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American Magazine

On Campus

Second Cousin Once Removed

By Patrick Bradley

Illustration of Ward statue

Artemas Ward was a military man, a court justice, and a politician. The School of Public Affairs building bears his name, and AU celebrates Artie Ward Week each fall in his honor. However, most alumni wonder who Ward was and what connection he has with the university.

University Archivist Susan McElrath has a clear answer.

“Artemas Ward is the statue in Ward Circle. He’s a Revolutionary War general from New England,” she explains. “He has no connection to AU whatsoever.”

For some members of the AU family, this news may come as a shock—like suddenly realizing a beloved second cousin was really just a friendly neighbor who stopped in for meatloaf every now and then.

The man certainly had a storied life and career, but his story simply never included AU. Born to a successful farmer–sea captain–lawyer in 1727 Massachusetts, Ward graduated from Harvard and had eight children. He served as a state court justice, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and first commander-in-chief of the American armies, preceding George Washington.

As McElrath states, “If you’re interested in political and military service, he fits the bill.”

Ward died at his home in 1800. Like any great general, he needed a statue. That’s where his great-grandson set a path toward AU. After donating the Ward House and over $4 million to Harvard, the great-grandson stipulated that the university had to erect a statue to commemorate the general.

Harvard commissioned the statue but—in the end—didn’t keep it. They donated it to the United States.

In 1938, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission placed the statue in the then open circle at Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues, where the Massachusetts native would be most comfortable. So, says McElrath, “AU actually predates the statue.”

It wasn’t without some resistance, however, that Ward’s likeness arrived. Neighbors bristled at the idea of another military tribute in D.C. Still, Ward joined the neighborhood and—in doing so—became part of AU’s identity.

Student government vice president Liz Richards sees the connection as more than just proximity to a statue. It comes down to mission. Ward’s was to be a civil servant, serving his country; AU’s is to graduate civil servants, who go on to serve their communities no matter what their career paths.

That’s enough to make him family.