Last week we had another marvelous experience on the east coast, this time visiting again the Washington D.C. and Philadelphia area. We make this trip each year with some top eleventh and twelfth grade high school students. These are young people who have studied world and American history from the Founders' perspective for several years. They are really ready to see where it all happened.
Because a number or requests have come from families who are planning such similar excursions, I thought I would share some of the special moments and places we love to visit in the cradle of our country's liberty.
Art In the U.S. Capitol
Most Americans have no idea of the amazing spirit of liberty captured in the very art work of the U.S. capitol building. Most of the work in the capitol was done by Constantino Brumidi, an Italian immigrant who had painted in Rome and the Vatican. He came to America in 1852 and eventually portrayed his feelings about the great things God has done for America through beautiful art work in the capitol building with his Roman and Greek flavor. The most majestic of them all is the Apotheosis of George Washington . As one looks up to the canopy 180 feet from the floor of the rotunda of the capitol, there is George Washington rising to the heavens in glory flanked by female figures representing Liberty and Victory/Fame. "Apotheosis" literally means the raising of a person to the rank of a god, or the glorification of a person as an ideal. Brumidi captured the feeling of the country which honored Washington as a national icon in the nineteenth century.
The Gods Helped America Succeed
Surrounding Washington’s apotheosis are six groups of figures each representing an aspect of American history wherein the gods have smiled on and blessed America:
- War –Freedom and the eagle with sword in hand defeating Tyranny and Kingly power.
- Science – with Minerva teaching Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, and Samuel F.B. Morse
- Marine – with Neptune and Venus holding the transatlantic cable which was being completed the time the fresco was painted.
- Commerce – with Mercury handing a bag of money to Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution.
- Mechanics – with Vulcan at the anvil and forge, producing a cannon and a steam engine.
- Agriculture – with Ceres seated on the McCormick Reaper
The Rotunda of the capitol also contains numerous scenes depicting Revolutionary War scenes as well as Congress declaring Independence from Britain, many activities of Columbus, the Pilgrims, and Pocahontas. One definitely gets the strong feeling that Americans once honored and revered the days of the founding of America and the great personalities who played a part in it.
Great Lawgivers of History
In the House chamber are the marble relief portraits of 23 lawgivers whose work was thought to have influence on American law. These include such names as Hammurabi of Babylon, Justinian of the Byzantium empire, Lycurgus of Greece, Blackstone of England, Napoleon of France, and Jefferson of the United States. It is interesting to note that eleven of these are facing one direction and eleven are facing the other direction, leaving one - Moses - as the only one with a full-face relief in the center facing directly toward the center rostrum. The placement of these during remodeling in 1949-50 assuredly seems to give great emphasis to God’s law as revealed to Moses as a very central foundation of not only our law today but of good law all throughout history.
Imagery In The Supreme Court Chamber
The inner sanctum of the Supreme Court is indeed filled with rich symbolism. Those who argue that courtrooms cannot contain great legal symbols such as the Ten Commandments do not know what is in the courtroom of the highest court in the land.
All four walls contain friezes depicting various aspects of American law. The great lawgiver frieze is on the south wall once again showing several prominent men of history among them Moses holding two tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed. On the west wall, the Powers of Good (virtue, charity, harmony, security, wisdom, and truth) are portrayed against the Powers of Evil (slander, corruption, despotic power, and deception. In the middle of the frieze is the depiction of the two methods which judges must use to come to a decision. First is justice, in which a judge receives training from his many years of schooling and preparation and mostly through the reading of the law. The other method depicted is that which a judge must employ of pulling down from heaven divine inspiration in order to make a final decision between good and evil.
Once again in the judicial branch of government we see a very heavy emphasis on the very thing being rejected today – our dependence upon a Supreme Being in order for true justice to be meted out. It is all depicted on the walls of the Supreme Court chamber built in 1935.
"You Can’t Do That Here"
Among all the monuments and memorials visited, the most memorable this trip was a stop at the Jefferson Memorial. An incredible event happened to our group which the students will not soon forget. Among the students on the tour were a number of our school’s choir members. These are talented students who love to sing and they do not shrink from the suggestion when one of them feels the need for such expression. The statue of Jefferson at the memorial is imposing. With his most powerful sayings engraved on the marble walls, Jefferson seems to come alive—wanting to speak to those who seriously have come to pay respect. Many of our group felt that and after I had presented to them a brief dialogue of what Jefferson might say if he were to step down and speak to us, the students broke into singing the National Anthem. With perfect harmony it reverberated between the stone walls and captured the attention of other visitors who reverently listened. When they ended a couple of national park rangers came running up the stairs. While one stayed back the other came up to the group and said, "You can’t do that here. You don’t have a permit." We were shocked. He went on and on saying how that this was a public demonstration and no one can have a public demonstration without a permit. We could hardly believe what we were hearing—no singing of the National Anthem at the Jefferson Memorial? The ranger went on saying that if they allowed that then they would have to allow the Ku Klux Klan to sing their songs. Needless to say, as a teacher I could not have given my students in the classroom any more graphic lesson on the bureaucratic mentality than what they experienced that day at the Jefferson Memorial. When the ranger left, we spoke briefly among ourselves about what had just happened and then proceeded to descend the steps and go to our waiting bus. Just then the other ranger came up to us and rather apologetically told us how much he loved to hear that song ringing from the memorial. He s aid that while they have to enforce the rules, he had not heard such a beautiful rendition for a long time and thanked us for the memory.
A Test of Faith in Freedom at Valley Forge
No study tour to the Philadelphia area would be complete without a visit to the area of great suffering – Valley Forge. While the rest of the nation was wintering in relative luxury with warm homes and plenty of food, Washington moved his troops 18 miles north of Philadelphia to keep an eye on the British. He also wanted to let it be known to both British and Americans that the Continental Army was still in tact even after some major defeats and that the cause of freedom was not lost. As it turned out, Valley Forge seemed to be that crucible to try the determination and faith of those who love freedom to see if they really wanted it badly enough. Washington was the key player in showing such determination.
Many have seen paintings of Washington praying at Valley Forge. While we do not have primary sources for such an incident (sources written at the time of the event) still it was in the nature of Washington to have done what several people later said he did. One of those was the owner of the home Washington used as his headquarters for six months while at Valley Forge, a Mr. Isaac Potts. The following account has been part of the Potts’ recorded family history for generations. It says:
In 1777 he (Isaac Potts) was only twenty-six years of age, and, like most of the Quakers was decidedly opposed to the war; but he remained at Valley Forge during its occupation by the American forces, and no doubt superintended the grinding of the grain which Washington ordered the neighboring farmers to bring in to his suffering army. These mills were large, and in good repute for the quality as well as the quantity of flour manufacturing there; and it was not in human nature or Quaker nature either, for Isaac to be very much pleased to use his mills according to military requisitions, to see his peaceful valley invaded by men at arms, or to give up his own quiet home to the commander-in-chief of a defeated army, who, in his opinion was waging a wicked and hopeless war. (Potts had rented his home to a woman who in turn rented it to Washington for six months for use as his headquarters) That he changed his mind when he overheard Washington’s devotions is evident. The following account [is] copied from a paper in the possession of one of his grand-daughters. It is in the handwriting of and signed by his daughter Ruth Anna, who died in 1811.
"In 1777, while the American army lay at Valley Forge, a good old Quaker by the name of Potts had occasion to pass through a thick wood near head-quarters. As he traversed the dark brown forest, he heard, at a distance before him, a voice which as he advanced became more fervid and interested. Approaching with slowness and circumspection, whom should he behold in a dark bower apparently formed for that purpose, but the Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the United colonies on his knees in the act of devotion to the Ruler of the Universe! At the moment when Friend Potts concealed by the trees, came up, Washington was interceding for his beloved country. With tones of gratitude that labored for adequate expression, he adored that exuberant goodness which, from the depth of obscurity, had exalted him to the head of a great nation, and that nation fighting at fearful odds for all the world holds dear.
"He utterly disclaimed all ability of his own for this arduous conflict; he wept at the thought of that irretrievable ruin which his mistakes might bring on his country, and with the patriot’s pathos spreading the interests of unborn millions before the eye of Eternal Mercy, he implored the aid of that arm which guides the starry host. Soon as the General had finished his devotions and had retired, Friend Potts returned to his house and threw himself into a chair by the side of his wife.
" ‘Hegh! Isaac,’ said she with tenderness, ‘thee seems agitated; what’s the matter?’ ‘Indeed, my dear,’ quoth he, ‘if I appear agitated it is no more than what I am. I have seen this day what I shall never forget. Till now I have thought that a Christian and a soldier were characters incompatible; but if George Washington be not a man of God, I am mistaken, and still more shall I be disappointed if God do not through him perform some great thing for this country.’" (Memorial of Thomas Potts, Junior, printed in 1874)
A Special Visit with a Special Congressman
Among all the other monuments, museums, and other buildings we visit, none was more memorable to the students than a visit with our own Congressman Matt Salmon of Arizona. Congressman Salmon has been a friend for many years and spent over 45 minutes with our students in his office. The expressions about freedom, America, the Constitution, and the country's serious moral decline were topics of discussion. He shared some of his inner-most thoughts with the students and they shared theirs with him. He also invited them to sing for him. The experience led several afterwards to remark that there really are still a few in Washington who have the same values the Founders did. We lamented that there aren't many more however.
Congressman Salmon will not be running for re-election next year, but committed to host an NCCS Making of America seminar for his Capitol Hill colleagues before he leaves office.
Thank you for remembering NCCS and our great need to have your financial help in all we do.
Earl Taylor, Jr.