In one remarkable burst at the beginning of the 20th century, Washington, DC, enacted revolutionary legislation and broke ground on breathtaking monuments that would make it the political, economic, and mythic center of a new American realm.
1913 stands out as the busiest year in a short, intense period of centralization and consolidation. In the space of a few years, the leaders in the nation's capital successfully squared America's historic, republican institutions with a blueprint for imperial grandeur formerly undreamed of. To accomplish this seemingly impossible feat, these leaders had to fuse together two clashing regions into a united imperium. Despite the smoldering distrust left over from one of history's bloodiest wars, North and South would meld at this time into a united force greater than anything the world had ever seen. This unification process would transform Washington, DC, from the administrative center of a constitutionally limited government into a ruling world capital, a city brimming with powerful, white marble images that not only gave physical form to mystical notions of divine purpose, but also symbolized a newfound oneness of resolve to carry out that purpose. E pluribus unum would no longer describe a Federal government voluntarily created by various State governments; it now invoked a new nation and a new people forged in the furnace of war.
1913 was the fiftieth anniversary of that war's greatest battle, Gettysburg, and the approach of that momentous date must have intensified ongoing efforts to realize this new blueprint, as well as inevitably reminding its architects of the great difficulty facing them in making this vision a reality. Chief among these architects was Woodrow Wilson, who served as president from 1913 to 1921. Despite the utter confidence he publicly expressed for realizing this new conception of the United States, even going so far as describing it as determined by the hand of God, Wilson privately confessed nervousness about his mission. While penning his speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Wilson wrote a letter to his wife:
“It is no ordinary celebration….It is to celebrate the end of all feeling as well as the end of all strife between the sections…. If the President should refuse to go this time … it would be hotly resented by a very large part of the public. It would be suggested that he is a Southerner and out of sympathy with the occasion.”
Wilson's Southern birth — of Ohio parents — worked to his advantage, allowing him to address Southerners as one of their own, though he disdained Southern distinctiveness to the point that he urged his wife, Edith, to "rectify" her Southern accent. Wilson's mission was always nationalistic, aimed at redirecting Southern martial spirit toward supporting an aggressive foreign policy. At the national convention of the United Confederate Veterans he told the old warriors that the war they'd fought was a crucible that transformed the nation into an instrument of God's will:
"God was working out in His own way the method by which we should best serve human freedom — by making this nation a great united, indivisible, indestructible instrument in His hands for the accomplishment of these great things.”
At the July 4, 1913, commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, Wilson proclaimed:
“We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather… How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic.”
And at Wilson's 1913 address at the dedication of the monument to Southerners at Arlington National Cemetery, he again referred to his vision for the new America:
"Let us first heal our own divisions. Let us first see that we are a united and irresistible nation, and then let us put all that force at the service of humanity."
Wilson correctly recognized the simmering resentment Arlington symbolized. Union general Montgomery Meigs had seized Robert E. Lee's family home and turned it into an estate for the dead in 1864 — certainly as a deliberate insult to the South's most cherished hero. Like Woodrow Wilson, Meigs was born in the South of Northern parents, but unlike Wilson, did not attempt to conceal his contempt for the Southern cause. Even after the war, Southern women were refused permission to place flowers on the graves of their loved ones buried at the national cemetery Meigs founded. No wonder so many Southern families removed their loved ones from Arlington in the 1890s and 1900s — they couldn't stomach the idea of having their men buried in a Northern shrine.
In order to forge Wilson's "united and irresistible nation" from a loose federation of States, political and economic power had to be centralized in Washington, DC. 1913 saw the passage of the 17th amendment, which stripped the State legislatures of the right to appoint Senators to represent them in the nation's capital, and instead authorized direct election of Senators. This made the Senate subject to the influence of Washington special interests.
The 16th amendment, passed in February, 1913, gave the Federal government tremendous economic power by allowing it to directly tax personal income. Not only did this provide Washington, DC, with nearly unlimited treasure, it also yielded vast amounts of information about its citizens, as well as new tools to control them (witness Al Capone's prosecution, not for bootlegging, but for Federal income tax evasion). And the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve System resurrected an institution that States' Rights defenders had long opposed, a central bank. Senator Nelson Aldrich, who had been instrumental in passing the 16th amendment, boasted that before the Federal Reserve was passed, New York bankers could only dominate the reserves of New York, but now could dominate the bank reserves of the entire country.
When Europe erupted in war in 1914, New York bankers pounced on it as an investment opportunity of historic proportions. J. P. Morgan provided Britain and France with more than 2 billion dollars in loans. The inevitable coming together of the aims of centralized banking and centralized government steered Wilson toward breaking his campaign promise of American neutrality, and siding with the Allies. In Wilson's mind, he now helmed a united and irresistible nation whose force he could now place "at the service of humanity" to carry out the "great things” he had vowed. With the political and economic power that Wilson and others had strived to centralize in Washington DC, the Federal government now commanded the means to assert itself as a benevolent empire out to re-make the world. Sadly, as Jim Powell documents in Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II, America's intervention may have protected Morgan's investment, but also afflicted Western civilization with demons that still torment us.
But before any of this transpired, before Washington could launch its ill-conceived crusade to spread democracy by force of arms, it had to have its people unified, eager to realize their divine mission. The nation's capital had to recast itself as the binding force that held its far-flung lands together. To symbolize its new role in the benevolent American empire, Washington, DC, constructed the Arlington Bridge. As authorized by a bill passed in 1913, the Arlington Bridge literally and figuratively connected North and South. Robert E. Lee's former home was now connected to the nation's capital by a bridge constructed of North Carolina marble.
The Arlington Bridge changed the view from Arlington estate, a vista made famous by the Marquis de Lafayette's pronouncement that it was "the finest view in the world." As seen from the heights of Arlington, Memorial Drive creates a straight line to Arlington Memorial Bridge, which stretches across the Potomac and ends at the Lincoln Memorial.
This scene is reminiscent of Trajan's Column, which celebrated the Emperor's triumph over the rebellious Dacians and their forced reunification with Rome. That Trajan's Column served as an inspiration for Arlington's panoramic view of Washington, DC, would fit with the capital's grand vision of itself, and with the column's reputation as both a funerary and victory memorial. Both the 1806 Colonne Vendome in Paris, and the 1808 Nelson Column in Dublin were modeled after it. The base of Trajan's Column is a square foundation, an actual mortuary. The main column rises above it. At the top of the original column stood Trajan, triumphant. Similarly, the virtual column in "New Rome" proclaims the forced reunification of the South with the United States. It can be visualized as beginning at Arlington House and the Cemetery — the home of Robert E. Lee taken by the Union army and turned into a burial ground. On top of that base is Memorial Drive and Arlington Bridge, which one can imagine as a column. And perched on top — in triumph — is Abraham Lincoln, the conqueror of the rebellious South.
The presence of Abraham Lincoln appears regal and overpowering within the cavernous, dusky memorial, which was authorized in 1911. Lincoln’s statue is composed of Georgia marble, symbolically incorporating a formerly rebellious province into a tribute to its conqueror. The etched inscription over Lincoln specifically identifies the structure as a temple rather than a memorial, and the chair he occupies was designed not for a president, but a ruler. To emphasize that impression, Lincoln’s hands rest on two Roman-style fasces, the ancient symbol of imperial unity. On the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial is a mural entitled The Unity of North and South.”
By making Lincoln godlike, even honoring him with his own temple, Washington, DC, conferred a kind of divine status on all future presidents (even Gerald Ford). And to back up the symbolic connection to Roman emperors, future US presidents would have the muscle to back up their new status. Thanks to the measures passed in 1913, future presidents would indeed wield the power of the Caesars. Those who doubt this should note the current uproar caused by the President's unilateral decision to expand a war the nation wants ended.
For those who can stomach it, viewing the heavy-handed symbolism of Washington, DC's monuments is very instructive. As you study them, remember that monuments serve a political purpose by defining — or re-defining — citizens' relationship with their government. That's why governments spend so much on the monuments they want, and destroy the ones they don't. Do Washington DC's monuments proclaim the government's power to hold a sprawling country together by force, or do they honor a republic based on constitutionally limited government? To answer that question, drive to Washington, DC, some day and see for yourself. If you live in New York or San Francisco, you can start your trip by taking the Lincoln Highway, the first to link both coasts. It was originally proposed in 1913.
January 13, 2007
Michael C. Tuggle [send him mail] is a project manager and writer in Charlotte, NC. His first book, Confederates in the Boardroom, explores the implications of organizational science on political systems, and is published by Traveller Press.