 1764 as the third college in New England and the seventh in the United States, Brown participated in and was impacted by the Revolutionary War. British troops attacked Newport and President Manning was forced to close the college, which wouldn’t reopen for six years. Many students joined the war effort and University Hall served as military barracks for American troops and hospitals for French soldiers. Contrast the portrait of Washington through the candlelight tradition with that of a more traditional painted portrait. The John Hay Library has a famous portrait by Gilbert Stuart on loan, and the RISD Museum’s Pendleton House has a permanent one in their collection.

In addition, take some time to look at the other plaques on the outside of University Hall. One marks the building as a Historic Landmark and one commemorates Nathanael Greene, one of George Washington’s most trusted officers. Greene was born in Rhode Island to a Quaker family, and he struggled to reconcile the Quaker’s strict pacifism with his passion for military science. Think about University Hall’s connections and position in American history, which was designated as a Registered National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1963. The Quakers had a large presence in Rhode Island and were known for their anti-war and abolitionist beliefs. Think about the multitude of lives University Hall has touched throughout its history -- slaves, George Washington, Quaker Nathanael Greene, and now you.

In addition, do we have a standard narrative of “Colonial America?” What is the story of Colonial America that is taught to us, and how much do we take the time to challenge that story? If we think about the language, how does the term “colonial” interact with that of “America” as born from revolution and independence?

Images

University Hall candlelight tradition While the lights are now electric, the 146 windows of University Hall have been lit to celebrate the end of war on several “Victory Celebrations,” in addition to Commencement and in December as a gesture to Washington’s momentous visit. Source: University Archives
The 1932 Dedication of the Plaque The plaque you see in front of you was installed to commemorate the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. Candles were lit in the windows of University Hall to simulate the first illumination at Washington’s first visit when he said to President Manning, “You may rely on whatever protection I am able to afford in so important an object as the education of our youth.” Source: University Archives Date: 1932
Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of Washington Gilbert Stuart created over 100 portraits of Washington, which were widely circulated among George and Martha’s influential networks in early Colonial America. Stuart is best known for painting the portrait of Washington on the American dollar bill. He is also known for skillfully drawing out the personality of his sitters through jokes and conversation, but he noted that Washington was especially difficult to connect with: “An apathy seemed to seize him and a vacuity spread over his countenance, most appalling to paint.” This portrait can be viewed in the Military Gallery of the John Hay Library. Creator: Gilbert Stuart, photograph by Maya Omori Date: late 18th/early 19th century
Plaque Commemorating Nathaneal Greene Nathanael Greene was born in Rhode Island to a devout Quaker family. He is best known for his skillful leadership of the southern theater and was instrumental in securing a Patriot victory from the British in the Revolutionary War. Creator: photograph by Maya Omori

Location

1 Prospect St. Providence, RI 02912 | Find the plaque on the West side of University Hall to the right of the steps.

Metadata

Maya Omori, “(Still) Waiting for Washington,” Rhode Tour, accessed December 2, 2022, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/345.