Mount Vernon

By the 1850s, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River downstream from the District of Columbia, had fallen into disrepair. At the time, the federal government did not consider the maintenance of such historical sites to be within its proper purview, so a group calling itself Mount Vernon Ladies Association got together, purchased the property, and saved it from ruin. This self-perpetuating organization still exists and still runs Mount Vernon as an attraction; I can attest that they do a mighty fine job of it. The Palladian mansion, which Washington kept adding to, is what everyone has come to see, but of course a plantation was its own self-contained economy, with outbuildings devoted to all sorts of functions, including blacksmithing, butchery, food storage, distilling, tool storage, clothmaking, defecation (“the necessary”), and housing workers, including enslaved ones. These are staffed by interpreters in period costume, and you could easily spend an entire day here wandering around.

Photo: Susanna Good

The recently-built Museum and Education Center outlines Washington’s career, and has an interesting array of objects on display, including the sole surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures (none of which, by the way, was made of wood).

Photo: Susanna Good

The Museum also features an exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon,” a necessary exposure of this most unsavory fact of American history. Yes, Mount Vernon was largely powered by slaves, who were about three hundred in number by the time of Washington’s death. It’s true that Washington ordered his own slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow Martha Custis Washington, and she herself freed them earlier than that, but the forty or so rented slaves had to be returned to their owner, and upon Martha’s death the slaves belonging to the Custis estate descended to her children by her first marriage – she could not have freed them even if she had wanted to. The museum notes that by the end of his life Washington disliked slavery, and hoped that it would die out eventually, but it also notes that he was rather parsimonious in providing for them, and had no problem chasing down those who ran away. Perhaps it is no surprise that John Augustine Washington III, the President’s great grand nephew and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

But despite all this, one cannot help but admire Washington’s career. He was born to modest privilege but still had to make something of himself, which he did by virtue of hard work, self-cultivation, a prudent marriage alliance, calculated risk-taking, and a little luck. That he resigned his command of the Continental Army, rather than seize power, is remarkable; that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, served two terms as president, and then gracefully retired again, is almost miraculous. The American Cincinnatus really did establish a powerful precedent, to the admiration all who value the republican nature of the United States.

But on the whole I was curious to note how un-American Washington was – or rather, how America has evolved beyond Washington’s own way of life. When we think of America, we think of the log cabin on the frontier, not the manor house. Running a plantation, in any case, seems like constant work – it’s not something you own, but something that owns you (even though, I suppose, it’s a big reason why Washington retired twice – he wanted to get back to his “real” job).

Clinton Presidential Library

In observance of the Fall of the House of Clinton, a reprint of a blog post from ten years ago, recording my visit to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Looks like there will never be a complementary museum for Hillary.

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The building is neat, and occupies rehabilitated industrial space on the banks of the Arkansas River. It sticks out over the river, supposedly representing Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the twenty-first century,” although of course it doesn’t get to the other side and as a friend said it looks like a trailer, a fitting monument to Arkansas and Clinton himself.

Heavens, what am I saying? Why am I indulging in such cheap partisanship now that the man is out of office?

Because I’m afraid that the Clinton Presidential Library put me into the spirit.

It’s not because the thing takes a positive view of Clinton’s presidency – of course it’s going to do that. Carter’s did that, and I’m sure that every other NARA-sponsored presidential library and museum does the same thing (a colleague of mine has visited Gerald Ford’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan and says that it can’t shut up about the Mayagüez Incident).

No, it’s because it’s either too soon for the Clinton Library to have anything on display, or the man is really trying too hard. The main hall is designed after the Long Room of the library of Trinity College, Dublin:

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Each of the columns in the Clinton library contains boxes full of actual documents relating to the presidency that you can look at if you need to – although they represent less than one percent of the holdings and contain, as a staff member told me, trivial stuff like domestic staff schedules and restaurant checks. Down the middle of the room, a series of panels with a time line of national, international, and presidential events from 1993 to 2000. In between the columns on either side of the room, a number of alcoves each dealing with an aspect of Clinton’s presidency, like “Putting People First,” “Learning Across a Lifetime,”* or “Protecting the Earth.” As those titles may suggest many of the alcoves are saturated with the oleaginous feel-your-painism that Clinton was so famous for:

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Fine, Bill’s gotta be Bill, although the museum’s practice of highlighting key phrases in each caption made the whole thing feel like some manic fundraising letter. (The constantly running Times-Square style news ticker of “presidential achievements” that greets you as you walk in also seems a little too striving.)

The alcove “The Fight for Power,” however, left a particularly bad taste. I had heard, at the time of the Library’s opening, that it was not going to “shy away” from some of the more “controversial” aspects of the presidency. But this alcove might better be called “Bill Clinton’s Self-Pity Corner.” It started with the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republicans under Newt Gingrich took control of the House for the first time in forty years, then dealt with their incessant opposition to Clinton, their use of the special prosecutor to investigate his Whitewater dealings, and their drive to remove him from office for perjury and obstruction of justice over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The whole theme was “I didn’t do nuthin’, and the Republicans were out to get me because I cared and they didn’t” – in other words, he is still fighting a partisan battle! On the glass in front of the alcove:

A NEW CULTURE OF CONFRONTATION

“I think one of the great problems in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” Newt Gingrich, 10/95

New culture? As though Washington was some sort of a gentleman’s club prior to 1994? And what’s with the cherry-picked quotation from Gingrich, hoping to make him and his party look bad? Classless! Some other choice captions from the exhibit. The highlighting has been rendered by italics.

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In the 1970s, Bill and Hilary Clinton invested in a failed Arkansas real estate venture. That investment, in which the Clintons lost money, was used by President Clinton’s political opponents to launch an eight-year investigation costing the American public over $70 million. No evidence of wrongdoing was ever found.

Well, if they didn’t find anything, then I guess the Clintons did nothing wrong. QED! As for the “cost” – let us remember that the White House absolutely refused to cooperate with Starr, ignoring all requests for documents, and causing the investigation to drag on far longer than it needed to. I remember a political cartoon with Ken Starr knocking on a door. Behind the door Clinton has piled up all the furniture so that it can’t open, while he tells the reader, in reference to Starr, “I wish he’d hurry up!” This sort of behavior may account for at least some of the $70 million, but to insinuate that it was all Starr’s doing is self-righteousness at its most revolting.

Maybe there was a “new” culture of confrontation, but it took two to tango.

In 1978, Congress passed the Independent Counsel Statute in response to the investigation of the Watergate break-in during the Nixon administration. The new law created a mechanism for investigations of the executive branch by an outside, or independent, prosecutor. Over the next 20 years, however, even many advocates of the law came to see it as deeply flawed. Prosecutors had virtually unlimited discretion to investigate whatever they wanted. Inquiries stretched on for years – costing millions, destroying reputations, and achieving little good. The law became a potent political tool.

In other words, it was great when the Democrats could use it. But when the Republicans could use it, it was a Bad Thing.

Expanding Investigations

The shift in control of Congress gave the President’s opponents power to step up their investigations. Numerous committees and subcommittees, now chaired by Republicans, convened hearings to investigate the executive branch. Countless subpoenas were issued to individuals whose only transgression was working for the administration. Many were forced to run up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves in fruitless hearing and depositions.

Oh the pain! You sure their only transgression was working for the administration? Any chance then that the administration could cover their fees? Methinks this unintentionally reveals something about the Clinton White House.

Impeachment.

In November 1998, midterm voters sent Republicans a message to stop their impeachment drive by increasing the number of Democrats in the House, the first time the President’s party had gained House seats in the sixth year of a presidency since 1822. When Speaker Gingrich was asked why Republicans were proceeding anyway instead of finding another remedy such as censure or reprimand, the Speaker replied, “Because we can.” Despite the fact that hundreds of historians and legal scholars publicly stated there was no constitutional or legal basis for impeachment, the house Judiciary Committee voted along strict party lines on December 12 and 13, 1998, to approve four articles of impeachment. On December 19, the House passed two of the four articles. One article charging the President with perjury passed 228 to 206, while an obstruction of justice charge passed more narrowly, 232 to 212. The remaining two articles failed to pass.

Funny – they didn’t bill the 1994 midterm elections as a “message” to the Clinton administration (it was all a result of misunderstanding about the provisions of the Brady Bill and concerted lobbying by the AMA, apparently). And I’m sure that Speaker Gingrich said a lot more about the reasons for impeachment than this flippancy, but you won’t find out about them at the Clinton Library.

As I said, it’s not bad that the library should trumpet Clinton’s achievements. But for it to accuse other people of what Clinton himself was guilty of, and to quote political opponents only in order to make them look bad… this is lowdown, shitty behavior, and even less defensible now that the guy is no longer in office. As if all that weren’t enough, the next alcove was entitled “Preparing for New Threats,” and talked about the Clinton administration’s fight against foreign terrorism! Such an exhibit is so obviously a response to current events that its value as a testament to what his administration was actually doing approaches nil.

To top it all off, you can purchase this bumper sticker at the store:

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There was even a T-shirt on the wall bearing the same message and signed by Al Franken. Now, it’s conceivable that people really do miss Bill in the abstract, as they might miss Reagan, Kennedy, or Eisenhower. But in this context it comes across clearly as a pointed jab at the current administration, something rather unseemly.

I hereby propose a ten-year waiting period between a president’s leaving of office and the opening of his presidential library, in order to ensure a proper critical distance.

I will grant that the man was a political genius. He seemed to have the ability to make you feel as though you were the only person in the room. (He also managed to insinuate himself into or merely associate himself with positive things he really had nothing to do with. One photo showed him marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with Jesse Jackson, et al., in a recreation of the Civil Rights march of 1965. There was no indication that he was there at the time, however, when he was 18 and would actually have been risking something. I think he would like you to believe that he was personally responsible for the fall of Apartheid as well.) One of the alcoves dealt with his “personal relationships” with other heads of state, and had fawning tributes from Nelson Mandela, et al., about how good a man he was. Now you could say that in politics, style is substance, but it seems that he was much more style than substance – what did he do with his “I care” image, with all the foreign good will that he generated? It seemed he just loved to talk and talk… and bask in the warm glow of adulation (including the imagined adulation of any women who caught his fancy), and get really petulant and self-righteous when he encountered any opposition. Contrast this with GWB, who has no time for such antics and wants to get down to brass tacks right away, thereby pissing off everyone and actually making it difficult for him to accomplish anything.**

If only we could have a president who could generate good will and then put it to genuinely constructive use…

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* This one dealt with increased funding for education, and even had a small sample of Clinton’s personal book collection. On the acoustiguide he talked about some of his favorites. To my great chagrin Leaves of Grass was not on display… whoops, I’m being partisan again.

** I seem to remember a quote from Bono about how Clinton said all the right things about alleviating poverty in Africa, but that Bush has actually committed more resources to it.

Jimmy Carter

I do enjoy some local tourism from time to time. Yesterday we had a fun day in Atlanta, where we saw the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum (logo from Wikipedia).

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I had last visited the Museum in 2004 in my first semester at Reinhardt. Since then it has been renovated and looks nice, although I’m afraid it didn’t really compare to the ones we saw this summer. The biggest difference? The lack of friendly volunteers who could answer questions about Jimmy and his legacy. This made the whole place seem like it was suffering from a certain… malaise. You did, however, get to understand why he was elected in the first place: after Viet Nam and Watergate, such an earnest, honest outsider had a great deal of appeal to your average voter. The big room dealing with his achievements (like SALT II, the Panama Canal, the Camp David Accords, etc.) was interesting, especially as also contained references to contemporary events that form some of my earliest memories (e.g. the original Star Wars, the explosion of Mount St. Helens, “Who Shot J.R.?”, and the Miracle on Ice.)

Presidents get a lot of gifts in the course of doing their jobs. Here’s one from Mexico, a portrait of Carter in a “metaphoric style” by artist Octavio Ocampo.

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The pamphlet below was on display in the museum, but I actually took this picture last year at the Lake Acworth Antique and Flea Market. I thought that material from the 1976 election and a 8-track tape (featuring Bob Seger, natch) formed a nice combination.

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This photo, featuring Amy Carter and a ’76 election exercise, brought a smile to my face.

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Unfortunately, there wasn’t much on Billy and his beer.

The post-presidency section (including the Carter Center, numerous books, and the Nobel Prize) was nicely done.

Presidential Museums

An aspect of America’s imperial presidency is the custom of the Presidential Library and Museum – that is, after a president is no longer in office, all of the documents relating to his term get transported to an elaborate, specially-built building somewhere, which also features a museum devoted to his life and times. (I’m debating whether it is a good thing that these are built, not with tax money, but with private “donations.”) Three such institutions are in Texas, and we visited all of them. They are:

1. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

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2. The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station.

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3. The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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I think that Johnson had the most interesting building. The largest and most elaborate was George W. Bush’s – this was also the most venal, charging $17 to get in, $25 to get your picture taken at his desk, and $2 for postcards in the gift shop. But all of them are staffed by friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable volunteers. Of course, the main problem with the museums is that they are pretty one-sided. For instance, you won’t see LBJ lifting his beagle up by the ears, or learn about his habit of addressing subordinates while sitting on the toilet. You won’t read about George Bush saying “Read my lips: no new taxes” or “Message: I care,” or learn anything about Willie Horton or the time when he vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. And you definitely won’t read that George W. Bush said “Heckuva job, Brownie!” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina or asked “Is our children learning?” on the campaign trail, or that he nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court or that his war provoked the largest political protests in history. I suppose this gap, between what’s presented and what you remember, is the widest in the case of George W. Bush, although I assume this is at least partly because I remember his presidency the most clearly. However, I do remember the George Bush as he appears in this museum – how he was such an optimistic person. The Iraq War was not about oil, nor about Israel, nor about vindicating his dad, although I’m sure all of those played a part. Fundamentally, Bush really believed that inside every Iraqi was an American waiting to get out – or rather, that everyone in the world yearns for “freedom,” as an American might understand it, and that we protect our own security when we try to spread the benefits of our way of life. He really believed that every child has the capacity to learn, if only we enforced high standards and held schools accountable for them.

The unintended consequences of both of these projects will be with us for some time to come…

New Orleans

Happy to have experienced New Orleans for the first time this summer. The French Quarter is not exactly “family friendly,” of course, but there’s plenty of history to gratify people like me!

The heart of it all is Jackson Square, named after the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. It features an equestrian statue of the man who would later become the seventh U.S. president:

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I had to wonder: given that Jackson has been removed from the $20 bill, will we see the square revert to its original name?

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At the top of the square, the famous Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France:

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I quite liked the historic flags, and the stained glass illustrating scenes from the life of St. Louis, including planning the Sainte-Chapelle and receiving the keys to Tunis while on crusade.

I was pleased to see that the arms of the Archdiocese of New Orleans (left) make an obvious reference to the arms of the French city of Orléans (right, via Wikipedia). The colors are reversed, and the pelican refers to Louisiana.

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Flag of Louisiana, via Wikipedia.

Speaking of the connection between Old Orleans and New Orleans, down the street we find an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc. The original, by Emmanuel Frémiet, can be seen in Paris.

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Joan, of course, raised the siege of Orléans in 1429 during the Hundred Years War. I was pleased to see the coat of arms of Orléans near the plinth, along with those of Lorraine (Joan’s birthplace), Reims (where she presided over the coronation of Charles VII), and Rouen (where the English burned her at the stake for witchcraft).

Dorothy Rogers Tilly

A preview for readers of First Floor Tarpley: a short but significant article by Reinhardt history professor Ken Wheeler from the Fall, 2015 edition of Reinhardt Magazine, about Reinhardt alumna Dorothy Rogers Tilly. 

One joy of historical research is encountering the fascinating lives of people in other times. While researching a different topic, I serendipitously discovered Dorothy Rogers Tilly, a Reinhardt graduate who became Georgia’s most notable white woman working for racial equality during the 20th century.

Decades before the modern civil rights movement, Dorothy Rogers Tilly, class of 1899, was an anti-lynching activist, leading boycotts and mobilizing churchwomen in campaigns for racial equality and social reform. As a member of President Harry Truman’s civil rights commission, she did important work.

Tilly was one of several Rogers family members at Reinhardt. Her father, Richard, led Reinhardt as president from 1896 to 1901. A Methodist minister, he and his wife, Fannie, moved to Waleska with their many children in tow. One elder daughter, Lois, joined the faculty to teach English language, literature and history. Other Rogers children enrolled as students.

President Rogers also pastored the local Methodist church. In the 1900 census, he indicated his occupation as “preacher.” It tells us something about him that being a college president was subsumed under his ministerial calling.

The Rogers family certainly brought a pastoral outlook with them. Tilly remembered that while growing up, “I saw and heard the troubles of the community, both Negro and white, pour over the doorstep of the parsonage.”

In 1899, Dorothy graduated from Reinhardt with honors at age 16 and went to Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Ga., to complete her baccalaureate degree. Soon she married Milton Tilly, and a year later they had a son, Eben. A difficult pregnancy led doctors to recommend that she bear no more children. As a result, once Eben was beyond his early years, she was a well-educated woman with energy and time on her hands.

She worked for the Women’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Church and in 1918 began running its Children’s Work for North Georgia program. This position carried her into contact with the poor, both black and white, and during the 1930s she expanded her engagement with social causes, joining first the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and later the Association of Souther Women for the Prevention of Lynching – she served as secretary, field reporter, and representative. Still, highly involved with Methodism, Tilly had also moved into civil rights. In the 1940s, she organized Georgia churchwomen in boycotts of businesses owned by Ku Klux Klan members and fought against poll taxes across the South.

Because of work Tilly did in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, she became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrote in her memoirs that she admired Tilly’s courage because “I was told that whenever a lynching occurred, she went alone or with a friend, as soon as she heard of it, to investigate the circumstances.” Perhaps a recommendation from Mrs. Roosevelt led to the invitation in 1946 for Tilly to join President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. The committee produced a famous and influential report, “To Secure These Rights,” which called for an immediate end to segregation.

Tilly and her work aroused opposition. The Klan threatened to bomb her home, and she received many harassing calls. Undaunted, she talked back to her callers, repeatedly asking them to identify themselves, but eventually she placed a record player by her telephone stand. When a caller coul dnot be engaged in reasonable conversation she dropped the  needle on a recording of the Lord’s Prayer, which played into the phone’s mouthpiece as she walked away.

In 1949, Tilly founded a new organization in Georgia, one she ran almost single-handedly, called the Fellowship of the Concerned, FOC. The FOC, with thousands of members, launched various initiatives and hosted interracial conferences, foreseeing a future that many people could still scarcely imagine. Anticipating, and then reacting to, the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional, the FOC trained women in how to make their white communities ready for integrated schools.

The late 1950s and 1960s brought mass-action protest of a different sort to the fore in the search for racial equality and the civil rights; young activists often had little use for what seemed an older generation’s maternalism. Yet in 1963, the year Tilly turned 80, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, and Tilly, ever vigorous, carried on with the FOC almost until her death in 1970.

Overall, the life of Dorothy Rogers Tilly shows how she fused her family background, education and church involvement into a persistent commitment to tackle a massive social problem. Tilly connected Christian social work and social reform of the early twentieth century to the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement. She is a powerful example of the importance of women’s roles in changing social views, and her involvement in Methodist women’s groups was central to her ideas about how to bring dignity to and improve people’s lives. Reinhardt, led by Tilly’s father, clearly had an ethos supportive of that work of Christian uplift; while Tilly was an exceptional person, her life gives us clues about he kind of training and mentality that some Reinhardt graduates of that time carried with them as they left Waleska for the wider world.

For more on Tilly, see chapters on her life in From the Old South to the New (1981), Throwing Off the Cloak of Privilege (2004), and Before Brown (2004), which is reprinted in Politics and Religion in the White South (2005). 

State Capitols

My wife and I like to visit state capitols. We find that they usually contain a lot of interesting historical information, and often have a good state history museum within walking distance. On our recent trip we saw three:

1. Vermont State House, Montpelier, Vermont:

Fun fact about Montpelier: it is the smallest capital city in the Union (some 2,000 souls). The Vermont State House, the third one on the site, was constructed in the 1850s. We admired the portraits of Calvin Coolidge and Howard Dean.

2. Maine State House, Augusta, Maine:

The legislature was in session when we visited, so we got to do some lobbying. It was built in the 1830s, following Maine’s secession from Massachusetts in 1820. There was a great State Museum nearby. We quite enjoyed all the nineteenth-century industrial cloth-production machines they had on display (really!).

3. Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia:

This was the best picture I took on a rather cloudy day; unfortunately it doesn’t convey the full extent of the building. This capitol is probably the most historically significant of the three we saw; it was designed by “Mr. Jefferson” (as they kept calling him), and served as the capitol of the Confederate States of America after Virginia seceded from the Union in April, 1861. The original building is essentially the Maison Carée in Nîmes, and in 1904 wings were added for the enlarged House of Delegates and Senate (pictured is the wing on the northern/western side, for the Senate). Speaking of which, I had forgotten that the Virginia Senate is actually armigerous! Its letters patent is on display as you walk into the chamber.

This is document represents a devisal of arms from the College of Arms in London and dates from 1979. Normally the College grants arms on behalf of the Queen, but only to her subjects; however, if you are not a subject, you can still pay the College to devise arms for you which, while not granted as such, are entered into the records and never granted (or devised) to anyone else. Thus the three coats of arms across the top, which are those of Clarenceux King of Arms, Garter King of Arms, and Norroy & Ulster King of Arms, the three executive officers of the College who are here acting on their own authority (on a proper grant, the arms across the top are those of the Earl Marshal, the Queen, and the College of Arms).

The arms themselves are a reference to the arms of the Virginia Company:

From Eugene Zieber, Heraldry in America (originally published 1895).

Alas, the House of Delegates is not quite as heraldically advanced!

To return to the original building: the primary attraction there is the only statue that George Washington posed for during his lifetime, complete with fasces.

In the background, in the original House of Delegates chamber, you can see the back of a statue of Robert E. Lee, who was not a Confederate politician as such but who did hail from Virginia.

I liked their custom doorknobs, featuring the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which shows, in an interesting sexual dynamic, “Virtus, the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon” and stepping on “Tyranny, represented by the prostrate body of a man, with his fallen crown nearby.” Thus always to tyrants!

But don’t let this fool you into thinking that all Virginians hate all monarchs all the time! The Queen and Prince Philip came to visit in 2007; a picture records this event, and one of the guides was waxing rhapsodic about it.

But, you ask, what about Mr. Jefferson? For him, we must return to the entrance. Since 2007, the tourist entrance to the State House is far away, at the base of the hill that the house is on. After passing security, one travels a long underground corridor housing a gift shop, a cafe, and exhibits on Virginian history, before arriving at a rotunda in honor of Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of UVA, governor of Virginia, and third president of the United States.