Thursday, September 25, 2014

Monuments and Memorials, Part III

This is part III in recounting a trip to Washington, DC, where we encountered people and places worth reverencing. In Part I we went to the Jefferson Memorial. In Part II we covered Lincoln. In Part III we’ll remember George Washington. The next part will cover a few other places not connected to a single individual.

We didn’t manage to go up in the Washington Monument; transportation and timing got in the way, so that will have to wait for another trip. But the Washington Monument was visible from almost every direction. We saw it from the Jefferson Memorial, from the Lincoln Memorial, from Arlington Cemetery, from the White House, and from the Capitol.
The Washington Monument,  view from the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall

The clean lines and extraordinary height of the monument make it look modern. But the obelisk is actually an ancient Greek design, a four-sided structure rising to a point. It is the tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk in the world, at 555 feet and 5 ½ inches.
[For you Texans, the San Jacinto Monument, also an obelisk, is 567.31 feet tall. Permission to exceed the height of the Washington Monument was never given; the design was submitted, and they said, “Oh, and we’ll just put a star on top.” It is the star that puts it over height, so we’ll let the claim of tallest obelisk stand with the Washington Monument, even though we know everything’s bigger in Texas.]
The monument wasn’t actually built until after Washington’s death in 1799, not even fully designed until the 1830s. But the intention to build a monument was set during his lifetime. So, at least according to one of our tour guides, that is why it is called a monument, while so many other sites are memorials.
The place to get to know the real George Washington is his home, about 16 miles south of the capitol (about 8 miles south of Arlington, VA). We went to Mount Vernon on Thursday, by taxi—my first taxi ever. And if there was nothing else to know about George Washington, we would know from his estate that he was a man who loved civilization. He loved family. He loved God. He loved work, industriousness, and attention to detail.
Mount Vernon, George Washington's home
He broke his own horses, and was considered one of the best horsemen of his day. He personally selected breeding sheep to produce the finest wool, which they spun on site. Mount Vernon was a self-sustaining plantation, with many of the same services of a small town. It had a blacksmith, a saddlery and stables and coach house, a paint cellar—meant for the continuing repainting and maintenance of the many buildings. It had orchard lands, woods preserved for hunting, acres for farming, kitchen gardens, flower gardens, and even decorative hedges in a sort of maze.
Washington was one of the wealthiest colonists—and then early Americans. Much of his wealth came into the family with his marriage to the widow Martha Custis. But Mount Vernon was his family home, inherited from his father. The house started much smaller. A second story, as well as right and left wings, were added eventually, and also a kitchen separated by a covered walkway. A formal parlor was the last portion completed, after the presidency, during which there were only a few years to enjoy it before his death.
There's a covered walkway on each side of the house, leading to outbuildings
such as the kitchen. Out back there's a clear panoramic view
of the Potomoc River, pretty much as Washington would have viewed it.
He met Martha while on a military errand, when he was about 26, and found her both beautiful and good company. She had two young children. The daughter died after a prolonged illness, after which Martha began bringing supplies to the soldiers in winter quarters during the Revolutionary War. The son grew up and provided grandchildren that were a special delight to Granddad George Washington. The couple, by all accounts, had a loving and strong marriage relationship. But they did not have any additional children, so he always treated Martha’s offspring as he would his own.
He was a reluctant but extraordinarily brave warrior. It was said of him that he could not be killed. In one battle his clothing was hit with four balls, without any injuries to him. I don’t know if he knew for certain what God was planning for him, but it seems in retrospect that God granted him protection because of a spoken or unspoken promise to lead the new, free nation without any hunger for power.
The weather vane, atop the cupola,
has a dove holding an olive branch,
representing peace--Washington's design request
A young George Washington took it upon himself to develop the habits of good character. He had lists of behavior to practice and follow, until such habits could become natural to him. He also educated himself in a wide variety of subjects. He had a collection of books on landscape design that guided him in designing his own beautiful grounds. He loved and appreciated good music. He purchased paintings, which he displayed gallery style in is formal parlor, particularly favoring landscapes. Also, he read widely and understood the philosophies that went into the founding documents.
When I was growing up, there wasn’t a President’s Day; there were two significant birthdays in February, one for Lincoln, and one for Washington. We didn’t stay home from school to celebrate. We studied these men in school. I think our students could still benefit from such study—even more than one day a year.
But there has been a tendency, in recent decades, to try to point out America’s flaws. Among such things is the dismissal of Washington’s significance because he was a slaveholder. I would not disagree, even after seeing the relatively clean and spacious bunkhouses used for his slaves, that the practice is out of synch with his character. So I’d like to take a minute to talk about that.
Washington grew up in a time and place in which societal stratification was normal. They were subject to royalty, and to the noblemen governors appointed by royalty. Originally, the fight was for that royalty to provide for the rights long guaranteed in English law, rights that were being abrogated. If England’s King George had corrected the abuses, there would not have been a breaking away. Re-read the Declaration of Independence; they had tried all reconciliations first.
The level of civilization reached by the colonists was mixed with this stratification—a southern hemisphere concept on the Spherical Model. In addition, the practice of slavery was not invented by the colonists, but was centuries old in Britain and throughout most of the world. That some people were superior by birth than other people was understood as a given.
It wasn’t until the philosophical understanding of God-given natural rights became the basis for self-rule for the new America that stratification began to be questioned. Early on there were colonies against slavery, for religious reasons, but also for social reasons. The way northern towns were set up was very different from the southern plantations. More entrepreneurial, less brute labor intensive.
George Washington grew up on a southern plantation. So, while we’d like to think that slavery is self-evidently evil, the evil of it dawned slowly—as people began thinking about freedom and equality before the law. In this atmosphere of thought, the blessedly good George Washington came to realize that slavery was wrong. It didn’t fit in a world of freedom and equality.
There were only a few years following his presidency, where he could retire to repose in his family home. During those short years, he re-wrote his will, arranging for all of his slaves to be given their freedom, upon the death of his wife, Martha. He wanted to assure that she was well cared for. However, Martha, knowing what her husband believed, and feeling herself well-enough off, immediately set them free upon his death, rather than waiting.
Even in this I believe George Washington is an example of civilization. He came to see something in his life that didn’t belong in the northern hemisphere zone of freedom, prosperity, and civilization. So he corrected it in his own life, where he had influence to do so. Start building freedom and civilization at home first. And extend out from there, as God expands our circle of influence, so others enjoy the blessings of civilization that we enjoy. That is the pattern for us still, because we're still finding parts of our world that can't cohabit with freedom, prosperity, and civilization.


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