Washington Square Arch: Exitus Acta Probat

by cathryn on April 3, 2008

On each side of the famous Arch at Washington Square Park stands George Washington in two distinct poses: Washington At War on the East side of the pedestal of the Arch and Washington At Peace on the West.

The Arch was designed by by noted period architect Stanford White(1853-1906). Originally built in wood (and standing half a block away from its current location) for the Centennial of Washington’s inauguration in 1889, it was then commissioned in marble and completed in its current location in the early 1890′s.

About the figure of Washington At War, in her book, “It Happened on Washington Square,” Emily Kies Folpe writes that the sculptor Herman A. Mac Neil “intended the figure” “to appear alert and intent, as if watching the maneuvers of his army.” Behind Washington are the “allegorical” figures of Fame and Valor.

Pictured in this photo (above) is Washington At Peace (A. Stirling Calder). Behind Washington are figures representing Wisdom and Justice.

Wisdom stands there as “the modern Athena” (Greek goddess of wisdom). And then we come to the figure of Justice. Folpe writes, “Justice, draped and crowned, holding a balanced set of scales with one hand and an open book in the other. The pages of the book are inscribed with the words ‘Exitus acta probat.’ ” Exitus acta probat, I’ve learned, is taken from the George Washington Family Coat of Arms.

So what does “exitus acta probat” mean exactly?

It’s Latin and I’ve come across various ways of interpreting it, all similar but slight variations.

The basic translation is: the outcome justifies the deed.

It’s the pairing of that statement with the figure of Justice that puzzles me. And I like to think at Washington Square Park that ultimately there will be some kind of ‘Justice’ in what transpires in the design and outcome of the Park. The scales have been unbalanced to date. 

I wonder if there is some message there for those of us who’d like to see a different outcome at Washington Square Park (other than the city’s “vision” for it). Is there some missing deed?

Of course, Stanford White’s “outcome” was a little bit jarring. He was shot on the roof of the Madison Square Garden building (the second incarnation – no longer there) by the husband of an ex-lover. Madison Square Garden also being a building he designed.

 
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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy Clarke April 4, 2008 at 4:06 pm

destroying older growth forests is not environmentally friendly. helping to plant, cultivate, and encourage more green space, I believe, is better for all… that being said, let’s hope for increased positive environmental impact be made in NYC..and beyond…

http://www.gaiagrove.org

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Pj March 29, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Also exitus acta probat is on the sperit of fire patch from halo wars… :)

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Hugh February 7, 2011 at 11:28 pm

The outcome justifying the deed that Washington was reffering to was the Revolutionary war. Noone wanted war then, not only was it near suicide for all who opposed the English, but also, war causes a lot of death which is also something that he didn’t want, however, if the end result was freedom and liberty, then a horrible deed such as war is infact justified. It shows that Washington believed that unless the outcome is justified, then the deed should not be done.

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cat February 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Hi Hugh,

Thank you for expanding on what it means and the historical context. Much appreciated! Very interesting. I might have to rerun this post (a lot of people come by looking up “exitus acta probat”) with your response.

Thanks for stopping by -

Cathryn
WSP Blog

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Richard McBee May 28, 2011 at 11:17 pm

While I’m certain everyone has noticed, but I haven’t yet found an explanation as to why the arch is not perfectly aligned with Fifth Avenue. It is slightly off the perpendicular, aimed slightly to the East. A satellite view suggests that Waverly Place is also not perpendicular with Fifth Avenue. But why would anyone construct the arch not to mark the perfect end of Fifth Avenue?

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Colin Washington February 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm

This Latin phrase coming with our coat of arms is in fact inherited by George Washington as it is myself Colin Washington. It came from our shared ancestor William De Wessington, circa 1196 – 1239 who changed his name to Washington after moving to Washington, a small village located between Newcastle and Sunderland, England. His son Walter De Washington circa 1210 – 1264 with this coat of arms and motto fought in the battle of Lewes where I believe he was killed. George did not create this coat of arms nor the motto it is just part of our heritage and has nothing to do with war or peace or his statue.

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Colin Washington February 8, 2012 at 10:30 pm

When the arch was first built it was of plaster and wood. 1892 turned it into a permanent marble arch and when the foundations were being laid they found human remains a coffin and gravestone dated 1803. I would imagine this could be the answer as to why it is not the perfect end.

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cathryn February 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Hi Colin,

Thanks so much for sharing the history and your knowledge of it. One clarification : No one said that the coat of arms was related to the statues on each side of the Arch – which is where the war and peace aspects come from.

You don’t hear too much about the human remains found around the Arch. I hear that you are saying the coat of arms preceded the Revolutionary War. Hmm.. Interesting.

Thanks for your comments!

Cathryn.

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Colin Washington February 10, 2012 at 9:24 am

Hi Cathryn, Thanks for the reply I would have loved to have learned more about the historical findings in the park so I will keep looking. The Washington coat of arms can be found in many places one being at Sulgrave Manor.purchased from Henry V111 then known as the Priory of St. Andrew in 1539. If anyone is interested Sulgrave Manor, ancestral home of George but not the earliest, has a site loaded with information on George Washington’s ancestors.

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cathryn May 15, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Richard, I don’t know if you are still following this thread… but I don’t know the answer to your question about Fifth Avenue and the Arch. I will keep it in mind if I can find out anything further. And, thanks, Colin for the subsequent information.

(Delayed responses!)

best,
Cathryn.

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