Historical Highlights

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Fire in the Rotunda

January 11, 1843
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Fire in the Rotunda Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
After a rocky start in the Capitol, the Greenough statue of George Washington sat on the East Front of the Capitol Grounds for more than 50 years.
On this date, philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and sculptor Horatio Greenough almost set fire to the Capitol. In their defense, it was dark and Emerson wanted a better look at Greenough’s 1841 statue of George Washington. Most viewers said they disliked the sculpture’s unconventional version of the first President—half-clad in a toga—but Greenough blamed its unpopularity on the Rotunda’s dreary lighting. That night, the pair decided to see how Washington looked by torchlight: “Higher, higher,” Greenough shouted to the lamp holder, as his words bounced off the domed ceiling. Soon, flames leapt from the lamps to the wooden box and pole that held them aloft. The contraption crashed to the ground, exploding as it fell. By the time Emerson and Greenough recovered from seeing “brilliant balls of light falling on the floor,” a bonfire burned merrily on the stone floor. They scrambled to shove it outdoors, dodging catastrophe. Emerson wrote a full account to his close friend Margaret Fuller two days later, noting that despite the night’s fiery end, he found the moonlight and shadows made the Rotunda “a very fanciful and exhilarating spot.” Exhilarating or not, Greenough lobbied Congress to move the statue. They obliged him in 1843, moving the massive sculpture outdoors to the East Front lawn, where it remained until 1908, when it was moved to the Smithsonian Institution.

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