A History Of DC For The Unenlightened

I thought Washington DC was going to be a few ugly statues stuck around in Liberty/Neoclassical style, surrounded by a bunch of corporate-political types with big and expensive cars. I was so wrong it’s unbelievable. You cannot turn round in this city without landing upon something hugely important from the history of the country, and actually, the history of the USA which is found here in DC is of such a magnitude as to converge with nothing less than the history of the world. It is fantastic and I recommend it to everyone.
1) The Magna Carta (1215 AD)

If you are thinking, “what?! THE Magna Carta? Of Bad King John fame from 1215?”, you would be right. And you would probably be as surprised as I was.

In the US National Archives they keep a copy of the Magna Carta (Great Charter). It was famous as the first document forced upon a king by his subjects, intended to limit his licentious ways. Everybody who has seen one of the many Robin Hood films will immediately remember the figure of Bad King John, whose wanton pillaging, maltreatment and misuse of his subjects was legendary. In 1215, his barons (immediately below him in the English feudal system) forced him to sign the document limiting his powers. This was perhaps the single most important step in the creation of an English democracy — essentially it was a document intended to prevent a monarch becoming a dictator by establishing the validity of the will of the people.

So what is it doing in the USA? Well, in reality there are a few copies of the Magna Carta going around. This is because it was reissued several times by different kings who amended its contents. The one on display in the National Archives actually bears the seal of Edward the 1st, and dates from 1297. It has a special affinity for the Americans because of the precedent it set for their own Bill Of Rights:

The Magna Carta says: “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned,…or in any other way destroyed…except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice.”

The Bill Of Rights says: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law”.

And who can argue with that?

The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta


2) The Declaration Of Independence (1776)

In the same place as the above, the National Archives, this document was the cornerstone of the nascent US republic. What you might not know is that it was not signed on the 4th of July as is often supposed. The US Congress voted for independence on July 2nd 1776, after July 19th the document was drawn up, and it was only ratified by the states on August 2nd. The wording however was voted on by Congress on July 4th, and that is why Independence Day is celebrated then.

The US Declaration of Independence

The US Declaration of Independence

3) The Constitution Of The USA (1787)
In 1787, most of the 13 states agreed to ratify the Constitution. It is the foundation of US law and provides the structure of organization and power for all of the legislative committees. Still today this 209-year-old document is referred to and quoted with the highest respect and reverence. Unknown to me was that since its publication, over 10,000 amendments have been proposed for it by the Senate and the House of Representatives. Most of them never made it to the statute book (only 27 of them, in fact): two interesting ones are the 13th Amendment (1865) which abolished slavery, and the 22nd Amendment of 1951 which limited the President to only two terms in office. An adustment that some will appreciate more than others, depending on their point of view….
The Constitution

The Constitution

4) The Capitol (1793 – 1800, And Beyond)
Located just one and a half kilometers from the White House, the capitol stands high and is the 5th largest building in Washington DC. It is the “false center” of the city, because DC’s four quadrants of NE, NW, SE and SW meet here, but the real center is at the Washington Monument. It is the seat of the US Congress and its first stone was laid by Mr. George Washinton himself. Building started in 1793, and Congress moved in during 1800, even though the building wasn’t completed at that time. We wanted to have a look around it, but in order to do so you have to book an appointment through your senator at least 3-6 months in advance. As we don’t have a senator nor the capacity to plan that far ahead (we usually work day to day) we just got to see it from the outside. It is a fantastic building though, from a design selected from many after a contest held in 1792.
the Capitol

The Capitol

5) The White House (1800)
Everybody knows the White House, but what you don’t know is: you can’t get near it. You see people visiting it all the time on TV, and from the pictures it seems like you could just stroll out onto the ground in front of it. No way. It’s barred, protected and a hundred secret service vehicles sit around it all day waiting to take out the first person who even dreams of climbing over the fence to get a closer look. If you want to tour it, it’s another phone call to your senator, or if you’re a foreigner you have to call your embassy. Wait for six months and expect last-minute cancellations. With a lot of patience you might just make it.
The White House from the front

The White House from the front

The White House from the back

The White House from the back


6) The Lincoln Memorial (1922)

After his life was cut short; victim of the assassin John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s standing just grew, but it took a long while to set him up a memorial. This seems to be fair in retrospect, just because of the grandness and beauty of the work created by architect Henry Bacon.

In 1867, just two years after Lincoln’s death, a committee was set up to create a memorial for him. by 1901 they had selected the site for it, at the opposite end of the National Mall to the Washington Memorial. Now, everybody has seen this statue, but there are a couple of bits of trivia probably unknown to my European readers. First, if you look at the 5 cent coin, on its reverse it shows the edifice of this monument (based on a Greek Doric temple). If you look closer still, there, in the middle of the center pillars stands a little, tiny Abe Lincoln — walking and alive and ready to come out when his nation needs him. Just get some USA small change and take a look, it’s great. Secondly, the memorial is open until midnight each day. It sure looks pretty at lunchtime, but wait until the dark of the night falls down, hanging its pall shroud over the grassland on the edge of the Potomac river. It’s then that you walk up those steps and Lincoln’s magnificent, almost saintly, countenance strikes you the most. We went during the evening and it was an experience I shall never forget.

Inside the golden-clouded walls of the “temple” are the words to Lincoln’s most famous speeches, and I defy anyone to read those on a dark and moody night to not feel shivers down their spine… shivers that say “you’re messing with History kid — have some respect”. Further to this, it has been the site of various civil-rights movements’ greatest moments, particularly in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr made his “I have a dream” speech here. Sublime.

The Lincoln Memorial at night

The Lincoln Memorial at night


7) Lindbergh Flies The Atlantic (1927)

Now, I know from experience garnered here in the states that more than four or five hours driving is hardcore. I love the freedom involved in driving (even if I don’t like cars), but still. More than a few hours is hard work.

Imagine then, Mr. Charles Lindbergh, who in his single-seater Spirit Of Saint Louis monoplane, became the first man ever to do a non-stop trans-atlantic flight. It took him 33.5 hours to cross from New York to Paris: he went through freezing fog, from altitudes of 10,000 feet to just ten feet above the icy waves of the Atlantic. And, the very plane he used to complete his wondrous feat is now hung up in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. This is the most visited museum in the world, receiving over 9 million visitors each year, and so it should be. It is fantastic. Just a glance around the lobby reveals the history of man’s adventure in the skies, from Lindbergh’s plane to the most modern super jets and rockets. A fabulous day out.

The Spirit of St. Louis, in the Washington Mall's most visited building

The Spirit of St. Louis, in the Washington Mall's most visited building

The spirit of the taxman in the Washington Malls least visited building (haha!)

The spirit of the taxman in the Washington Mall's least visited building (haha!)


8) FDR (1882 – 1945)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The only President to have been elected more than twice (also owing to a change in the rules as mentioned above). By all accounts a good, honest, down to Earth guy who helped steer the nation — and indeed the world — through a period of great turmoil and upheaval. He helped those in the great depression in the 1930’s with a New Deal (helping to end the human tragedy depicted in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath), and he was President for the whole of WWII.

When I saw his memorial, just by chance, as we were outside the National Archives, I thought to myself “what!? Such a great man and they only give him this block as a tribute?!” Take a look:

The memorial to FDR in DC

The memorial to FDR in DC

But then I read the inscription underneath it. It quotes FDR saying: “If they are to put up any memorial to me, I should like it to be placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I should like it to consist of a block about the size [of this desk].” About 30 years later they stuck up another memorial to him, but seing as this one was what he wanted, and its pure simplicity and understatedness are so appealing, I’d definitely say that he gets my vote forever.

The memorial and inscription deedicated to FDR, next to the National Archives

The memorial and inscription dedicated to FDR, next to the National Archives

 9) The FBI Building (1967)
Ok. It’s not important for world history, but it makes you feel like you are in the middle of something important. The FBI building used to allow guided tours, but now that’s all stopped: another victim of 9-11. You can still see the signs up saying “tour ticket-holders queue here”, but the doorways are all blocked. Nick suggested several ways for us to be “invited” into the building, but I’d like to be able to return home sometime soon; not just when my parole officer says it’s ok.
The J. Edgar Hoover FBI building

The J. Edgar Hoover FBI building

FBI teams round the back of the J. Edgar Hoover building

FBI teams round the back of the J. Edgar Hoover building

10) Downtown, DC (Today)
Downtown Washington DC is rock. Surrounded by monuments and important places, this place is in lots of ways maybe the center of the whole world. But it’s not just for history enthusiasts: there are splendid bars and cafes, sports equipment open for all the public, couples walking hand-in-hand, kids skateboarding on its architectural peculiarities… the list goes on and we were only here two days. We’ve only really met people from outside of town so I can’t testify as to the locals’ character. I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe the East-coasters are a little snobbier than the people we met down south, but that’s only a hunch. We’ve had a fantastic time here and I think it would be difficult not to.

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Filed under Historical Connections, People, Places Visited, USA Trip

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