July 24, 2023



In North America, the distinctly non-Roman theme of the fasces representing unity made its own inroads. Already in May 1775, at the Second Continental Congress, one delegate was mooting the fasces as a symbol for the union of thirteen rebellious British colonies that would form the United States. Thomas Jefferson for his part preferred Aesop's "father presenting the bundle of rods to his sons" as a device. What positively secured the fasces' role in American symbology was this Congress' decision in August 1776 to adopt E pluribus unum (Latin for "out of many one") as a national motto. Although the new nation's official seal (adopted 1782) did not include the fasces, it soon featured prominently in the repertoire of patriotic images.

Particularly important in promoting the image was the French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). His sculptural portrait (begun 1785, signed 1788) of a relaxed George Washington resting his left arm on a tall axeless fasces - again, one thinks of the statue of Louis XIV at Musée Carnavalet - strongly influenced other artists' depictions of the war hero who was elected first president of the United States (1789-97). Indeed, just weeks after the new United States constitution took effect (4 March 1789), the emblem found also an official place in American political life: the House of Representatives as one of its first acts adopted a fasces-like mace to serve as the badge of its Sergeant-at-Arms.

The story of the American fasces took another turn after the year 1789, the year which also saw France erupt in revolution. Put briefly, America's early leaders, architects and artists leveraged direct knowledge of Classical antiquity (including that fable in Aesop involving a fasces-like bundle of sticks), but also observed what individuals in Britain and France had made and were making of the emblem in the public sphere. Indeed, a major role in this iconographic effort was played by foreigners, such as the French-born artist Maximilian Godefroy (1765-1840), who designed a gargantuan "Fascial" war memorial for the city of Baltimore (1815); the British medallist Thomas Halliday (1771-1844), who engraved a memorable commemoration of Washington with axed fasces (1816); and the Italian-born sculptor Enrico Causici (1790-1833), who was the first to introduce a representation of the fasces - in this case, bound with a rattlesnake - into the United States Capitol building (1817-19). One did not need expert acquaintance with the fasces to use it as a symbol, as much later the experience of the US dime designer Adolph A. Weinman (1870-1952) demonstrates, who erroneously thought a "battle-axe" was inserted in the bundle of the fasces he used for the "Mercury" ten-cent piece first issued in 1916.

Starting in the early 1830s, escalating conflict over slavery raised questions about the long-term stability of the American union. As the political atmosphere became more and more heated, it caused the fasces - now widely understood as the unity symbol par excellence - to proliferate, in everything from campaign broadsides to high art. By the mid 1850s, Southerners seem to have regarded the fasces, especially when joined with a liberty cap, as promoting the abolitionist cause. For instance, in 1854-5, we find the Mississippian Jefferson Davis (1808-89, later president of the Confederate States in 1861-5) trying to nix their inclusion as decorative elements of the Capitol building extension he was then supervising. Once actual civil war broke out between North and South in 1861, and especially after the assassination of United States president Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, the emblem grew only more powerful as a marker of American union. Decades later, it was specifically the fasces that the designers of the Lincoln Memorial (dedicated in 1922) chose as a main design element, multiplying and magnifying axeless bundles in their tribute to the slain president who had preserved the United States.

Posted by at July 24, 2023 12:00 AM