Washington Materialized: Paradigm of Enshrinement (1856-1930's)


In his Mystic Chords of Memory, Michael Kammen discusses Washington as a (perhaps the) central figure in what he sees as a particularly American process in forming history and national memory, the interplay of "historicized present" and "de-politicized past." Such a process, according to Kammen, serves a dual function: for one, it allows a notion of "tradition" to support technological progress, and explain an increasingly-industrial America as a culture whose past has always been foward-looking and innovative; so too, it allows America to better conceive of itself as 'Union', even as it plays down and smooths over the disparities and past conflicts that needed uniting in the first place. George Washington, in his transformation into sites of public memory--the Washington Monument, Mount Vernon, the Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge--thus becomes more fully than ever the great unifier his presence had intially suggested in his role as first President of the Union. In such public spaces are supposedly tangible testaments to the abstract (and tenuous) notion of 'unity', and even more importantly, are actual physical arenas where tourists from all parts of the nation are spatially unified, even as they return to the common rhetorical 'origin' of their identities as 'Americans'--a site honoring the "father of our country."


Washington's sense of civic duty may have kept him from his cherished Mount Vernon, but biographers report that he never gave up hope that he would someday return to the leisurely, tender environment of his home. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote to a state governor, "I feel myself eased of a load of public care. I will spend the remainder of my days in cultivating the affections of good Men, and in the practice of domestic Virtues" (Schwartz, 123).

Realizing Washington's attachment to domestic life, the American public often associated him with the warmth of hearth and home, and in doing so, attached a worthiness to domesticity that gained momentum throughout the 1800s. Karal Ann Marling, in her book, George Washington Slept Here, explores the way Washington's domesticity influenced the way Americans embellished their own living spaces. Washington's image, she argues, played a significant part in the Colonial Revival of the 19th century. The image of Washington as an upstanding, practical man tending to the cares of his estate became a prototype for gentlemen and women throughout the country.

The restoration of Mount Vernon stood as the centerpiece of this movement. Virtually crumbling by the middle of the 19th century, Mount Vernon was described by an artist in 1858 as an estate in deterioration, surrounded by "squalor and general neglect" (Marling, 65). Visitors were still able to view the tomb, but the house and grounds were off-limits. After the Civil War, with the celebrations of 1876 just around the bend, citizens began to worry aloud whether the decaying state of their hero's homestead would reflect poorly on their country. People began to form groups focusing on restoring what was already considered a national monument.

A group of women from "the best" Virginia families formed the core of this movement, calling themselves the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. By the late 1800s, the association had succeeded in saving the estate from decay and helped to refocus Washington's association with the domestic world.

The restoration of Mount Vernon included more than new paint and bricks. The interior space, in fact, received the most attention. Over time, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association collected hundreds of colonial antiques and Washington memorabilia to furnish the renovated interior. Spinning wheels, bedsteads, kitchenware and pottery added warmth to the space.

By 1880, Henry Adams' novel, Democracy lauded Mount Vernon as a popular resort. Although the house still needed several finishing touches, it was becoming a shrine of worshipped relics. Thousands of Americans made pilgrimmages to the site, hoping for a taste of the virtuous lifestyle of their beloved hero. In fact, many believed visits to Washington sites like Mount Vernon would improve their moral character. As Marling quotes within her book, one visitor found an "exquisite and friendly serenity which bathes the sense ..., that seems to be charged all through with some meaning or message of benficence and reassurance, but nothing that could be put into words" (Marling, 84).


The popularity of Mount Vernon and its furnishings fed directly into a larger architectural movement that was gripping America by the turn of the century. The Colonial Revival, with its Wallace Nutting photographs, spindle chairs and clapboard shutters, was becoming a favorite style. Although the revival might apply to anything from New England cottages to the Georgian architecture of the South, the furnishings of the style imitated several of the pieces Washington supposedly used himself. The George Washington Highboy, a tall, straight chest of drawers, epitomizes the era.
Illustration from a furniture trade catalogue of 1910, depicting the model of a George Washington Highboy, from Karal Ann Marling's book, George Washington Slept Here.
Advertisements described the highboy as sturdy, substantial and sparsely decorated. For those perpetuating the colonial revival, the good taste and cultivation of Washington's day could be resurrected with the purchase of furniture like this, affording America's citizenry a chance to symbolize their association with a refined ancestry.

Kirk Savage very much sees the socio-political history of the design and eventual construction of the Washington Monument in terms such as Kammen's "historicized present." As the "tallest structure on earth" at the time, architecturally the monument was an overt "symbol of the national destiny" (Savage, p. 25). It was a "technological marvel equipped with a passenger elevator and electric lights," and so in a way transforms this symbol of what was already a cultural symbol (the 'identity' of Washington himself), into a new structural declaration of national identity. It fuses the sense of past and tradition suggested by "the most ancient of forms" with technological innovation, the notion of 'progress' that the nation has from the outset used to help create and justify itself as society.

At the same time, the monument suggests a phallus, a sword, a striking blank unitary shaft--all of it seeming to suggest an almost undeniable power, and perhaps even a sort of bold willing, emblematic of the independence whose fight Washington led. Even as Savage notes that the monument stood beyond the "critical scrutiny" of the cultural elite, that it was "unarguable," he might have added that such is an appropriate memorial for one who did not articulate the democratic project, but rather who fought and stood for it. There is no refinement or subtlety to be unraveled here--it is a statement that all can appreciate. It represents the force for popular memory that Washington has held in his interlinked roles as "father of our country," as Revolutionary War general, as non-partisan first President, without whose support the Constitution (and very possibly, the Union) would not likely have had a chance. And again, taken up into the seemingly unbreachable monumental unit, tourists (e.g. American citizens) are gathered and elevated and 'unified' more dramatically than perhaps any other public space allows.

The monument is a structure of the "sublime," yet its innovation allows everyone--that is, the "common man"--to achieve the heights of the country's first and greatest leader. As such, Savage notes, it recalls (and forcefully overruns) the political struggle for the 'Washington' that had played out from the time of his death, where his cultural identity became a battleground for those familiar combatants, the Federalists and the Republicans. One the one hand, the Federalist quest was to "'impress a sublime awe in all who behold'" the projected memorial to Washington; their task was to present "moral example" for all that was at the same time elevated far beyond the common and so, the argument went, would show a proper amount of respect to the revered general (Savage, p.11). On the other hand, Republicans argued that to so grandly elevate one "hero from the great mass" was to betray the principles of democratic equality upon which the nation supposedly stood.

The two sides could never agree, and it finally took the near-hubris of the Washington Monument Society [whose goal was to erect "'the highest edifice in the world, and the most stupendous and magnificent monument ever erected to man'" (Savage, p.16)] to set the task in motion in 1833. Dried-up funds then stunted the project until 'progress' came to the rescue, when the foward-looking Congress of 1876 (the Centennial year) re-started it. Savage: "the monument as revived not to make sense of the past, but to launch the nation into the future" (p. 19).


Of course, the same 'progressive' technological and scientific tendencies which can come to characterize memorial sites such as that described above, at the same can redefine them in terms of a new-found religiosity. Kammen cites this trend of the 1870's and beyond, that "the implications of Darwinism and the impact of science in general meant that tensions between doubt and faith would increasingly be resolved in favor of the former, with important consequences for the role of history and tradition in American culture" (Kammen, p.194). The title of this chapter makes his point clear: "Memory is What We Now Have in Place of Religion."

For a figure with the primacy, the power, the cultural ubiquity of Washington, this trend translates into the rise of related shrines. The establishment of the George Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge clearly illustrates this, with its design as a site of "Revolutionary 'relics,'" and more strikingly, its paired stained-glass narratives--framing the chapel in "scenes from the life of Christ" on the one side, and "scenes from the life of George Washington" on the other. The Biblical savior then helps interpret the national one; this in turn has tended to shed something of the same holy glow over the resultant secular parallel to the Madonna, so that at the burial site of Mary Ball Washington a marker reads, "Mary, Mother of Washington." And of course, her own home in Fredricksburg, Virginia was included among a number of sites "frequently referred to as 'sacred shrines'" (Kammen, pp. 200-204, 547). In light of the tenacity of the 'Washington' created by Parson Weems, this perhaps comes as no surprise. Nor then can it come as too much of a surprise when the strife of rhetoric reaches such a pitch as with the current debate in Virginia, at the site of Washington's birthplace. The struggle is over whether a new Wal-Mart will be allowed to be built at the location, and suggests that the reverence for an old American icon may still hold its own against the rise of a more recent but now possibly more prevalent American' institution; at any rate, it will not pass without a fight.


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