Monday, July 22, 2013

The Silas Wright Monument in Vermont—no long lines and no tickets necessary

            How many former New York State governors, congressmen or U.S. senators have had two marble monuments erected to them—one in New York State, and a second in another state? The North Country’s Silas Wright is one, if not the only one to be so honored.

The Silas Wright Monument in Weybridge, Vermont

            Born in Amherst, Massachusetts on May 24, 1795, Wright’s family moved to Weybridge, Vermont before he turned one year old. He graduated from nearby Middlebury College in 1815 and studied law in the village of Hudson Falls, New York, named Sandy Hill back in Wright’s day, before moving to Canton in St. Lawrence County to practice law and begin a career in New York State politics and government in 1819.
Silas Wright
            After serving in several different local offices, he was elected to the state senate in 1823. Wright soon became second in command of the Albany Regency, a faction of the Democratic Party which became one of the nation’s first political machines. Led by Martin Van Buren and largely supported by small farmers and frontiersmen, it dominated New York State government during the 1820’s and 1830’s.
            Wright served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1827 to 1829 before being appointed state comptroller—a post he held until he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served from 1833 to 1844. Referred to by his contemporaries as “the Cato of the American Senate” because of his incorruptible honesty, Wright was a sound money man and supported President Jackson’s attack on the U.S. Bank. Wright also opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories and supported the Wilmot Proviso.
            In 1844, he turned down an offer to run for vice president with James K. Polk, the Democratic presidential nominee. Instead, Wright agreed to run for governor of New York State. He defeated Whig Millard Fillmore for the post by about 10,000 votes.
            While Wright was governor, he encountered a number of problems that cost him a bid for reelection in 1846. One was a bitter civil war inside the Democratic Party which heated up over the extension of slavery and the enlargement of the state’s road and canal system. Another was the antirent movement, an uprising by tenant farmers who were trying to overthrow the system of tenanted estates in eleven counties. Wright made enemies by opposing the extension of slavery and enlargement of the transportation system and by ordering the state militia to stem the use of violence by the tenant farmers.
            After losing to Whig John Young by approximately 5,000 votes, Wright retired to his farm in Canton. A drive to make him the Democratic nominee for president in 1848 was cut short on August 27, 1847 by his death from a stroke at the age of 52.
            Wright’s family and friends in St. Lawrence County raised money to erect a monument over his grave in Canton. A 15-foot high shaft of white marble was quarried in Dorset, Vermont and shipped to Canton by boat via Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. Meanwhile, in Weybridge, Wright’s brother, Daniel L. Wright, and his many nephews, nieces and cousins, spearheaded a drive to erect another monument to Silas’s memory. Money was raised and a 28-foot high white marble obelisk was quarried and cut. A prominent sculptor from Albany, Erastus Dow Palmer, was hired to carve a large medallion bust of Wright to be placed above his name on the obelisk.
Erastus Dow Palmer

            Palmer was one of the most famous up-and-coming sculptors at that time in America. Born in Pompey, New York in 1817, he grew up in Utica, son of a carpenter. His talent for carving small cameos was discovered by Thomas R. Walker, the law partner of Roscoe Conkling. Walker became Palmer’s patron and encouraged him to create large marble sculptures. As his reputation grew, he moved to Albany where he worked from 1849 to his death in 1904.
            His most well-known sculptures are the White Captive and the Indian Girl which can be seen in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other examples of Palmer’s art are also on display in Albany at the Albany Institute of History and Art, and in Utica at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute and at the Oneida County Historical Society.
            The Silas Wright Monument in Weybridge was dedicated exactly three years after his death, on August 27, 1850. Prominent political figures spoke at the dedication ceremonies including former President Martin Van Buren of Kinderhook, General John E. Wool of Troy, and Vermont Governor William Slade of Middlebury, Vermont.

            Today, the Silas Wright Monument can be seen in Weybridge, three miles northwest of Middlebury on Route 28, Weybridge Road. Reservations or purchase of tickets in advance are not necessary—there are more cows than people looking at the monument on an average day.

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