Washington, CT. In August of 1311, the Doge of Venice…. as big shots are wont to do…. decreed that a monument to the government would henceforth be constructed and its cost borne by the public. In an amendment to the Venetian Promissione of August 17th, the Doge proclaimed “quod Bucentaurus Domini ducis fiat per Dominum et teneatur in Arsenatu”. A Golden Barque, christened the “Bucentoro” was to be built for the Lord Doge and it was to be held in the Arsenale and trotted out into the lagoon for ceremonial display as the need arose. This floating throne of bling was a wondrous and beautiful thing, a fitting display of the incredible riches garnered by the Venetian Republic as one of the first Commercial Globalists in history. In 1786, Goethe referred to the Bucentoro as a “monstrance”, showing the people that “their leaders were indeed wonderful”. It would appear that we in this Republic of Big spenders are not the first to front the big boys in a really good show. As our Golden Barque on the Potomac appears set to burn to the gunwales in a sea of debt and over-reach, we might ponder for a moment our own monumental core and what it might tell us. Is it now a remonstrance or a fitting tribute? The complex truth is no doubt somewhere in the middle; although, the checks and balances of our civic edifice would seem to be causing the ship of state to list a tad more than usual.
Looking at the scenes of our recent Presidential inauguration, we were afforded many views of the dignified buildings lining that stupendous common known as The Mall, but if one looked closely, one could see that it had become a bit threadbare and slightly unkempt. Lawn is worn to dirt, fountains are out of commission, seawalls are crumbling and entire monuments are sinking into the Swamp substrate upon which the Federal district grew. Still, the great monuments tell a spectacular story of American history and growth with our Institutions rendered in an architectural glory leaving no doubt that we fashion ourselves a Republic in the manner of ancient Rome.
Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the Federal District was to provide a grand classicist stage for the various edifice of a Republican Government. Its existence was a great compromise between the northeastern Federalists and their southern Republican compatriots and it was to clearly demonstrate this young nation’s break from the warring Empires of Europe. We were to be the new Rome in a rough hewn continent of professionals, shopkeepers, farmers, artists and tradesmen. To be successful and worthy of our aspirations, this Capitol City had to show the world we were as yet a raw youngster but that in the freedoms we fought for, this nation was capable of great things. Make no mistake, we were a Republic of the self-ruled and this cross axis of our dreams was a force to be reckoned with.
The primary compass points of the plan’s long axis are the domed rotunda of the Capitol Building at the east end of the Mall balanced by the Doric columned edifice of the Lincoln Memorial at the opposite western end. Here we have the great evocation of the power of the legislative branch in conversation with a tribute to the fallen President who took the powers of the Executive to its greatest limits. Despite wide adulation as a champion of freedom, Lincoln suspended Habeas corpus, jailed opposition newspaper editors, used Federal troops to shut down or intimidate State Legislatures and in general, exercised an imperial level of power that was at times an open rebuke to Congress. This was done, of course, during a period of national emergency, but the impact upon the power of the Legislative body is inescapable. Any Legislator who stares down the long greensward of the Mall to Lincoln’s stolid temple overlooking the Potomac is reminded that the Executive memorialized there is a stark demonstration of their own impotence in times of national peril. That they do not clearly understand this is demonstrated by the ease with which they will exit the national front porch and walk right back into the well of Congress and vote for but another massive military appropriations bill that is steadily making them obsolete.
The termini of the cross axis to the mall are a little more nuanced. The office of the Executive, the White House, looks southward out across the Mall to the Ionic- columned rotunda memorializing the arch-classical republican and founder of the modern Democrat party, President Thomas Jefferson. Here we have a man who codified the notions of liberty and individual rights we champion and who fought the powerful central government urges of his Federalist opponents with every ounce of his being. This Founder stares back at the occupant of the White House and reminds the President that the People are sovereign and that above all else, it is the notion of Liberty as manifested in a self-determining individual that is the great power and bulwark of the Republic. President Jefferson speaks across the ages to warn any sitting President of the moral hazard of large centralized governments and the potential predations of Government economic hegemony. Mr. Jefferson was the first President to extend a love of the land and curiosity about the continental landscape into public policy. However, this President was also a slave-holder. While he attempted to include a rebuke against slavery in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he quickly acquiesced in the face of Benjamin Franklin’s more tempered and cautious editing. This President also stepped beyond his reverence for the Republic and its Separation of Powers by near unilaterally completing the Louisiana Purchase in a brazen display of Executive Privilege prerogative. Standing at the windows of the Oval Office, any President stares across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Monument and is given a choice between the imperatives of individual liberty and that of a strong executive who acts independently if the public is served by it. The President is also reminded of the hypocrisy that so often dogs those who are entrusted with the reins of power. The nation’s greatest and most beloved champion of individual liberties and Republican virtue owned slaves until the day he died.
What the axis pivots upon is what I find most arresting. The entire issue of the Separation of Powers and the individual as sovereign is held in the giant obelisk of the Washington Monument. Here, with this soaring exclamation point, the Founding Father reminds both the Legislator at the Capitol Steps and the Executive in the Oval Office that it is duty and humility against all odds that vouchsafes the Republic. This first president eschewed the trappings of royalty for a profound attachment to the concept of civitas. We were to be simultaneously independent and allied…. and with this bargain would come a greater payoff that strengthened both our internal alliances and our freedoms. This giant of a man left office against the wishes of many, particularly his Federalist supporters who feared the anarchist tendencies and French sympathies of Thomas Jefferson. He demonstrated to the World that this young nation was strong and mature enough to endure a leadership transition with quiet peacefulness. Washington had tasted both defeat and victory and he did so along-side his enlisted men. In a career marked by both disgrace and popular reverence, Washington went from being a defeated frontier officer branded by the French as a War Criminal during the French and Indian War to a leader of the Continental Army by acclamation, only to see near total ruin until the French came to our aid at Yorktown. As President, he held both our fundamental competing political forces close to him while presiding over a judicious execution of power that considered our ethical foundation as a republic to be greater than any one man or faction. To read George Washington’s Farewell Address, written by both Republican and Federalist aides is to enjoy a brilliant summary of all the basic principles that have allowed this nation to sustain and prosper. The Farewell Address was once read annually amidst pomp and celebration in the well of Congress and it kept reminding us how to avoid the mischief of empire. It should come as no surprise that it is no longer read by a Congress that defines the abuses enumerated within it.
That we are a nation of citizens who have accrued interest on investments in history is an unmistakable conclusion when one ponders the monuments of our Federal District. The full gamut of our sacrifices, failures and victories are displayed for all to see if they will attune themselves to the messages at hand. Eternal truths, triumphs, warts, contradictions and all are rendered in Marble or Granite and arrayed in a manner that underscores both the imperative of the Separation of Powers and the sturdy wisdom of a discursive representative government of educated debate, free of the special interests and pretensions of nobility.
However, this Federal cross axis of monument and history is notable for another form. The four edifice described anchor arms of a crucifix and perhaps that, above all else is telling for those who look out upon the baptisms of crisis now arrayed before us. Are our values and historic ties to a Republic still with us or are the United States of America now crucified upon a cross of mythology in service to power? Has our support of human freedoms evolved into a lust for empire and a covetous regard for riches that is creating an insidious enemy within ourselves? Do we even now know or care about the fundamental values of the Framer’s generation? One thing is certain: the Standing Army that the Framers abhorred and vigorously advised against is now one of our greatest determinants. The military captures an increasing bulk of our annual budget and with our financial power humbled, it is now our chief foreign expression. It is telling that while we possess monuments to the sacrifices of war on the National Mall, the great military hive itself is not to be seen from either the Capitol or the White House. The Pentagon is out of sight and hunkered down across the River in a massive fortress-like pentagram that has grown beyond all prudent need. During the last days of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration, the Mall was lined with a motley collection of temporary structures erected to satisfy the needs of the great and defining effort against Fascism and Imperial tyranny. These ramshackle structures were rough hewn because they were determinably temporary, as were their occupants. This healthy attitude regarding our military projection ended with the erection of the Pentagon and the beginning of the Cold War. We are now inaugurating a second phase of militarization of the Republic in another vast construction project to house the Department of Homeland Security in a former Mental Hospital. While this humorous irony may provide some minor relief, the overall effect of our subservience to foreign military projection and its antipode, domestic security, is a corrosion of the fundamental operation and health of the Republic. Torture, Secrecy, Debt, Executive Fiat, a bumbling indentured Congress and a politicized Judiciary are the fruits of this decline.
Big government induces citizen weakness. It domesticates the individual to the status of livestock, a commodity useful only in the farming of taxes…spectators rather than actors in the drama of life. As it has been throughout history, this is an engine of accelerating decline where the State increasingly relies upon fear and mythology to forestall defeat at its own hands. Patriotism and the edited mythology of American history and its Institutions will now provide a steady diet of crisis to speed the Republic’s decline. Learned minds and well-meaning people will throw their weight behind what can only be described as suicide by the best of intentions. If we do not begin again to embrace the complexities and contradictions of this wonderful thing called the United States of America and reinvigorate the Separation of Powers that have sustained us, we seal our own fate. This is bottoms up work, beginning outwards from the front porch to Town Hall and the State House. Our national elected representatives are akin now to a pagan priesthood that supplicates itself upon an altar before the gods of Mammon, Mars and Mockery. Simony, in the form of a trade of access and special treatment for campaign donations consumes the daily lives of our Representatives and while they may enter into service with only the best of intentions, the system subsumes them in a loud death rattle of a Republic seeking its final lament. If we do not take this grave matter into our own hands, no one will. Advanced Bureaucratic Sclerosis will soon induce its inexorable stroke and the once strong and beautiful nation will awake a quivering wreck, not knowing either who or what it is….or rather, was.
Still, it does not have to be this way. The sweet kernel of truth in American history is that we have a tendency to face and cure our own ills when the situation appears to look most dire. We have suffered our mishaps and mistakes and survived because the golden object of our history lies in paradox and contradiction. The covalent strength of both the people and our institutions are invigorated in times of trial and the outcome of this unique chemistry is the forging of a stronger humanity…a more durable reflection of a people both independent and allied. This is no utopian effort, it is simply the lovely if imperfect life of a people who do their best work from the bottom up. Knowing full well that all men are not created equal in a world of tragedy and inequity, we have proclaimed this to be so anyway and in the battle to prove this beautiful conceit, an authentic humanity is created…..one that continues to both appall and astonish the people of our fractious globe. The people of the United States of America have been waiting for a Godot of their imagination in the form of a leader who will once and for all set things right. This relapse into the antiquated thinking of the past has stilled the Revolution which, in this nation, was never simply a static event. This American Revolution, a dirty rotten poetry of failure and triumph awaits her people so that we might continue what was set down that blistering hot day in Philadelphia. There, in Independence Hall, some mere mortals attempted to achieve the impossible and found themselves a nation that is less a geographic province than it is an idea whose beauty lies in a realization of the imperfections of human relations. The Separation of Powers and the Checks and Balances of our Federal State equipoise are what unleash the great and abiding power of this contradictory ideal. They lie somnolent now and if we are to proceed upon our former path, it is up to the individual citizen and their neighbors to awaken them. Like at Concord, this effort starts not in the seat of power but on the front porches of the common citizen. Washington D.C. is not leading because it was never truly supposed to do so. The people have abdicated their responsibility and until they reawaken their powerful birthright, the Republic will continue to drift further into the gloaming.