Penn in the Captiol


William Penn is enshrined in the U.S. Capitol as one in a series of sculptural tableau that sit above the entrances of the Rotunda. Executed in the 1820s renovation of the Capitol dome, these marble friezes are dedicated to one theme: ways in which White colonists encountered Native Americans. The Capitol artwork here, as elsewhere, declines a univocal answer to the problems of Nation building in favor of multivocal, often regionalistic answers. What this means in this case is that there is no sure 'best way' to deal with the 'Indian problem'. Thus, the viewer is treated to a series of paradigmatic answers. One's gaze moves from Antonio Capellano's Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas over the west door, to Enrico Causici's Landing of the Puritans over the east door. On the other axis one sees Nicholas Gavelot's Penn's Treaty with the Indians above the northern entrance, and a second Causici, Conflict of Daniel Boone and the Indians, over the southern entrance. In this 360 degree tour, we shift between more, or less, violent methods of establishing a European foothold on this continent. Penn makes his appearance between the submission of the Native to the morally superior Pilgrims, the 'hand to hand' combat between Daniel Boone and the 'savages', and the salvatory power of the 'First Christian', Pocahontas.

William Penn's Great Treaty: a Peaceful Solution

William Penn appears in the Capitol in the context of his famous treaty with the Delaware. In Gavelot's panel he is iconocized not for his Quakerism, or even for founding of Pennsylvania, but rather for the manner in which these two issues converged in his dealings with Indians. Though Penn received much attention for the former qualities, he won greatest acclaim for his 1682 'Great Treaty'. Legend has Penn meeting the Leni Lenape (Delaware) chiefs at the village of Shackamaxon under a broad and leafy elm, and there forging a friendly, loving agreement to exchange land for goods and money. Granted, he sought essentially the same thing--land-- as the Pilgrims or Daniel Boone. However, rather than forcibly removing the Natives, "Penn employed 'the even scales of justice and mild Persuasion of Christian love. . . [to sway] the mind'" (Fryd 30).

Gavelot may have picked Penn as his subject, rather than have him assigned by the Architect of the Capitol, Charles Bulfinch. He was the only French sculptor used for the series, and may have been influenced by Voltaire's popular description of the 'good savage' and the 'good Quaker', detailed in his 1734 Lettres Philosophiques. (Fryd 18, 31). Voltaire noted that this treaty was the "first public contract which connected the inhabitants of the Old and New World together" and "the only one that had never been broken" (Fryd, 18). He also predicted later interpretations by claiming that "the inhabitants were conquered by the force of Christian benevolence." (18) Voltaire, though mostly correct, glossed over the more 'worldly' ambitions of Penn and Pennsylvania colonists. While the depictions of the treaty show an agreement among equals, an agreement predicated on equal conceptions of legal contracts and private property, in reality the situation was somewhat more complicated. However, the real power of the image, one that iconocizes "the most glorious of any annals of he world", is that there existed a peaceful, 'Christian' way of separating the Indians from their land. What the other panels convey is that Christians (of various kinds) were superior to the Indians, that 'enlightened' Indians like Pocahontas knew this, and that those who refused to acknowledge this fact could suffer the fate of the sword. And yet Penn shows that the Indian war was only one possible means of subjugation, even if, as Richard Slotkin suggests, it was the prevalent mode of contact.


Iconography of the Panel

Gavelot's relief shows Penn and the Delaware chief in mid-handshake, eyes locked. Between the two, stands another Indian who faces away from Penn and seems to be speaking with his compatriot. In his left hand, Penn grasps (with index finger pointing) the "Treaty of 1682", while the Indian chief holds his peace pipe. The handshake "functions as an iconographic reference to peace" (Fryd, 31) and is further legitimated by the 'equivalent' pipe and treaty. Later this symbolic gesture would adorn 'peace medals' presented at the signing of treaties. To reinforce this peaceful motif, Gavelot has place two facing (kissing?) doves in the elm tree. They are clearly visible and in a direct line perpendicular line from the grasped hands. As well, they are further indicated by the center Indian's upward pointing finger. The figures of the men are of equal size and physique--the Indians do not cower or grimace as in the other panels, but appear on equal footing with Penn.


Critiques of the panel

The panels capture both sides of the highly contested questions of how best to deal with the Indians. They had to be 'dealt with' primarily because they wanted, or at least used, land that White Americans also desired. The two basic modes of removing them from this land were to do so forcibly, killing them if necessary, or to try to incorporate them into White culture by converting them to Christianity and changing their hunter/gatherer way of life (which required huge amounts of land) to one of the yeoman farmer. The latter view predominated in the 18th century; Quakers were prime proponent of this method, as were 'enlightened' men such as Thomas Jefferson, who wanted the Indians to "do better with less land" (Fryd 38). James Monroe's Indian Civilization Act of 1819 codified this sentiment by calling for Indians to be provided with general education and instruction in agriculture. However, the 19th century politician generally favored more violent means of removal. This was the case especially after Andrew Jackson, who called Indians 'savage dogs', ignored the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Georgia Cherokee's right to their land. He insisted they be moved to the Indian territory of Oklahoma on a route that became known as 'the trail of tears', as one quarter of their population died on the forced march.

So by the 1830s only a few derided the blatantly imperialistic tone of the panels. One such person was Henry Wise, a congressman from Virginia who saw the Penn relief as depicting the White-man cheating the Indian; " We give you corn, you cheat us of our lands: we save your life, you take ours" (Fryd, 35) was the message any Native would take from viewing the sculpture. His was minority opinion though--as Fryd points out, most viewers lauded the panels that depicted Indians as 'savages', praising the Boone tableau for its "contrast between the bloodthirsty 'savages' and the self-possessed, clearheaded pioneer" (35). The Penn frieze disturbed viewers for the very reason that it portrayed the White and the Indian on the same footing. The Indian is not the huge, grotesque savage, but the well-proportioned equal to William Penn, who greets them with his firm handshake. One congressman from Pennsylvania, Samuel Ingham, criticized Penn as 'ludicrously' appearing as a 'dwarf'.(Fryd 36). Apparently, the White man could not look eye to eye with the Indian without reducing his stature considerably. Conversely, Daniel Boone, who appears considerably smaller than the 'savage' he is fighting, is raised in height by his bravery in subduing such a demonic foe. Thus, to paraphrase General Sherman, "the only 'big' Indian was the (soon to be) dead Indian."

Even as Gavelot's celebration of Penn's treaty was not approved of by many 19th century observers, the event depicted was generally taken at face value. The scene was hardly unknown, especially after Benjamin West recreated it in his famous William Penn's Treaty with the Indians, (1771). Engravings and copies of this painting, as well as books by such myth-makers as 'Parson' Weems, helped the story permeate American memory. However, we have no direct record that this meeting ever took place. Penn's dealings with the 'Indians', or more specifically the Leni Lenape, the Iroquois, and the Susquehannock, deserves further investigation.



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