Douglass and Anthony

It is just and fitting to celebrate the American Revolution, but one must also remember that, at the start, not everyone partook of its bounty equally. The tacit recognition of slavery is the original sin of the American republic; that women could not vote is now outrageous to us. Where was the “liberty” for these people? As the nineteenth century wore on, the movement to abolish slavery completely grew ever stronger, culminating in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Women’s suffrage took longer – it was guaranteed on a national basis for all types of election with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, although many states had earlier granted the women the right to vote in other elections.

It’s safe to say that the two biggest figures in these movements were Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. They both happen to be buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. We made sure to visit their graves.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and escaped to New York at age 20. He became an anti-slavery activist and was known for his powerful oratory on the subject; his Narrative Life (1845) was a best seller which fueled the abolitionist cause and whose proceeds allowed Douglass to purchase his legal freedom. He was also the only African-American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention (1848), which launched the American Women’s Rights movement. The town, located about fifty miles to the east of Rochester, seems quite proud of this heritage.

Unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed when we got there, but I certainly appreciated the display of the Nineteenth Amendment Victory Flags.

The (heavily restored) original venue. The Convention’s “Declaration of Sentiments” (a feminist twist on the Declaration of Independence)  is inscribed on a wall on the other side of the greenspace in the foreground.

As an aside, Seneca Falls represents a stop on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, a which connects the Erie Canal to Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake (two of New York’s Finger Lakes). I thought this was a nice nineteenth-century scene. (The town is also the fictional “Bedford Falls, N.Y.” from the film It’s a Wonderful Life.)

Susan B. Anthony was not actually at the Seneca Falls Convention, but with its main organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she met in 1851, founded the Women’s Loyal National League (an abolitionist society) and in 1866 the American Equal Rights Association, which was dedicated to equal rights for men and women. Anthony, famously, was arrested for voting in Rochester in 1872, and refused to pay the fine; the authorities decided not to pursue the matter. In 1878, Anthony penned what was to become the Nineteenth Amendment, and up until her death she gave countless speeches in favor of the cause. Her grave in Mount Hope is a pilgrimage site of sorts for those who value a woman’s right to vote.

Philadelphia

Happy to have experienced Philadelphia for the first time this summer. Unfortunately, we did not get to spend too much time there, but we did get to see the two biggest historical attractions: the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. As a bonus we got to learn something about Benjamin Franklin.

The Liberty Bell, so-called from the 1830s, was cast in London for the legislative building of the Province of Pennsylvania (now designated Independence Hall). The idea is that the bell was rung to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, although there is no documentary proof that this actually happened. Its distinctive large crack developed some time in the early nineteenth century, rendering it unringable – but granting it a great amount of what Stephanie Trigg would call “mythic capital.”

You get to see it in the Liberty Bell Center, run by the National Parks Service, located across the street from Independence Hall. Annoyingly, you have to pass through an airport-level security checkpoint to get in, but the NPS does give you information about the object’s history and its place in the American psyche – it used to go on tour throughout the country, and in the nineteenth century became a symbol of the desire for liberty by African-Americans and women, in addition to being reproduced countless times in various media.

UPDATE: I just received this in the mail:

Also, I saw this at the local Wal-Mart:

Here are two more:

Independence Hall isn’t quite as well-known a symbol as the Liberty Bell, but it certainly has been influential architecturally (see buildings at Dartmouth, Berea, Mercer, Rust, Dearborn, etc.)

The building’s original function was as the seat of the colonial legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania. The first floor housed the supreme court on one side, and the legislative chamber on the other. It was in the latter of these that the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence (July 2, 1776), and members of the Constitutional Convention drafted the Constitution in the summer of 1787.

Our NPS interpreter (a recent Temple University BA in English) explains the room’s history.

A fun fact: the Declaration of Independence was printed before it was handwritten. The representatives spent two days debating what exactly they were going to accuse George III of before sending it to the printer on July 4 (the reason that this date now marks Independence Day); they regathered in August to affix their signatures to a manuscript copy, which is now on display in the National Archives in DC.

(Related: the first printer of the Declaration was John Dunlap; in 1777 Congress commissioned Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore to print a new edition [the “Goddard Broadside“] including the signatories’ names; she boldy printed her own name at the bottom.)

Walking down the street afterwards we were accosted by Ben Franklin (a.k.a. actor Rick Bravo), with whom we had a good chat.

He enjoined us to visit his house further down the street. Not much of it still exists, although a “ghost house,” designed by architect Robert Venturi, now outlines where it once was, with concrete hoods that allow you to view the foundations of the original structure.

On the west side of this “Franklin Court” is the Benjamin Franklin Museum, a brutalist structure put up for the bicentennial in 1976. The National Parks Service has recently redone the exhibits, and they provide an informative and interactive view of Franklin’s career. To the north end of the court is a print shop (one of Franklin’s jobs was as a printer), where NPS employees will demonstrate the use of an eighteenth-century printing press. An adjacent working post office (Franklin served as the first Postmaster General) will allow you to send letters with specially designed cancellation marks.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is now on my reading list for the summer.

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).

Paducah

Stopped by Paducah, Kentucky on our way to St. Louis on Saturday. We thought we would visit the National Quilt Museum, which was very nice. We then stayed for lunch and ended up discovering Paducah’s flood wall murals. Paducah is on the Ohio River, which drains close to 200,000 square miles of United States territory and is thus prone to occasional flooding. As a result of a particularly devastating flood in 1937, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed floodwalls to protect the city from the river; they seem to have worked. What is most interesting is that since 1996 the walls have been decorated with mural paintings illustrating Paducah’s history. What a great idea! You’ve got a flat surface – why not use it to burnish local pride? Unfortunately none of my photographs turned out, but you can see examples on the Internet. Chief artist Robert Dafford has produced a series of paintings that are interesting, edifying, accessible, and professionally done. It’s worth a look if you’re ever passing through.

Although river traffic isn’t what it once was, the Ohio is still a major transportation thoroughfare, as you can notice from the numerous barges on it. If you want to learn more about the industry, visit the River Discovery Center.

Paducah seems to be thriving, it its way. What I would like to know is why Cairo, Illinois is not. We pass through there from time to time; the place looks like a miniature Detroit.

St. Louis Blues

In 1967, the National Hockey League doubled its size from six to twelve teams; the St. Louis Blues were one of those teams, so the club (along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, and Dallas Stars, which is the successor team to both the Minnesota North Stars and the California Golden Seals) is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. While in St. Louis this Christmas we stopped by the Central Library for an exhibit on the team’s history entitled “50 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers – A Tribute to the St. Louis Blues and their Fans.” The Blues have never won the Stanley Cup, but they are a key part of the city’s culture and have a devoted fan base, and like all sports teams have accumulated a wealth of lore over the course of their existence. Some photos:

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The prototype Blues sweater, not ever used.

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The original squad, and their original bench.

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In the olden days, even goalies didn’t wear helmets.

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This is Wayne Gretzky, widely regarded as the best player ever to play the game. He played for St. Louis for 31 games in 1996.

I was also fortunate to attend the Alumni Game of the Winter Classic on December 31. For the past few years the NHL has sponsored an outdoor game as a marquee event on New Year’s day, featuring teams playing on a specially built rink in a football or a baseball stadium – this year it was the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks at Busch Stadium, normally home to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. As a bonus, an “alumni game,” featuring retired players, also takes place the day before. It was nice of Gretzky to come out for this.

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The game was not really competitive, but it was fun all the same.

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…

—–

* 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.

Statuary in DC

One of the delightful features of Washington DC is the plethora of statues that one encounters – not only figures from US history, but also from the history of other countries too, as various subject peoples try to publicize themselves in the imperial capital. From a walkabout Sunday morning:

• Letelier and Moffitt were assassinated by a car bomb in DC in 1976 by DINA, the Chilean secret police under dictator Augusto Pinochet. Orlando Letelier had been a cabinet minister under Salvador Allende and was an outspoken opponent of Pinochet, which earned him the attention of DINA. Documents reveal that Pinochet ordered the assassination himself; whether the US knew and didn’t do anything to stop it is another question, but one fully within the realm of possibility. I do believe that this event helped turn American public opinion against Pinochet.

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• Another figure from Chilean history: founder and first supreme dictator of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins (1778-1842).

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• The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) merits a statue at M St. and Connecticut Ave.

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• Daniel Webster (1782-1852), Dartmouth alumnus (and valiant defender of the “small college”) and secretary of state under three presidents, stands on Massachusetts Ave.

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• Dewi Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, rides outside the Indonesian embassy, while three children benefit from her patronage.

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• Thomas Masaryk (1850-1937), advocate of Czechoslovak independence and first president of independent Czechoslovakia following World War I, stands on Embassy Row. (The Czechs unveiled this statue in 2002; the Slovaks don’t seem to have contributed. It’s interesting how the Czech Republic is so often figured as the sole successor state to Czechoslovakia.)

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• Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), several times Prime Minister of Greece in the early twentieth century, stands outside the Greek Embassy.

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• Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, stands on the original site of the Turkish Embassy.

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• Outside the South Korean embassy stands a statue of Philip Jaisohn (1864-1951), journalist and champion of Korean independence.

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• A statue of St. Jerome, one of the patron saints of Croatia, may be seen outside the Croatian embassy.

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• Irish patriot Robert Emmet (d. 1803) gives his famous speech from the dock.

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• The late great Nelson Mandela stands outside the South African embassy.

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• The Kahlil Gibran Centennial Foundation sponsored a sculpture of their favorite poet in 1991.

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• Winston Churchill strides outside the British Embassy. If I had a cigar I would have stuck it between his fingers. One of his feet stands on embassy soil, the other on American soil, symbolizing the Special Relationship and Churchill’s own dual nature.

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• Dr. John Witherspoon (1723-94), a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, stands by the national Presbyterian church.

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• Outside the Treasury Department stands Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury.

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• To the north of the White House is Lafayette Square, but its most notable feature is an equestrian statue of US President Andrew Jackson (1829-37). (Statues of Lafayette, and of the other Revolutionary war generals Rochambeau, Kosciuszko, and Steuben, can be found on the four corners of the Square. My pictures of these really didn’t turn out, alas.)

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• General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), veteran of several nineteenth-century US wars, Whig Party presidential candidate in the election of 1852, and originator of the Anaconda Plan during the Civil War, rides in Scott Circle, with some avian friends.

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• The Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont Memorial Fountain can be found on Dupont Circle. Dupont (1803-1865) captured San Diego during the Mexican-American War, but did not manage to capture Charleston during the American Civil War, to his chagrin.

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• The Indian Council for Cultural Relations installed a statue of the great Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) in front of the Indian Embassy in 2000.

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• An equestrian statue of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan (1831-1888) can be found in the middle of Sheridan Circle. This one was done by Gutzon Borglum, the same guy who did Mount Rushmore. Sheridan was a distinguished Civil War general and helped force Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

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• Finally, outside the headquarters of Society of the Cincinnati, a statue of the American Cincinnatus himself, George Washington.

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Flaggery in DC

The CHS is in the part of Washington DC known as Embassy Row, so it was fun to walk around and see all the different flags flying, especially as these are often state flags which can be different from the national flags one sees otherwise. The trouble with taking pictures of them is that the lighting isn’t always good, and you sometimes have to wait quite a while for the wind to blow the flag out. Some that I noticed:

• Right next door to the CHS is the Danish Embassy, which flies a swallow-tailed Dannebrog.

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• The Polish Embassy flies a variant of the Polish flag with the national coat of arms on it. It also flies the European Union flag; the embassies of other EU countries also do this.

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• Except the United Kingdom, of course! I do not believe that the absence of the EU flag over the British Embassy is a result of Brexit – the placement of the single pole suggests that they never flew the EU flag. The Union Flag is here defaced by a roundel featuring the Royal Arms, signifying the presence of an ambassador.

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• The Plurinational State of Bolivia, I discover, has two flags: a traditional one consisting of a horizontal tricolor (here featuring the national coat of arms), and a newer one featuring a seven-color checkerboard design. This is known as the Wiphala and it is an emblem of the native Andeans. It has had equal status to the tricolor since 2009.

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• The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has no diplomatic recognition, but that will not prevent its flag from appearing outside the Islamic Center of Washington.

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• As European Union members do with the EU flag, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, like the Philippines, fly the ASEAN flag. I did not know about this one.

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