Sunday, February 15, 2015

DC Memorials on the Tidal Basin

A memorial can often tell you more about the people who built it then it can
about the person it is dedicated to. The other day I ventured into Washington, D.C. to visit three memorials near each other on the Tidal Basin.

Construction of the Jefferson Memorial began in 1938. FDR laid the cornerstone. Well, not physically, but he is still given the credit. It may strike a reasonable person as odd that Roosevelt, a president who did more to undermine the Constitution and traditional American values than perhaps any other, would have even been associated with a memorial to a champion of individual freedom and limited government. But by linking Jefferson to himself, FDR could give legitimacy to his regime and ideas. Sure, he confiscated people's gold, threatened dramatic changes to the judicial branch when they refused to uphold his novel constitutional theories, and imprisoned citizens merely on account of their ethnic background, but hey, he was just a modern day Thomas Jefferson.

In fact, on the walls there are various quotes from Jefferson. One reads:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
In other words, what was appropriate for the people in Jefferson's time (limited government and individual rights) is not what we need in the modern world. We need this new socialist scheme called the New Deal and other restrictions on our freedom because the world is much more complex and dangerous. Jefferson was an intelligent man who knew what was best for his time and would understand what we are doing now is what is best today.

I had a feeling of disappointment and despair as I explored this memorial as it was painfully obvious what the intent of the designers was. A simple farmer who fought for human freedom had been deified and his words and image had been taken to support an ideology and a leader he would have been appalled with. I was happy to find later that I was not the only one who felt this way. For example, the now late Professor Ronald Hamowy wrote:
Perhaps the most egregious examples of invoking Jefferson for purely transient political purposes are the inscriptions on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Planned and built during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the walls of the memorial are adorned with quotations from Jefferson’s writings, many of which suggest that Jefferson advocated positions consistent with the aims of the New Deal—with which he would, in fact, have had little sympathy. Thus, Jefferson’s admonition that an educated electorate was essential if liberty were to be preserved is transmuted into a call for universal public education. And his caution that man, as he advances in his understanding of the world, must accompany his greater enlightenment with changes in his social institutions becomes a justification for a new theory of government in keeping with the social-democratic principles that animated the New Deal.
Of course, do not attempt to voice any objections in the memorial itself. Political discourse is forbidden. So is any artistic expression, no matter how quiet or undisturbing. Armed thugs who work for Federal government will assault and arrest you. It is impossible to imagine that Jefferson would have approved of anything about this memorial. I suppose it is worth a visit just to say that you have been there. Tears over the fate of the nation are the price of admission. It is otherwise free.

A short walk from the Jefferson Memorial is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. It is a sprawling, confusing, and ugly display fitting to the memory of the leader who brought so much confusion to our constitutional order. Various quotes from FDR are inscribed on the walls. One ironic one reads, "We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background." Japanese Americans might wonder about that one.

This memorial takes up way too much space. It is spread out over 7.5 acres. It is appropriate that it was constructed during the Bill Clinton regime as he was known for giving speeches that were way too long. Wasting people's time seems to have been part of the Zeitgeist.

The final memorial I visited was to George Mason, one of the founding fathers.
Mason was an anti-Federalist who never signed the Constitution because he feared that it did not provide enough protections against the Federal government. In retrospect, he had a point, but the fault may not be with the Constitution itself, but with those charged with upholding it. Paper constitutions are of limited value.

This memorial was completed in 2002. It is rather simple and small. The quotations on the walls have mostly faded, just as the memory of Mason and his ideas have all but faded from the consciousness of most Americans. Nevertheless, it stands as a tiny reminder of his life and work.

All of these memorials are free and are located in the West Potomac Park, which also has free parking. There were plenty of spots on the lot when I visited on a weekend. So even if you aren't excited to see these particular memorials, it is a good place to leave your car if you otherwise want to explore the city and don't mind a little bit of walking.

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