Bwogger Andrew Wang is sick of Alexander Hamilton getting all the credit for immigrants who changed the course of American history. Here are the stories of two immigrant heroes, told through their statues in Riverside Park.
Bad historians like me think of late modern American history in four dates: 1776, 1787, 1863, and 1865. The American Revolution began, the Constitution was written, the Emancipation Proclamation was proclamated [sic], and the Civil War ended (in a stalemate, as my Texas curriculum taught me). These moments are immortalized not only by their distinctiveness—precedence—but because of how modernity remembers them: power.
Often times these stories are preserved within the statues we erect of their actors. America has a statue fetish, and as my history teacher once remarked, “all statues are phallic,” to which my English teacher replied, “everything is phallic.” There are statues everywhere: of “Americans who did bad stuff”—like slavery—and “Americans who did good stuff,” like complain about a king thousands of miles away. And then, outside Hamilton Hall, there is that one of the guy who starred in that Broadway show.
The Upper West Side intellectuals of Columbia and Morningside Heights should consider adding another date to their cocktail party repertoire: 1848. Falling awkwardly between two big wars that transformed American civilization, 1848 appears to be a sort of middle child, one that fails to excel while still avoiding total disappointment. And yet, two statues in Riverside Park tell a different story.
The first is of Franz Sigel, located on 106th and Riverside. Sigel was a German patriot who, in 1848, led a revolution against the autocratic German Confederation. He had fought on the side of middle-class liberal principles and working-class labor conditions. But the differences in interest between the working and middle classes proved too irreconcilable; he failed. Forced into exile, he and many other “Forty-Eighters” emigrated to the United States. Sigel, evidently the finest of them, came to New York.
When the Civil War began, he tried again under different colors. He famously fought in the Second Battle of Bull Run and became a Union general representing the German-Americans who fought for the North. In the end, he won, and in 1907, the famous American-Austrian sculptor Karl Bitter put him atop a bronze horse.
Travel a few blocks up to 113th and Riverside, and you’ll find Louis Kossuth, who is equally cool even with zero bronze horses. Despite coming from a poor gentry family, Kossuth practiced oratory, and his skills made him into a political leader. Talk about the American Dream. Only Kossuth was Hungarian; specifically, he was the President of Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49 against the Austrian Empire.
He also failed. But despite being in exile, Kossuth continued to arouse worldwide support for Hungarian independence with his eloquent speaking. He also was responsible for shaping the first law that recognized minority rights in Europe, allowing minority groups to use their mother tongue in public institutions. In 1852, Kossuth toured New York, where a tremendous celebration awaited him up Broadway through Morningside Heights.
In 1928, the Hungarian sculptor Janos Horvai completed Kossuth’s monument, and a crowd of 25,000 welcomed the statue’s dedication. The inscription on the statue calls Kossuth “the Great Champion of Liberty,” and is dedicated by “A Liberty Loving Race of Americans.” Some might be shocked to learn that the champion of America’s high-minded ideal was an immigrant, others not surprised.
Indeed, the statues on Riverside tell a fascinating story: while Americans were out west digging for golden nuggets, Europe was in a state of rapid social transformation. Sigel and Kossuth were products of that turbulent time, immigrants who brought their experiences to America for its own transformative moments in the 19th century. As that guy on Broadway once said, “Immigrants—we get the job done.”
look at all these statues! and hamilton edit via Andrew Wang