Fourth day, April 22nd
I wake up a little late, having not gotten much sleep the day before, and spend the morning going through countless photos I’ve snapped so far, jotting down notes, and writing up some of my reflections from the memorial tour on my first day visiting sites in Washington, D.C..
Then, I take the Metro to L’Enfant Plaza station, and walk south towards my first destination.
By the way, DC has a very good subway system: comprehensive, easy to use, clean, and safe. Driving in DC, by contrast, is kind of a drag: the streets and freeways form a big tangled spiderweb, so it’s easy to get lost. As a nearsighted person, I also find the street signs too small, nearly impossible to read when the only one there is located all the way on the opposite side of the intersection, especially when it’s dark or raining.
I’m heading to G Street between 9th and 10th, where a man named Notley Young owned a house that Thomas Jefferson visited in the fall of 1790. Young owned a large plantation which bordered on the Potomac and extended northeast from the river. His land, along with neighboring plantations, was obtained by an act of Congress to build the new capital city on. Jefferson, Secretary of State to President George Washington, was appointed to help with planning out the city, and the 1790 visit was part of the trip to visit landowners in the area in preparation. The first stone formally marking out one of the new capital’s boundary lines was laid the following April, 1791. There’s a promenade parallel to 10th St which, according to a sign I find here, covers the original site of the Young house.
The promenade ends at Benjamin Banneker Park, which overlooks the river and is named for another Jefferson connection.
You know, you could easily play a sort of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game around here, but for this trip, we could change it to, say, Three Degrees of Thomas Jefferson.
In case you hadn’t heard of it, the Kevin Bacon game challenges you to link him to any given movie in the smallest number of steps via the actors who co-starred in them. For example, challenged with the movie Excaliber, you might answer: ‘Gabriel Byrne played Uther Pendragon in Excaliber and he also appeared in The Usual Suspects with Benicio Del Toro; Benicio Del Toro appeared in Things We Lost in the Fire with Halle Berry; Halle Berry appeared in Cloud Atlas with Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks appeared in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon’. (Excalibur being a campy early 1980’s movie, I bet a real movie buff could make the connection much more quickly.)
Similarly, if you took any public landmark associated with any historical person from 1750’s – 1820’s America, you could make the connection with Jefferson using very few links every time, as he had an even longer, more prolific career in public life than Bacon has had as an actor. If I were to follow every Jefferson connection, my trip and my account of it would go on interminably, but since Banneker’s link to Jefferson is an especially interesting and illuminating one, it’s well worth exploring.
This park named for Banneker, by the way, is a rather un-parklike-park, all concrete, with a dry fountain and some sparse-looking trees. I can see there’s some construction work going on around it and it’s still spring; if the trees fill out, the work is done, and the fountain turned back on, it might be very nice. It used to have a good view, I’m sure, but now it’s marred by the freeway.
I had heard of the famous letter Benjamin Banneker once wrote to Thomas Jefferson challenging his views on race; back to that in a moment. What I learn doing further research is what prompted the letter in the first place.
Banneker, a largely self-educated man of impressive mathematical, scientific, mechanical, and other accomplishments, accompanied Major Andrew Ellicott in 1791 to help survey the land in preparation for building Washington DC. Ellicott was working on this project with Jefferson, who, as we discussed, was another of these city planners. Someone at the time noticed, and having read Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, editorialized the story, pointing out the discrepancy between Jefferson’s stated view that black people possessed inferior intelligence, and Banneker’s accomplishments in all manner of skilled and intellectual pursuits.
So Banneker took the opportunity to use this as a teaching moment, writing to Jefferson himself. In the letter, he points out the incongruity between Jefferson’s demanding that Britain give the American colonists their freedom while he’s denying this to his own slaves. While he compliments Jefferson on his past as a champion for the rights of black Americans, he shows the inconsistency between Jefferson’s recent stated views on the innate inferiority of intelligence of black people, and the evidence, that black people can achieve as much as any white person so long as their capacities are nurtured by education. Banneker even offers to send a manuscript of his work written out in his own handwriting, in case Jefferson is distrustful. As a fellow man of science in the age of Enlightenment, he knows that Jefferson can’t just ignore evidence that’s right in front of his eyes.
Jefferson writes a polite and rather evasive response, saying that he’s glad to see that Banneker presents a challenge to ideas of inferiority ‘which have been entertained of’ the intellectual capacities of black people. Notice how he uses the passive voice, as if he wasn’t among those not only ‘entertaining’, but very publicly voicing such ‘doubts’! I think Jefferson responds this way not only because he’s scrupulously polite in most circumstances, but because he knows he has no good response. Most of the arguments Banneker makes regarding the universal longing for freedom, the commonality of the cause between slaves and the colonists, and the evidence that slavery generally equates to enforced ignorance, are the same or similar to arguments Jefferson himself made as a young lawyer and politician, even as he wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Since Jefferson can’t defend himself in this case, he’s silent. (I’ll soon write a piece about Jefferson and slavery, stay tuned.)
I head back, via the promenade, towards the east end of the National Mall, and pass the Capitol Building through the park. The clouds are blowing in, and the predicted rain which leads me to select this day as perfect for my next destination, appears imminent.
As you can see, the Capitol dome is surrounded by scaffolding as it’s being restored. It’s made of cast iron, and in the mid-1800’s, replaced the original one, disproportionately small since the building’s many expansions. The first part of the Capitol Building was finished in 1800, the year the United States government moved to its official new home.
Jefferson and President George Washington held a contest for the design, but none of the original entries won. A later entry by a doctor was approved, and many of Jefferson’s classical design elements, especially those inspired by the Pantheon, were included.
I pass by the Capitol without going in. (Who wants to compete for space with several hundred schoolkids on field trips anyway?)
My main and final destination for the day is the Library of Congress. The LOC is founded on Jefferson’s original library of 6,487 books, purchased by Congress in 1815 from Jefferson at a discount, its original collection having been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Congress needed a new library, and the idealistic, projects-oriented, often impractical Jefferson needed some debt relief (he was always in debt, he loved to live large).
It’s fitting that the largest private book collection of Jefferson’s time would become the seed collection of what’s now the largest library in the world. As for me, the LOC is my go-to source for published images in the public domain with which to illustrate my essays, as well as material for research.
And oh my goodness: the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, the first and still main building, is one of the most beautiful works of architectural art I’ve ever been in in my life. I might place it next in line to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, in fact. There may very well be more beautiful buildings than these, and if so, I look forward to visiting them!
The floor and ceiling are covered with intricate mosaics, in lovely shades of rose, soft green, golden maize, gray, and white, of neoclassical decorative elements and the names of great authors and scientists, interspersed with gorgeous neoclassical and Art Nouveau paintings, allegorical and representative, representing moments in history and fields of inquiry.
After my first good, long gaze at the atrium and first floor hallway, a sign caches my eye, and I follow it to an exhibit which features the first published map of the United States.
It was drawn by Abel Buell, and published in 1784. As you can see, the western sides of the states follow lines of latitude past a certain point, and end at the Mississippi River. Much of the land was as yet unsettled by colonists, and not thoroughly explored by non-native people; lines of latitude, then, was a practical way of defining state borders beyond the areas originally colonized.
The gallery at the southwest corner of the second floor is really what I’m looking for, and I head upstairs.
I see a sign at the entrance of the Jefferson gallery announcing a special exhibit. It covers the history leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I’m particularly interested in the history of civil rights movements, so I’m excited to see it.
Among countless fascinating artifacts and the accompanying historical accounts, I’m struck by one which directly relates to the subject of my trip. It’s a contract between Jefferson and James Madison, drawing up the terms of a slave sale. There’s something extra disheartening about the fact that it was drawn up in 1809, after both men had served so many years in public office.
This is a fascinating exhibit with so many significant artifacts, including the anti-lynching flag that used to fly over New York City from the windows of the NAACP office in the 1930’s, each time a new one occurred. Reading simply, ‘A Man Was Lynched Yesterday’, they had to stop hanging it at a certain point or lose their lease. Isn’t that amazing? Make a simple statement of fact, and get kicked out. But then again, think of how Billie Holiday was hounded until she died, persecuted by government officials just for singing ‘Strange Fruit’.
The Jefferson Gallery holds what remains of the original Jefferson collection; about two-thirds of it was lost in a fire in 1851. The LOC is currently rebuilding the original collection, seeking out original copies, in sufficiently good condition, of the same books in the same edition that Jefferson originally collected, if they can be obtained.
The collection is beautifully arranged, in a wide open spiral of shelves walled by glass, in the same order that Jefferson arranged them on his own shelves. Instead of an alphabetical system, he used a system modeled after that of Francis Bacon, organizing them by three broadly defined subject categories. For Bacon, it was ‘Memory’, ‘Reason’, and ‘Imagination’; Jefferson personalized it as ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, and ‘Fine Arts’. The books are marked with little colored ribbons tucked into them like bookmarks: green means it’s from the original Jefferson collection, gold means it’s recently been purchased to replace the original, and no ribbon means it’s been replaced by a more or less identical book Congress already owned in another collection. There are little book-size boxes too, with the names and descriptions printed on their ‘spines’, of books that have not been located to replace the originals yet. Jefferson was a meticulous, some might say obsessive, record-keeper, so knowing exactly what needs to be replaced is pretty straightforward. Not only did he write down which books he owned, he described them in detail, with notes about their contents, even their measurements!
I love to find connections between the ideas of thinkers I admire, as well as between various theories and historical people and places. So, I search the shelves for books that he would have read, especially by people who have been featured in one of my traveling philosophy series, or will be. I know that Jefferson was very critical of David Hume’s history of England, describing it as too ‘Tory’, but I wonder if he ever read any of Hume’s philosophy, and if so, what he thought of it. (More on this shortly.) I find he owns work by Baruch Spinoza, Condorcet, and Voltaire, along with books on women’s rights, anti-slavery books, and of course, much, much more: the classics, science, philosophy, government, art, you name it. The man, as we’ve discussed before, was well-read.
I pore over the shelves for a good long while, then decide I needed to take a break and look at something purely decorative for a moment again while I walk around. I see a little crowd gathering and think, oh, yes, whatever it is, I’ll look at it too. It turns out it’s the line to get to the balcony that overlooks the Main Reading Room. Great. It was my plan all along to find out more about how I could access the collection and do some research. So I stand in line, get onto the balcony, and see a vaulted, domed library room, the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. Through thick protective plexiglass.
So I think, well, that’s where I’m going next. I’m here to do research, so research is what I’ll do, and it will be in that beautiful room.
I go back down and ask the lady at the front service desk how I go about this. She looks at me doubtfully, repeats several times that the room is just for doing research, and finally directs me to the Madison Building across the street to sign up. So that’s where I go, and find, as I expected, it’s very like the process of signing up to do research in the National Library of Scotland’s rare books room, takes some time, must have the proper ID, and so on. I go through the process, grab a cub of coffee, and prepare for a lovely and informative evening.
I return to Jefferson Building through the tunnel which shortcuts under the street (there was a little rain falling when I had left it earlier) and turn in all my things, except writing materials, to the coat check.
Guided by what I had discovered in the searchable guide accompanying Jefferson’s collection, I gather up a volume of the annotated complete catalog of the Jefferson collection, a collection of his papers, and his correspondence with Abigail and John Adams. In the catalog, I find more evidence that he had, in fact, owned some of Hume’s essays, but the notation, unusually, is incomplete, so there doesn’t seem to be evidence of which exact essays he read. Then I turn to his letters and find that he wrote to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, in May of 1790: ‘In political oeconomy (sic) I think Smith’s wealth of nations the best book extant. In the science of government Montesquieu’s spirit of laws is generally recommended. It contains indeed a great number of political truths; but also an equal number of political heresies: so the reader must be constantly on his guard. … Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes. Descending from theory to practice there is no better book than the Federalist. … Several of Hume’s political essays are good also…’ (p. 449) While this isn’t a ringing endorsement, compared with his often harsh criticism of Hume’s History, it’s almost fulsome praise. But however I search in the time I have, I can’t find any mention of whether he read Hume’s philosophical work, or what he thought of it.
So this might, now, be the second most beautiful room I’ve ever been in in my life. (Still doesn’t top Sainte-Chapelle.) I do get some research done, but not as nearly as much as I might considering the amount of time I spend here; I happen to be there on a day the Reading Room is open late, and I stay for a few hours all told. Between my reading, I gaze, marveling and a little drop-jawed, at the loveliness around me, made more intense by my awareness of how vast the records of human inquiry and inventiveness are contained within its walls.
Sources and Inspiration:
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. Compiled by The Library of America, New York: Penguin Books.
Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.
Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Volume 16, 30 November 1789 to 4 July 1790. Ed Julian P. Boyd. 1961 Princeton, New Jersey
Moore, Joseph West. Picturesque Washington: Pen and Pencil Sketches of Its Scenery, History…, 1884.
‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life‘. Monticello.org. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
‘U.S. Capitol‘, Washington D.C., National Park Service website.
‘Washington, D.C.: Sites Associated with Thomas Jefferson’. Monticello.org. Wiki, Thomas Jefferson Foundation. http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/Washington,_D.C.