Monumental Disasters

King 2Tocqueville claimed that Americans build grandiose public monuments to compensate for the ordinariness and, to speak bluntly, the insignificance of individual democratic lives (Democracy in America,Vol. II, part 1, c. 12). The architectural results are sometimes preposterous. Nevertheless, he compares Americans with Romans. Presumably their “greatness, enlightenment, and real prosperity” will make these democrats grow into the role. The now “pompous name of Capitol” would soon seem appropriate.

But we have become vulgar Imperial Romans in our public architecture. Not content with the glorious Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln monuments, we have added others, which show how empty our souls have become—worse than the Americans Tocqueville often belittled yet respected even more. Civic art should create reverence for the principles of the republic and the heroic qualities of their leaders. Ronald Reagan, directing his first inauguration to the west, noted the democratic qualities of the men honored before him.

The latest additions to the Mall serve quite contrary purposes, rooted in private agendas and passions. Despite cosmetic accessorizing, the Vietnam Memorial is a ghastly gash, its buried black legs pointing to Washington and Lincoln, howling from the earth of lost lives and proclaiming a dark vision of America. The Franklin Roosevelt theme park avoids his revolutionary meaning and invites children’s romps.

The World War II memorial is an incoherent throwback; the Korean a set of toy soldiers. The proposed Eisenhower remembrance seems a tribute to designer Frank Gehry’s ego and not to the General and President. The National Civic Art Society is waging an intrepid battle for a monument that makes better sense of his life, connecting military virtue with civic virtue. The dignity the war memorials do have comes from the living witnesses who honor the dead and receive the spark of heroism.

All this leads up to the Martin Luther King memorial, which will once again become a focus of attention as the nation celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the August 28,1963 March on Washington. The fuss over the lame misquotation on the statue (“I was a drum major for justice…”) is nothing compared with the greater disgrace of the mediocrity of the statue. The civil rights revolution transformed America; the stubborn King just stands there, arms folded, glowering across the Tidal Basin, with Jefferson off to his left. Its size (at 30 feet, half again the height of Jefferson) undermines the real King’s message of equality. This monstrosity from China is art in the fascistic mode (cf. Mt. Rushmore).

lincoln memorial 2I would rather be a political science major for justice and honor another controversial statue, the Emancipation (or Freedman’s) Memorial in Lincoln Park, in northeast Washington, D.C. Frederick Douglass gave his extraordinary eulogy for Abraham Lincoln there, at its unveiling in 1876. Neither Douglass nor professor Diana Schaub approves—see her remarks as well as those of others on this instructive panel on civic art—but  I counter with Harry V. Jaffa, who contends that this creation rivals Daniel French’s Lincoln. Far from “patronizing and paternalistic,” as one journalist put it, the statue, conceived by a former slave woman and paid for solely by the contributions of freedmen, portrays the mixture of statesmanship, law, and character necessary for self-government.

In a Promethean gesture, Lincoln bids the freed slave to rise. Lincoln’s other hand rests on fasces bearing the image of George Washington. The slave is not bowing to Lincoln or any other man. Broken shackle on his right hand, he is rising, as a runner on a track; he is muscular, someone ready for the struggles of freedom ahead. Such a man should never have been a slave. Appropriately, the last person captured under the Fugitive Slave Act was the model for the emancipated slave.

Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He teaches in graduate programs in political science for Johns Hopkins University and for the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University. He has edited Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, co-edited The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, and co-authored and co-edited several other books on American politics and political thought. In addition, he has worked ten years in the federal government as a speechwriter and on policy issues, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was a special assistant to Chairman Clarence Thomas, and the Departments of Justice and Labor.

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  1. gabe says


    What do you expect?
    After more than a century of Progressive rule, there is no longer any impulse towards the heroic nor an understanding of what is virtuous and worth fighting for.
    After all, what can be more emblematic of Eisenhower’s life (and countless GI’s) than a chain link fence. They should have just gone to Home Depot – the fence material is cheaper.

  2. libertarian jerry says

    The problem with the modern world is that people and nations make up then embellish their history with misinformation,propaganda and falsehoods. Leaving Lincoln and Eisenhower out of the equation at this time and centering on Martin Luther King, the truth of history is that MLK was an opportunist,a communist,a thief of other people’s work and a sexual harasser. Yet the established view of history was that .King was a martyr who was “taken away from us” at the height of his powers. That his position in history is just next to sainthood. Yet there were other civil rights activists,many behind the scenes,that did much more then Mr.King. Yet the myth lives on.

  3. Kevin R. Hardwick says


    I usually consider libertarians to differ from more neo-classical conservatives (I mean by that conservatives who derive their understanding from the Greek and Roman classics) in that they do not consider it the business of the state to attempt to shape the dispositions of its citizens. Here, if I understand you correctly, you are arguing that there is a proper role for the state in shaping the rightly ordered emotions and habits of citizens, and that one way the state does this is via public, monumental art.

    I much agree with you. But it is on this basis that I part company with what I take to be the overly enlightened rationalism of my libertarian friends and colleagues.

    Am I reading you correctly?

    All best wishes,

    • gabe says


      So you agree with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others who believed that it is, in fact, proper for the state to influence public habits / emotions?
      This is a true and proper role for the Leader (non-pejorative sense, of course) according to Lincoln provided that it provides an impulse toward a virtuous and reasoned life.
      Not being a libertarian, I am not clear on what the “enlightened rationalism” of the libertarian position is on this issue. I won’t speak for Ken Masugi, but I suspect his position is not at all different from your synthesis of it.
      What am I missing here?

      take care

  4. Kevin R. Hardwick says


    I don’t wish to hijack this thread, so I will answer your question in brief, as best I can anyway.

    Washington was neo-classical to the core–his thinking was deeply influenced by the Augustinian revival of stoic moral thought, and he was raised in the rationalist pedagogy of the latitudinarian Church of England. For Washington, rational consideration of public goods demanded suppression of emotion.

    Jefferson and Madison were more immediately influenced by the moral philosophy of the Scots Enlightenment, which differed in some important ways from the moral teachings of the stoic revival that occurred in both England and Virginia from the mid-17th century through much of the 18th. Jean Yarbrough has a fine study of Jefferson’s moral thought that does a very nice job delineating the influences of the Scottish Enlightenment–I can track down the cite, if anyone cares. I don’t know of anything similar for Madison, so my claims here are grounded both in my reading of Madison directly, but also in the older literature of Douglas Adair and Adrienne Koch.

    Scots enlightenment thought, very broadly speaking, allowed considerably more nuance in its treatment of emotion. Since reason exercised a weak influence (or for some Scots enlightenment thinkers, Hume, for example, no influence) on the will, correct ordering of emotions was key to correct ordering of society.

    The Scottish Enlightenment encompasses a variety of thought, so (in my view, anyway–I’d be intrigued to know what Professor Wiener makes of this) there are some important differences between Jefferson and Madison. To my knowledge, Madison did not expend the same energy as did Jefferson in thinking about the right ordering of emotional dispositions. James Wilson, on the other hand, a close ally of Madison’s in the Philadelphia Convention, most certainly did–so Madison’s silence (again, to the extent of my knowledge) does not necessarily indicate lack of awareness.

    It is my understanding–not something to which I have devoted systematic study–that many contemporary libertarians deny the necessity or appropriateness of government shaping of civic dispositions or habits. After all, government engagement with such projects might well imply a limitation of the capacity of individuals to choose freely their own ends. Certainly there are liberal (in the old fashioned sense) political theorists who largely ignore the question of just what emotional dispositions and habits must exist in the citizenry for a liberal (ie., free) society to endure. Rational choice theory, for example, seems to nod in this direction. So too do many treatments by liberal (ie., committed to freedom–not the modern sense of “leftist”) economists.

    Hopefully this all makes a modicum of sense!

  5. gabe says


    Thank you very much for that. It was just what the doctor ordered. Having been away from serious study for over 35 years, I am painfully aware of the gaps in my knowledge in certain areas. Much obliged, truly!
    BTW, even thought the school year will soon start, keep posting. I, and others, I presume, enjoy them.

    Take care

  6. Kevin R. Hardwick says


    I hope I have posted responsibly–I certainly botched rather badly a post on another thread, and as far as I can tell, it killed what I thought was (perhaps, anyway) a potentially interesting conversation. I apologized for my error, but I don’t think it was sufficient either to satisfy the author against whom I transgressed, nor to revive the conversation. It sucks when that happens.

    All best wishes,

  7. Kevin R. Hardwick says


    A quick followup. Bill Rasmussen and Robert Tilton wrote the catalog for a lovely exhbibit at the Virginia Historical Society focused on George Washington. For someone looking for an excellent discussion of GW–I thought really fine–written for a non-academic, intelligent audience, their GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH might be perfect. It is a beautifully produced book, and the text is terrific. And the price is right–you can get it used via amazon for $0.01, plus shipping :)

    Just a thought . . .

    All best wishes,

    • gabe says

      Thx for the recommendations.

      BTW, saw earlier post. I will repeat what an old professor of mine told me, Redemption is always possible!
      Keep on posting!

    • Ken Masugi says

      Kevin, Gabe, sorry I am late to the party. You are both splendid. ” Here, if I understand you correctly, you are arguing that there is a proper role for the state in shaping the rightly ordered emotions and habits of citizens, and that one way the state does this is via public, monumental art.” “State” is a Machiavellian notion; it’s not in our founding. The obligations you describe are those of citizens. The public art we have, whether official or private, should serve these purposes.

      • Kevin R. Hardwick says


        Thank you for the reply–nicely affirming.

        One of the things that makes conversing with political theorists and philosophers so worth while is that they on occasion bring to my attention my unreflective use of words. And here you have done me the stellar service of pointing to the term “state,” which is a word I have used imprecisely and without much thought.

        Marvin Harris, the cultural anthropologist, introduced an extremely useful distinction (as well as an annoying jargon that I will nonetheless retain). Harris described the work of participant observation–one of the core anthropological methods–by the term “emic.” What he meant by that is the effort to grasp the central concepts of a culture on its own terms, using language that people of that culture would recognize and understand. But that of course is not the only way to understand a society. We can also employ the conceptual vocabulary of various contemporary disciplines, say economics or sociology in order to understand a culture on terms very much not their own, and quite often entirely alien to their own self-understanding. Harris referred to that approach as “etic.”

        Anyway, I think the term “state” clearly is inappropriate in an emic sense, when applied to the founding. It may or may not be inappropriate (I would have to think harder on that–so this is an honest indecision!) when used from an etic perspective. And I think I am very much guilty of eliding unreflectively these two categories. So you have given me a very nice gift, and one for which you have my gratitide.

        I think I have a great deal to learn about the genealogy of the term. And here I could use your assistance, as I did not find a useful discussion of it in my usual resources for matters of this kind–works by people like Burns and Goldie, or Alan Ryan.

        Can you suggest things for me to read, that would help me use the word with greater precision? Since my time rapidly will be consumed by things to which I responsibly must give attention, something synthetic and brief would be best. I have long had in mind the project of returning to Machiavelli directly, but that’s a big project, and one that will likely have to wait a few years for me to get to.

        Many thanks!

        Well wishes,

        • Kevin R. Hardwick says

          Hmm. A moment of further reflection. When the colonies constituted themselves as independent political entities, they described themselves as “states.”

          So I retract, at least provisionally, the notion that the term “state” was alien to the vocabulary of the founders. But that, of course, begs the question of just what they meant by it. I have never thought to interrogate that, but I suspect that there is something interesting to find by doing so.

          • Ken MasugiKen Masugi says

            Kevin, Machiavelli’s Prince is quite brief. A good edition will have an index where you will see state, as a political structure. Harvey Mansfield’s edition would be useful for this purpose, as my blogging colleague and old friend Angelo Codevilla’s would. Mansfield has written on this in several places, too.

  8. Delane Clark says

    Perhaps worse than the questionable quality of contemporary public monuments is the sheer increase in their number. The race to evermore grandiosity in monument making is not only about compensating for the “ordinariness” and “insignifcance of individual democratic lives”, it’s also about ensuring that no single hero stick out too far. Yea, Washington was great, but so was Lincoln and MLK, Jr. and….
    But the democratic impulse to level doesn’t rest there. In a proper democracy not only should no hero rise above another, but no individual should either. The answer, however, is not that no one, therefore, will get a monument, but that everyone will get one. You know, like the trophies passed out in the kids soccer leagues where, also, no score is kept.


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