- Historic Sites
I Love Washington
A noted historian’s very personal tour of the city where so much of the American past took shape—with excursions into institutions famous and obscure, the archives that are the nation’s memory, and the haunts of some noble ghosts
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
Then there is Ford’s Theater with its flag-draped Lincoln box and, downstairs in the basement, a Lincoln museum, containing, among other things, the clothes and large black boots he was wearing the night of the assassination. Across the street, in the Petersen House, is the room where he died the following morning. But maybe his presence is felt most of all in the rise and dominance of the Capitol dome, which he insisted be completed during the Civil War to show that the Union continued.
The second observation is really a question: I wonder why so many of our politicians feel obliged to get away from the city at every chance? They claim a pressing need to get back to the real America. To get votes, a lot of them like also to deride the city and mock its institutions. They run against Washington, in the shabby spirit made fashionable by our recent presidential campaigns. It is as if they find the city alien or feel that too close an association with it might be somehow dishonorable. It is as if they want to get away from history when clearly history is what they need, they most of all, and now more than ever.
Let us imagine that instead of rushing off to wherever it is they come from, some of them were to spend a morning at the Wilson House or on the Mall with their fellow citizens touring the National Museum of American History. Or what if they took time, say fifteen minutes, at the National Gallery to enjoy and think about George Caleb Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen—just that one painting? Might not that too be a way of reaching the real America?
I have no sense that the people they represent fail to appreciate the city or to feel its spell. They come in ever increasing numbers, by the tens of millions every year. They climb the sweep of marble steps at the Supreme Court, pose for a picture by the Grant statue. They move slowly, quietly past the fifty-seven thousand names in the black stone wall of the Vietnam Memorial. They pour through the Air and Space Museum, the most popular museum in the world now, craning their necks at the technical marvels of our rocket century. We all do. We all should. This is our capital. It speaks of who we are and what we have accomplished, what we stand for.
For myself, I know I have a lot more to see. It does me good also to remember how much creative work has gone on here down the years in so many fields. This was the home of Alexander Graham Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the historian Frederic Bancroft, who also developed the American Beauty Rose. Bruce Catton wrote A Stillness at Appomattox here. Rachel Carson, The Sea around Us and Silent Spring. This is a good place.