The Most Splendid Carpet
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The following discussion of the history, design, significance, and stylistic composition of the Senate carpet begins with certainties, only to end in the complexities of imagination and hypothesis. From the secure documentation of the presence in the Senate Chamber of an Axminster carpet, through recognition of the easily identified United States seal in its center, to a declaration that its neoclassical design and symbolism were easily read by those who walked upon it, is a progression both orderly and logical. But some particulars of composition are unclear, and many details of design are totally undocumented.

In view of these problems, some obvious questions arise: If not a shred of physical evidence of the Senate carpet remains, if only two newspaper accounts and a few bills exist to show what this carpet was like, why has Independence National Historical Park chosen to reproduce it? What was so important about this one object to require its reconstruction on the basis of conjecture, when others, perhaps equally interesting, are left unattempted?

Although the design of the Senate carpet is imprecisely known and many details of composition are lacking, it is in the meaning of the details which are known that the importance of the Senate carpet becomes obvious. The carpet which covered the plain board floor of the upper chamber in Congress Hall was a furnishing so overwhelmingly important that without a suggestion of its imposing presence and symbolic warmth, the room in which some of the earliest business of the United States government was discussed was a mere shadow of its original self. It is a function of objects that they illuminate and fill out written evidence of the minds of the persons who looked at and used them. If there had been, along with the political revolutions of 1776 and 1789, a stylistic revolution so important that Jules Prown has called it "the most complete and dramatic stylistic change in the entire history of American art," the Senate carpet exemplified that revolution. [1] Indeed it was one of those objects, taken for granted by those who used it, which, like the stained-glass windows of Chartres, seems to sum up in itself an entire moment in cultural history.

Although relatively unnoticed by the Senators whose room it graced, it was, nevertheless, all the things they themselves believed in: neoclassical to a fault, an expression of controlled and therefore acceptable luxury, luxury which in half-remembered Puritan fashion, was a sign of God's approval, symbolic of pride in republican virtue, peace, and prosperity which these men took so seriously. That these Senators did not pay more literal attention to it, recording it in their memoirs or drawing versions of it to illustrate their letters to granddaughters, shows not indifference, but natural acceptance: how suitable a carpet it was, and how well it fit their intellectual state and aesthetic mood.

As Prown has summarized so well, in the book American Art 1750-1800, "the exuberance of rococo objects increasingly disturbed the post-Revolutionary sensibility, suggesting reliance upon feelings, instability, possible irrationality, whereas the intellectually controlled aloofness of neoclassical objects represented the dominion of the mind. They embodied the premise that as in furniture or silver or architecture man could apply his rational powers to solve problems of design, so too could he use his mind to create an ideal society." [2] Thus the fact that many details of the Senate carpet reproduction are based wholly on conjecture becomes largely irrelevant. The larger meaning of the carpet as symbolism and as art takes precedence over exact form.

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007