March 3: The Connecticut Man Who Helped America Strut Her Stuff

 

The United States of America’s first century was marked by incredible growth in nearly every possible way, propelled by the forces of westward expansion, immigration, and the Industrial Revolution. As the 100th anniversary of the nation’s 1776 founding approached, a proposal came before Congress to celebrate America’s emergence as one of the world’s great industrial powers with a massive World’s Fair. The exposition would showcase America’s best qualities, unique history, and most brilliant innovations. Most importantly, many proponents saw such an event as a much-needed opportunity to culturally reunite the country in a celebration of its achievements, while muting memories of the divisions caused by the bloody Civil War scarcely a decade before.

The kind of large-scale and culturally therapeutic national undertaking its proponents envisioned demanded a proven — and patriotic — leader to oversee its preparation, and when Congress created the United States Centennial Commission on March 3, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant turned to a Connectican — fellow Republican and Civil War general Joseph Hawley — to be its president.

A post-war photograph of Joseph Hawley, taken by famous 19th century photographer Mathew Brady. (Library of Congress)
Best known as an accomplished Major General in the Union Army, Joseph Hawley also had a talent for oratory and politics. He had helped organize Connecticut’s Republican Party in the 1850s and later served as a one-term Governor and multi-term member of Congress. He was a much-admired public speaker and a passionate patriot. A proud veteran, Hawley rarely missed an opportunity to implore his audiences to remember and honor the brave sacrifices made in the name of American freedom during the Civil War. From President Grant’s perspective, those qualities made Hawley the ideal choice to head what was manifestly intended to be the greatest patriotic exhibition in American history.With Hawley at the helm, the U.S. Centennial Commission spent five years planning the first World’s Fair hosted on American soil. In preparation for the extravaganza, Hawley oversaw the construction of more than 200 temporary buildings on the sprawling fairgrounds of Fairmount Park area of Philadelphia, the city designated to host the event. He also helped attract one of the finest arrays of exhibitors that had ever been seen at any public event, many of them from the Land of Steady Habits.

The Centennial Exposition opened to great fanfare on May 10, 1876, and during its five-month run, nearly 10 million visitors from across the United States and countries around the world came to see the all-American spectacle. Among the most memorable items on display were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, one of Remington’s earliest typewriter machines, the world’s first monorail system, and the arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, which was then under construction. As with any great fair, the food offerings were also memorable: the Centennial Exposition was the first time the American public was introduced to bananas, popcorn, and the now perennially popular Heinz ketchup. Thanks to Joseph Hawley, The Centennial Exposition, which still ranks as one of the largest and most successful public fairs in American history, got off to a patriotically inspired inception, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Robert C. Kennedy, “Columbia Welcoming the Nations: The United States Centennial Exhibition,New York Times

Digital Collections: United States Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876,” Free Library of Philadelphia

Todd Jones, “General Joseph R. Hawley Helps Commemorate Connecticut’s Civil War Soldiers,” connecticuthistory.org