Friday, January 29, 2010

The sarcophagus Andrew Jackson declined

Ten weeks before his death, 7th president of the United States
Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) (shown in a daguerreotype taken toward the end of his life) was offered a sarcophagus (pictured) - believed to have contained the remains of Roman emperor Alexander Severus (208-235 A.D.) - by Commodore Jesse B. Elliott (1782-1845). It was one of two sarcophagi that Elliott had obtained in Syria and brought home on the U.S.S. Constitution in 1839. One he presented to Philadelphia's Girard College, in which to deposit the remains of founding philanthropist Stephen Girard (1750-1831). The other he intended to house the remains of British philanthropist James Smithson (1769-1825), but Congress had not yet constituted the Smithsonian Institution and Smithson remained buried in Italy. Instead, Elliott gave the 2nd sarcophagus to the National Institute (a scientific body of which he was a member, chartered by Congress in 1842) on the condition that it be used to receive the body of President Jackson upon his death. While encouraging Jackson to live on, the Commodore wrote to the president, "An Emperor's coffin awaits you." The president replied as follows:
"...with warmest sensations that can inspire a grateful heart, I must decline the honor intending to be bestowed. I cannot consent that my mortal body shall be laid in a repository prepared for an emperor or a king. My republican feelings and principles forbid it; the simplicity of our system of government forbids it. Every monument erected to perpetuate the memory of our heroes and statesmen ought to bear evidence of the economy and simplicity of our republican institutions, who are the sovereigns of our glorious Union, and whose virtue it is to perpetuate it. True virtue cannot exist where pomp and parade are the governing passions; it can only dwell with the people--the great laboring and producing classes that form the bone and sinew of our confederacy....I have prepared a humble depository for my mortal body beside that wherein lies my beloved wife..."
Jackson's remains were placed in a lead-lined casket that was soldered shut and entombed next to the body of Rachel Jackson (1791-1828) within a limestone- and brick-lined vault at the Hermitage, his plantation in Nashville - now a National Historic Landmark. The declined sarcophagus - now exempted from its conditions - spent the next 10 years at the Patent Office before being transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where it stood in front of the Arts and Industries building and was later moved inside. It was proposed that the Smithsonian use the "Syrian sarcophagus" to entomb the remains of its founder, who was exhumed in 1903 under the supervision of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell, but instead his original Italian tomb was installed in the crypt in the Smithsonian "castle."

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