During this past week’s trip to Washington, DC with my school, I realized that I use the city’s layout (at least the downtown area), as a part of my Palace of Memory. When I need to remember various aspects of American history, I mentally fly myself down to Washington (or take the train, since I know Union Station so much better), and then I walk over to the Senate side of the Capitol building. I walk around the Capitol, and I recall certain aspects of history by standing on its steps and looking up at the sculpture. There are even corridors within the building that I can walk down and remember various parts of history. I go across the street to the Supreme Court, and review the Supreme Court cases I know while approaching its hallowed/desecrated steps (Any court that can be responsible for Bush v. Gore, the Dred Scott decision, and Brown v. Board of Ed. of Topeka, KS, can’t be all bad, to paraphrase W.C. Fields…). I walk around the Tidal Pool in my memory to visit the Bill of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, and I can even go to the individual Smithsonian museums to remember various things that I’ve forgotten (Wright Brothers, Kitty Hawk, 1903… in room/gallery 209 at the National Air and Space Museum, south side of the National Mall… go up the first escalator on the left, and then turn right and go in the first gallery on the left. Trust me.)
On the back side of the Lincoln Memorial, there’s a spot where you can take off your jacket, and cover one of the halogen lamps that illuminate the building, and look down Memorial Bridge to the southwest. In the dimness of the oncoming traffic, you can make out a baleful red beacon at the top of a radio tower. Just below treeline, directly under that beacon, you’ll be able to make out a pale white triangle of roof, and the columns supporting that roof.
That’s the house of Robert E. Lee, chief general of the Confederacy. On May 3, 1862, General Meigs of the Union commandeered the house and the farm to be the Union cemetery, and so Arlington National Cemetery was born. It was Meigs’s way of getting back at Lee for abandoning the Union. Lee would never be able to go home again.
It’s hard to remember this sometimes, but the Lincoln Memorial stands squarely on the dividing line between North and South, between slavery and states’ rights, and freedom and the idea that your labor is your own to do with as you wish. In the Lincoln memorial, you can remember both Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) and the Gettysburg Address (November 1863), and the idea of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
There’s now a stone you can stand on at the Lincoln Memorial, marking the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I have a dream” speech (August 28, 1963) and look down the National Mall, over the reflecting pool, over the World War II Memorial, to the obelisk of the Washington Monument and the capitol beyond.
The earthquake last September (caused by fracking?) has cracked the Washington Monument, and rendered it unstable. It may collapse before any repairs are done.
Pierre L’Enfant presented the plan for Washington DC to Congress in 1791 — you can find part of that plan done in granite and white marble at Freedom Plaza, a short distance from the White House on the southeast side, flanking Pennsylvania Avenue. By 1900, the city’s plan was obscured by all kinds of deviant buildings, but the plan has been restored over the last century to reflect the vision of L’Enfant — a city whose walks and rides provide a way to recall American history to mind, and recall that a nation’s claim to greatness can fail all too suddenly: Seneca’s cliff awaits — greatness is achieved only by hard work and long labor, while catastrophe and ruin can come from single errors.