I have been continuing my journey along the east coast this week, seeing with my own eyes these places that are so prominent in the history of my country. I added Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland to my list, as well as the non-state District of Columbia. Earlier this week, I visited the Delaware River and walked across a bridge to Pennsylvania and then back to New Jersey. It is a quiet park with bikers and joggers now, but on Christmas Day, 1776, it was the site of one of the most daring feats in the American historical imagination.
It is sobering to think about how many battlefields are now quiet parks.
After suffering a disastrous defeat to the British regulars commanded by William Howe in New York, George Washington was in a bind. His own regulars were less professional soldiers and more a motley band of farmers who had enlisted for the year 1776 and were planning to return home at the end of the month. The defeat in New York was turning public opinion against the Patriot cause, and the Continental Army was undersupplied and ravaged by disease. General Washington needed a victory to boost morale and keep the flame of revolution burning. On Christmas night, he ferried his army across the Delaware River and into New Jersey. They advanced southward and surprised a company of Hessian mercenaries in British employ, defeating them soundly. Another victory at Princeton a few days later meant that the war was back on. Enlistments increased, and Washington’s army lived to fight another day.
Leutze’s famous painting gets many details wrong, but definitely captures the heroic spirit of the man and the age.
Yesterday I visited the city named for the victorious general. When the 1st Congress was debating where to place the new national capital, they left the choice of location and design of the city to President Washington. He chose a point at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, not far from his estate at Mount Vernon. At the time is was a marshy swamp, but designers and carpenters began transforming it into the majestic city of marble that it is today. John Adams was the first president to live in the city, and over time it has become the home of politicians, bureaucrats, and endless armies of lobbyists. As a city of palaces and monuments that is a haven for rent-seekers and upper-class sinecurists, Washington reminds me of Versailles during the last days of Bourbon France.
Even the wildlife comes here expecting a handout.
On the other hand, walking amongst the monuments and palatial buildings of the city reminded me more of my visit to Rome. Perhaps in a few more centuries, the marble castles that house our government will be hollow shells like the Colosseum, or the sparse ruins of the Forum. For now, they serve dual purposes as centers of politics as well as tourist attractions.
Augustus said that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Among the bricks of the east coast cities, marbled Washington stands out.
Since I was already thinking about Rome, I remembered the strict rules of respect at the Victor Emmanuel II monument. Signs there forbade sitting on the steps, as well as eating and drinking. A security guard zealously enforced these rules, and I saw him eject more than one person for violating this level of civility. In Washington, there were several signs advising tourists to respect the monuments and to be quiet and civil… but they were ignored. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial I saw people sitting, people eating, and even people taking a nap. I suppose the fact that people are paying homage to the great men of American history is a start.
On the other hand, this scaffolding remains as a reminder of the recent graffiti vandalism of the Memorial.
The two sides of the Lincoln Memorial were engraved with the words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, respectively. It is amazing how clear and high spoken the statesmen of old were. President Lincoln had a command of the English language that is well beyond any politician of TV soundbite generation. Lincoln reminded the nation of the the barbarity of two and a half centuries of slavery as he explained the four years of brutal war that had pitted brother against brother. Lincoln did not claim that the Union cause was a righteous crusade, blessed by God. Both North and South prayed to the same God, but Lincoln believed that preserving the Union and ending slavery were both just causes. Less than six weeks after making this speech, Lincoln would be shot dead.
Lincoln was more erudite in his brevity than modern politicians in their long-windedness.
I walked past the White House fence, which kept the public a long distance away from the president and anyone else of such a class that they can enter the Presidential Mansion. It is a far cry from the days of Adams and Jefferson, who entertained impromptu visitors in the Peoples’ House.
Beyond that fence is a completely different world.
Speaking of Jefferson, I visited his monument as well. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man, shy and quiet in person but an absolute master of rhetoric and the written word. He was more idealistic than his friend and opponent John Adams, believing that the American Revolution portended a worldwide explosion of personal liberty at the expense of the kings and priests of old. He was severely disappointed in the way the French Revolution devolved into anarchy and murder, eventually replacing a king with an emperor. The battle between Adams’ pragmatism and Jefferson’s idealism still takes places every day in the halls of the city they inaugurated together.
The exterior of the Jefferson Memorial, near the shore of the Potomac River tidal basin.
Inside the Jefferson Memorial. The dome above was fitted with numerous surveillance cameras.
I returned to the Metro and followed the Green Line back to where I parked my car. Fun fact: The DC Metro was my first subway system in the United States, after having experienced them in Sydney, Madrid, Lisbon, and Rome. In all of these places, the metro subway is pretty much exactly the same. Washington is a world class city, with all the grandeur and decadence of any city that has ever been. George Washington once said that his city would someday take its place among the great capitals of Europe. In this, at least, he was right. Washington of 2013 is not entirely dissimilar to Rome in AD 79, or Versailles in 1789.
The Washington Monument looks over the National Mall in the center of Washington.