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2000 Annual Meeting: August 12-16, 2000

The Sociology of Selected Monuments in Washington, DC, or Stories Behind the Stones

Like many capital cities, Washington is a city of monuments. Of course, they portray much of our nation’s history, but they reveal even more of its sociology.

We might begin our sociological tour with the Library of Congress (Capitol South metro), which offers an embodiment in granite of Social Darwinism. On keystones around the facade of its main (“Jefferson”) building are 33 “ethnological heads” that depict the races or stocks of humankind as envisaged in 1897. Nearest to the main entrance on the left are the “highest” types, such as “Blonde European [of] the educated German type, dolichocephalic, or long headed,” followed by “Brunette European [of] the Roman type, brachycephalic, or broad-headed” in the words of the official account of 1897. On the right are “Chinese” and “Japanese” and the like. Relegated to the back are such “races” as “Abyssinian,” “Malay,” “Australian,” “Negrito,” “Zulu,” “Papuan,” Soudan Negro,” “Akka (Dwarf African Negro),” “Fuegian,” and “Botocudo (from South America).” Old-timers claim that the sculptors worked from heads preserved in barrels at the National Museum of Natural History! But according to the official account as revised by the Library in 1982, “all portraiture was avoided . . . because no one man can ever exemplify all the average physical characteristics of his race.” Eugenics rears its ugly head here, although some of the carved heads are in fact quite beautiful.

Two blocks northwest, another symbol of white supremacy stands just south of the entrance to Union Station (Union Station metro). The Columbus Fountain, done in 1912 by sculptor Lorado Taft, shows Columbus standing on the prow of a ship. Above him is a globe, representing that he proved the world round. In fact, in 1491 almost no one thought the world was flat. It looks round. In a lunar eclipse, it casts a round shadow on the moon. The Catholic Church said it was round. Sailors are especially able to appreciate its roundness when ships disappear over the horizon, hull first, as the roundness of the earth gets in the way. Novelist Washington Irving popularized the flat-earth fable in 1828 in his best-selling biography of Columbus. Writers of American histories soon picked up the story, and since textbooks tend to clone each other, Irving’s little hoax persists in some books to this day. Irving probably thought the fable would do no harm. But it does. Sociologists will recognize its functions. It invites viewers to believe that most people had only a crude understanding of the planet they lived on before a forward-thinking European man of science brought them out of their ignorance. It also shows the boss to be smarter than his “motley crew,” in the words of one high school history textbook. And it fits the archetype of progress in our culture: Americans typically imagine our predecessors as primitives, exactly the kind of folk who would believe in a flat earth, a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Taft flanked Columbus with an elderly white man and a nearly nude American Indian, kneeling at each side. This convention exemplifies what art historians call “hieratic scale,” Columbus is higher than the Indian physically and more “civilized” in dress because white men are higher socially. Partly for that reason, Native Americans poured blood over the monument on the 500th anniversary of his reaching land in the Western Hemisphere, October 12, 1992.

Native Americans do get their due just two blocks south. Looking down from atop the dome of the United States Capitol is a bronze woman called the “Statue of Freedom.” Tourists take her to be an American Indian because she wears a buffalo robe and her helmet is topped by an eagle’s head and flowing plumage. Also, the colonies and later the new nation often used an Indian to represent liberty. Thus the statue exemplifies W. I. Thomas’s dictum, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” Her features are too distant to see clearly, so if most Americans think her American Indian, then for practical purposes she is. In fact, her headdress is neither American Indian nor does it represent liberty. Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War during the Pierce administration, objected to the original design, a “liberty cap” worn by French revolutionaries. He worried that this might give slaves ideas of freedom and ordered a feathered helmet encircled by stars instead.

Twelve blocks east of the Capitol, another monument shows the subtle power of hieratic scale. In Lincoln Park (Eastern Market metro) stands the first statue of Abraham Lincoln put up after his death. It says:

Freedom's Memorial
In grateful memory of Abraham Lincoln, this monument was erected . . . with funds contributed solely by emancipated citizens of the U.S. declared free by his proclamation January 1, A.D. 1863.

Crouched at Lincoln’s feet, his chains still on but broken, is a semi-naked African American. The monument shows the respect African Americans felt for Lincoln and also represents Lincoln’s role as Great Emancipator. Inadvertently, the sculpture also shows the power of the cultural archetype of white supremacy. African Americans look up to European Americans on monuments in New York City, Indianapolis, and other sites. Native Americans do so even more widely, from Lake Champlain to San Francisco’s Pioneer Monument. On the other side of the park stands a sculpture of the famed educator Mary McLeod Bethune, bequeathing her “Last Will and Testament” to two black children. This document, whose words the monument supplies, seems innocuous enough: “I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. . .” However, Congress delayed completion of the statue from 1963 to 1974 partly because its sponsor, the National Council of Negro Women, had become involved in the Civil Rights movement.

More recently, the landscape shows that the nation has moved beyond such a cautious view of the role of African Americans. In 1998 private and public funding resulted in the dedication of the African-American Civil War Memorial at the corner of Vermont Avenue and U Street NW (Shaw metro). Sociologists might want to contrast it with the Confederate monument dedicated in 1914 in Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington metro), said to be “the largest bronze monument ever cast.” It includes representations of at least two African Americans: a black “mammy” figure who holds a white child up to a Confederate officer going off to war, and a man, probably a body servant, marching alongside Confederate troops. Neo-Confederate apologists have recently used this image, and the fact that ditch-diggers and body servants sometimes picked up arms in the heat of battle, as “evidence” for their claim that many blacks fought for the Confederacy, hence the Civil War could not have been about slavery. In reality, the Confederate government did not even allow African Americans in its armed forces until March 13, 1865, a few days before the liberation of Richmond.

Civil War statues also exemplify a problem in how our public history portrays women. Across the country, women rarely get statues, partly because they have rarely been governors or generals, partly because the landscape is biased against them. In almost every traffic circle in Washington stands a Union general on his horse. Some of these horses were mares, who performed exactly the same functions as their male counterparts. General Winfield Scott’s favorite was a mare, which he rides today in Scott Circle (Dupont Circle metro), but Scott’s grandchildren thought this wasn’t manly, so they got the sculptor to add “stallion attributes.”

Another D.C. monument makes a very different statement about gender. Overlooking the “Washington Channel” a few feet north of Fort McNair (Waterfront metro) stands a majestic figure with outstretched arms celebrating men’s willingness to go down on the Titanic. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who created the Whitney Museum with her money and art collection, was the sculptor and probably paid for much of the memorial, which claims to have been erected by “the women of America.” In their 1958 classic Social Class and Mental Illness, August Hollingshead and Frederick C. Redlich digressed to show the marked effect social class had on the survival of those aboard the Titanic. But they ignored the still larger impact of gender. Traditional sex roles, here favoring women, caused the death rate among men to be much higher in all social classes than among women. Can we imagine a statue erected by the upper class to the middle and working classes, thanking them for dying on the Titanic? Valorizing male death remains a norm, as flagged by recurrent newspaper headlines lamenting the killing of “women and children” (but not men) in Kosovo, Rwanda, and other conflict areas.

In a sense, the new Women in Military Service Memorial at the entry to Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington metro) agrees with the Titanic memorial. Few of its panels of photographs show war, which is historically accurate since armed forces policies still shield women from combat. Instead, women are shown “volunteering on the homefront” and nursing well back of the front lines. Some speeches at its 1997 dedication, however, suggested that protecting “the weaker sex” from harm was an idea whose time has passed.

Perhaps Washington’s least expected monument acknowledges the assassination of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his aide by a remote-controlled car bomb as the vehicle rounded Sheridan Circle (Dupont Circle metro). The bombing was linked to the Chilean secret police, whom Letelier had angered with his outspoken criticism of the Pinochet regime. The CIA still refuses to declassify hundreds of documents about the dual killing. But the CIA does not control the sidewalk a few blocks northwest of Dupont Circle, where this small monument remembers the event.

Washington’s most protested monument in recent years is surely the seated figure of Albert Pike (Judiciary Square metro). Anton Chaitkin and James Bevel led repeated demonstrations during the 1980s and early 1990s, at least once getting arrested for climbing on the monument. Albert Pike was the Confederacy’s emissary to the Indians in Indian Territory. He concluded treaties with the Cherokees, Comanches, Creeks, Osages, Seminoles, Senecas, Shawnees, and Wichitas, usually in such a way as to precipitate a civil war between the Confederate and Union factions within each tribe. As a military leader, his performance at Pea Ridge, the one battle in which he commanded troops, ended in near disgrace. After the war, according to histories of the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan written by insiders, Pike became a key leader of the Klan. His statue describes him as “Author Poet Scholar Soldier Philanthropist Philosopher Jurist Orator.” More appropriate would be “Fomenter Coward Bigot.” Pike’s is the only outdoor statue of a Confederate general in the District of Columbia. It’s hard to imagine a worse choice. Washington’s two most visited monuments are the Lincoln Memorial and nearby Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (Foggy Bottom metro). Maya Lin’s famous wall, brought into being against opposition from such traditional forces of nationalism as the American Legion, succeeds in part because it does not tell the visitor what to think about the veterans. The memorial cannot be seen as a paean to their heroic victory however, it is a scar on the earth, not triumphant at all, which is correct, for the war was no triumph. Its granite walls can be interpreted to depict the course of the conflict from its embryonic beginnings, growing and growing and then dwindling away. Although it does not praise the war, neither does it attack the veterans but stands in a sense as a tombstone for them, with their names written on its slabs. Viewers are not passive, as they are at most memorials. Not only are their statements in evidence, since every day offerings are left at the wall, but visitors also see themselves reflected in the polished granite and can ask “What did I do?” (or increasingly “What would I have done?”) during the Vietnam War.

The Lincoln Memorial was built between 1914 and 1922, in the midst of what has been called the “nadir of American race relations,” an unlikely time to remember the Great Emancipator. So segregated had the United States become that at its dedication, African Americans were restricted to a section across the road from the white audience. Art critic Royal Cortissoz wrote its inscription, which deliberately omitted slavery:

In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.

Cortissoz explained, “By saying nothing about slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores.” Cortissoz’s interpretation of Abraham Lincoln is mirrored to this day in most high school textbooks in U. S. history, which emphasize Lincoln’s role in saving the Union and minimize his interest in ending slavery or granting rights to African Americans.

Nevertheless, Henry Bacon, its architect, had carved on its walls the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural in their entireties, thus giving voice to Abraham Lincoln himself. The sculpture by Daniel Chester French also offers more than the triumphalism of its hieratic scale. Huge it is, if erect, the President would stand 28 feet tall. Lincoln is not standing, however, nor astride a horse, nor is his pose or facial expression victorious. French has not forced viewers to see Lincoln in any one way. As historian Merrill Peterson puts it, “what some see as triumph, other observers see as resignation; what some see as toughness, others see as tenderness.”

The use Americans have made of the Lincoln Memorial has its own history, and this story too the memorial tells well. The National Park Service shows a video with overlapping layers of sound and montage that summarizes many of the portentous events that have occurred here, from Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to the arrest in 1971 of 87 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War for putting a coffin in front of Lincoln’s statue and trying to occupy the memorial. From fathers’ rights to gay rights, abortion rights to Right to Life, groups when they meet in Washington send delegations to the memorial to identify with Lincoln. And why not? The Lincoln Memorial teaches that monuments to the past can speak to our lives in the present.

James Loewen is author of Lies Across America: What our Historic Sites Get Wrong, recently published by the New Press. He is adjunct professor of sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.