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For IU Northwest history professor, published article is a ‘monumental’ achievement

Revolutionary War expert Christopher Young uncovers stories behind Chicago sculptures


IU Northwest file photo
Assistant Professor of History Christopher Young, Ph.D.

Near the corner of Wabash Avenue and Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago, three stately gentlemen stand hand-in-hand, looking down upon the bustling foot traffic. Dressed in American Revolutionary-era garb, the trio appears to be fulfilling a patriotic duty, proudly keeping watch over the citizens of America’s melting pot.

Christopher Young, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind., would like those who pass by this trio of bronze men – George Washington, Robert Morris, and Haym Salomon -- to better appreciate their significance. As Young’s students have gleefully pointed out, the statue made a cameo in the latest “Transformers” movie. That students recognize the statue solely from that action blockbuster isn’t disheartening, Young said, but encouraging.

“Now, they might want to learn more about it,” the professor said. “Now that they know it’s there, the story behind it can come alive.”

Thanks to Young’s keen interest in early American history and to his extensive research, the monument’s engaging and colorful history has now been told in The American Jewish Archives Journal. In December 2011, the journal published Young’s article, “Barnet Hodes’s Quest to Remember Haym Salomon, the Almost-Forgotten Jewish Patriot of the American Revolution.”

As the article explains, the significance of the monument lies not only in its representation of the founding of America but also in its reflection of the times in which the sculpture came to be. Young’s article touches on this history and much more.

A brief history

The Washington-Morris-Salomon monument, erected in 1941, came about thanks to Barnet Hodes, a Jewish Democratic politician in Chicago.

As described by Young in his article, the young Hodes wondered why Jews were not part of the American history narrative as it was taught in his high school. Hodes later set out to honor the Jewish Revolutionary patriot, Haym Salomon, a Polish Jew who served the American Revolutionary cause. Hodes felt that the Jewish community ought to be part of the American story and wanted to draw attention to the fact that there was Jewish participation in the founding of the United States.

Young recounts the intriguing story of how Hodes went about getting a statue of a Jewish patriot erected during the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s.

The inclusion of George Washington, American founding father, and Robert Morris, British-born American financier, is part of the dynamic. Concerns about vandalism to the Salomon figure is what led to the decision to depict the men holding hands, thereby making it impossible to damage Salomon without also desecrating Washington.

“The key was to present to Chicago not a Jewish monument, but an American one; not a monument that celebrated a Jewish-American hero in particular, but one that displayed in bronze the American values of diversity and unity as exemplified by Jewish participation,” Young writes, “While the unique statue depicting the three patriots was meant to reinforce Americanism, it remained (and remains) for many, especially in the Jewish-American community, a statue dedicated to the memory of a Jewish patriot of the American Revolution.”

Young isn’t sure whether people understand this message when they see the statue.

“They probably don’t see it as a symbol of toleration, which is what it is supposed to be, and diversity, and unity. . . ” he said. “This statue is a symbol of unity between civilians and the military and unity between different ethnic groups and how these two forms of unified action is really characteristic of American strength.”

An idea is born

Interestingly, Young said, the prompt for this particular research project began with a simple line in a book. While reading about the Boston Tea Party, a brief reference to Chicago’s claim of a connection to the party, Young said, seemed to jump off the page. Young realized that while Chicago was a town that didn’t exist during the American Revolutionary War and was not part of Chicagoans’ lived experience, this and many other monuments in Chicago have an early American theme.

“It’s about Chicago’s growing confidence in itself as an American city,” Young said. “Feeling more comfortable in its own skin, so to speak. . . . They didn’t have this American Revolutionary past, but by having these statues, they are sort of connecting themselves with the past . . . I think it’s interesting that you have these people looking to the American past. It is answering something.

“For Barnet Hodes, what it’s showing is, ‘Hey, we, as a Jewish community, should be recognized as having contributed to the founding of the United States.’ That might not have been as important somewhere else at another time, but it became particularly urgent in the 1930s with the rise of anti-Semitism.”

Young has been intrigued by early American history and the Founding Fathers for as long as he can remember. Was it a childhood trip to historical places on the East Coast that cultivated his fascination? Was it the country’s bicentennial celebration? Young isn’t quite sure. Nonetheless, research is his passion, and this project merged his scholarly interest in early America with what had been a hobby of studying Chicago history, which stemmed from proximity of place as well as family history. Growing up in Palatine, Ill., Young now resides in Crown Point, Ind., but all of his European ancestors have claimed Chicago as their home since 1870.

Since putting the Washington-Morris-Salomon article to bed, Young has continued to delve into the histories of many other statues around Chicago that depict the American Revolutionary time period. Currently under review is another article about a statue, located just outside Tribune Tower, that depicts the doomed spy Nathan Hale.

“The next step of my project is to examine the historical contexts surrounding public art that commemorates the Fort Dearborn Massacre, or the Battle of Chicago, that occurred in August 1812,” Young said.

Young’s article about the Washington-Morris-Salomon statue is the first of many such projects that he intends to compile as a book, in which he will place these and other stories of American Revolutionary War-era monuments into the larger context of American public memory.

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American Jewish Archives Journal