Washington, DC and the Power of Pilgrimage

Jeffrey Meyer
Department of Religious Studies
UNC Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

Wilbur Zelinski, who has written about the religious foundations of nationalism, claims that "one's first pilgrimage to Washington can be a blinding religious experience, a rite of communion." (*Nation into State,* 180) While perhaps an exaggeration, Zelinski's statement points to a long history of using religious terms to refer to Washington, D.C. Its buildings have been called "shrines" and "temples," its precincts "hallowed," its founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, "sacred texts." This paper seeks to determine whether such language is simply hyperbole, mere analogy, or if it points to something deeper in the potential experience of visitors to the city. It examines the Capital as a center of pilgrimage, especially focusing on some of the characteristic themes of that religious category as proposed by the organizers of this conference. Since it si not a site made sacred by its central role within one of the traditional religions, but rather as an expression of civic or public religion, I will conclude with some thoughts on the issue of why it is both legitimate and hermeneutically useful to analyze the U.S. capital as a center of pilgrimage.

Ordering Space and Time

The creation of Washington, D.C. is closely tied to the creation of the United States as an entirely new political entity, a revolutionary polity in which the people, rather than hereditary monarchs, should exercise sovereignty. After the Founding Fathers had published the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed themselves separate from Great Britain they immediately underlined the finality of the act by seeking to assume all the rights, duties and symbolic accouterments of a fully independent nation. One of their first acts was to create a Great Seal for the United States. Because the seal would be a concise expression of the core ideals of the new republican form of government, Congress appointed its leading thinkers, Franklin, Jefferson and Adams to design it. Three committees and six years later Congress was still not satisfied with the results. Yet though many symbolic details changed over that time period, one idea persisted throughtout the entire process. When Congress finally gave the responsibility for the seal to Charles Thompson, the secretary for the committees, he kept this persistant idea, depicting it on the reverse side of the seal, the Masonic pyramid with the all-seeing eye of the Deity. He explained the symbolism as follows:

"The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause. The date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence and the words under it signify the beginning of the New American Aera, which commences from that date." (Patterson and Dougall, 84-85)

The words he refers to indicate the new Latin mottoes he had chosen in place of the phrase *deofavente* (with God's favor). The two new mottoes on the Seal would be *annuit coeptis* (He [God] approved their undertakings,* and *novus ordo seclorum,* (a new world order, a new age). The word *seculum* (in its contracted genitive form *seclorum*) refers to both a "world" and an "age" in space and time, although the temporal dimension is primary. Applying this concept to the plan of Washington, the city, with the Capitol at its center, was designed to be placed at the center of the world and to signal a crucial turning point in human history. According to Perry Miller, American colonists believed that "God governed the universe not only in space but also in time, and as there was intelligent purpose in each enactment, so all events were connected in a long-range program wich men call history." (Mead, *The Lively Experiment,* 77) It can be shown that all the Founding Fathers shared the belief that the American experiment was unprecedented, the Providential ushering in of a new and glorious age for all humanity. They saw previous history as a slow and painful progress toward this great moment, and future history would see its development and eventual triumph.

Symbols of spatial centrality also abound in Washington. The District of Columbia was planned as a perfect square of ten miles on a side, its corners oriented to the four cardinal directions. L'Enfant's original plan shows that the Capitol was clearly to be the center of the city, with the numbered and lettered streets radiating out from the building to create the four quadrants which still define the city today. The plan shows clearly that the Capitol, not the President's House would be the "pivot of the four quarters." Major boulevards, named after the 15 States of the Union which existed in 1790, are ranged around the Capitol like a kind of microcosm of the nation, with the New England States to the north, the mid-Atlantic States in the central area, and the southern States to the south. One supporter of the Potomac location of the capital (also a local landholder), George Walker, had asserted that Providence had chosen the site, even the precise location between Alexandria and Georgetown, because it was the central point between the St. Croix and St. Mary's rivers which then marked the northern and southern boundaries of the existing states.

In 1809 William Lambert submitted a proposal to the House of Representatives to establish a prime meridian "through the dome of the Capitol in Washington," to replace that of Greenwich, "since the calculation of longitude from the meridian of a foreign nation . . . implied a 'degrading dependence' and was 'a shackle of colonial dependence.'" (Edney, "Cartographic Culture," 384) The meridian issue had been important to Andrew Ellicott, the original surveyor of Washington, who wrote to Jefferson: "I have taken the liberty of sending you an almanac for the year 1793, which I calculated. . . . The Astronomical part is adapted to the meridian, and latitude of the City of Washington." (Padover, 160) Lambert's proposal was of course rejected, but it received the support of some in Congress, some cartographers and from James Monroe, who would become President seven years later. Monroe said that the establishment of a meridian had become "an appendage, if not an attibute of sovereignty."

Using new and more scientific concepts current in the late 18th century, the creators of Washington accomplished what ancient planners had done in the designing of sacred cities, temples, palaces and monasteries--they placed their capital at the center of space and time. By the time of the Civil War the Capitol had assumed the form it has today, the central rotunda above all a symbol of unity and spatial centrality as the place where Senate and House cme together and where the peole could come to meet their representatives. Despite the pressures of the Civil War, Lincoln demanded that the work on the building continue. "If the people see this Capitol going on, they will know that we intend the Union shall go on." (Maroon, *The United States Capitol,* 43) It aso reflected the traditional three-storied universe, the central rotunda representing this world, the dome with its fresco showing Washington worshipped in heaven like a god, and the basement crypt, where early plans had called for the mausoleum of the first President, symbolizing the underworld. Thus the city took shape during the period of over a century, its organization reflecting old cosmological ideas in a new garb. Its buildings and major Memorials--the Captitol, White House, Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials--became sites on a kind of pilgrimage route recalling the Founders and sacred events in national history.

Rituals of Order and Chaos

The rituals of Washington are familiar enough. Beginning with the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, the city has been the site for funeral and mourning rites for deceased Presidents and other heroes of the republic. It has also been the place for the celebration of national triumph: victory parades of Union troops celebrating the end of the Civil War, Admiral Dewey's victory parade after the war with Spain, General Pershing's after World War I, and the triumph of Charles Lindberg's flight over the Atlantic. Without doubt, however, the most important ritual is the inauguration of the President. Beginning as a minimal ritual with Jefferson in 1801, it has subsequently grown in importance and grandeur to meet a felt need, to define and affirm the nature of the national community. The culmination comes at the Capitol. There the President presides over a ritual of renewal as he takes the oath of office, connecting himself and his contemporaries with the founding of the nation, the first inauguration (swearing on the Bible used by the first President) and his predecessors in the presidential office. The President stands at the center of the congregation, serving as a focal point in this microcosm of the nation and its government. With the members of Congress as witnesses, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administers the oath of office, bringing together in one ritual moment the three powers of government. Most inaugural addresses consciously refer to the President's oath to preserve the Constitution, thus reaffirming loyalty to the sacred document. The entire government is present: the Vice President, the Justices of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, cabinet officers, the military, the diplomatic corps, various dignitaries both foreign and domestic. The whole nation is present, represented not only by their representatives, but by tens of thousands of ordinary visitors who have come "on pilgrimage" from all the States of the Union. The Inauguration ritual is a ceremonial enactment of what the plan of the city expresses in architectural terms and the Constitution in literary terms.

At the same time, another type of ritual has developed in Washington, not affirming the status quo but calling for attention to new causes, and challenging the establishment: Jacob Coxey's army in 1894, women suffragists in 1913, the Ku Klux Klan in 1926, and the Bonus Army in 1932 are among early examples. They marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of their various causes. After World War II, these more spontaneous ritual activities changed their venue to the Mall, their nmbers increasing exponentially. Since the 1963 march for racial equality led by Dr. Martin Luther King, there have been a total of 853 demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins and marches through 1985. The various causes have included civil rights, racial equality, anti-Vietnam protests, pro and anti-abortion movements, the environment, womens' rights, Indian rights, gay rights and others. Over the course of time and continuing to the present, these mass journeys to Washington, though spontaneous in comparison with pilgrimage rites in traditional cultures, have evolved rituals of their own, including speeches, prayers, singing and processions. They may be considered pilgrimages in that they come to Washington as the center of power, believeing that by making connections with the symbols of the capital, their messages may be more efficacious. They can be viewed as contestations for the sacred space at the center of the nation, claiming rights and seeking to form a new communal identity for the American nation.

Daniel Boorstin has said of such protests, "The messages change (and seldom are heard where it counts) but the messengers keep coming, reminding us that in this city *everybody* can say his piece, even if nobody listens." (*Cleopatra's Nose,* 100) Rather than adopting this cynical view, one could argue the opposite. Certainly American views toward racial and gender equality, immigration, imperialism, and many other issues have changed profoundly since the early twentieth century. Although these protest movements and ritualized demonstrations have perhaps not achieved their goals immediately, overall they have played their part in the process of transforming attitudes and governmental policies. They have been effective because they utilized the symbols and monuments of public religion.

At the same time there have been pilgrimages to Washington meant to reaffirm more traditionally religious values, such as the "National Washington Pilgrimages" of the 1950s, and more recently the "Yes Sayers" events in Washington. The National Washington Pilgrimages, with the basic theme of "This nation under God," were well financed, widely supported by both political and religious leaders. Howard Pyle, assistant to President Eisenhower, wrote to commend the pilgrimage leaders for stimulating "a quickening and deepening of the spirit that characterizes this annual recognition of the basic sources of our nation's religious heritage." Louis Rabault, a Michigan representative in Congress, said that "By bringing to Washington each spring in ever larger numbers men and women from all parts of the United States the Pilgrimage seeks to focus attention on the visible expressions in Washington of the faith that has made America great." With the notable exception of the White House, the pilgrimage included events at all the major shrines of the ceremonial core of the capital: the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, the Supreme Court, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Capitol. (Pyle's letter of April 9, 1957, to Howard Dudley, pilgrimage organizer; the 1957 Washington Pilgrimage Brochure)

Symbolic and Social Comlexities

Washington provides an abundance of political/religious symbols, some well defined and relatively stable, others open to progressive change. These include the flag, the Great Seal of the United States, the iconic images of the White House, Capitol and Washington Monument, and the almost mind-numbing plethora of decorated pediments, with their allegorical representations of justice, liberty, plenty, hope, freedom, and so forth. Besides these conventional and fixed symbols, there are certain symbols whose meanings have clearly changed over the decades. I will briefly discuss one example of each.

Perhaps the overriding concern for the first one hundred years of the republic was the relationship of the States and the Federal Government. From the first continental Congress to the Civil War, when the issue was challenged, the question of the two delicately balanced sovereignties was a serious problem. The Constitutional Convention struggled with it, Federalists and Republicans argued about it, Andrew Jackson threatened it (or restored the balance, depending on one's politics), and the southern States sought to dissolve it. It is no surprise that the builders of the Capital used symbolic resources to both recognize federal power while at the same time respecting the sovereignty of the individual states. L'Enfant's plan for the city made every effort to balance these potentially contending powers. Besides the streets named for the States mentioned earlier, he designated 15 squares to be given to each of them where they might memorialize their important events and heroes. Later, when the new Capitol's dome was constructed by architect Thomas U. Walter, he had the same concern in mind. The dome is supported by 36 columns, the number of States at the time it was completed, the tholus above made up of thirteen columns for the original tirteen States. Inside the building, in Statuary Hall and its vicinity, each State is allowed to provide sculptures to celebrate two of its leading citizens. The Lincoln Memorial has 36 pillars in its peristyle, the number of States at the time of Lincoln, and 48 festoons on the entablature, the number of States in 1922 when the building was completed. If the issue of State versus federal power has now abated, the pervasive nature of this sort of symbolism indicates that at one time it was the overriding concern of govenment leaders.

The Lincoln Memorial provides an example of a symbol whose meaning has evolved, almost in spite of the intention of its creators. It is an icon, like the Capitol and White House, though less universally recognized. Citizens see it on the Lincoln penny and the five dollar bill. It is precisely the pilgrims to Washington, not the political leaders, who have worked the transformation of the building's meaning from an emblem of the reunion of the States to an emblem of emancipation and racial equality. Their pilgrimages were self-organizing events not only because they developed their own rituals but because these actions fundamentally changed the meaning of the Lincoln Memorial. There is abundant evidence, for example, that the builders of the memorial wanted to downplay if not completely ignore Lincoln's work as an emancipator, focusing on the reunion of the white brothers, blue and grey, who both fought nobly for the cause they believed in. In fact, although Robert Moton, the President of Tuskeegee Institute, was given the honor of delivering the major speech at the dedication of the memorial, seating at the event was segregated. The three events most significant in changing the meaning of the memorial as a symbol were the Marian Anderson concert there in 1939, the March on Washington of August, 1963, organized by Dr. King, and the ongoing demonstrations in spring of 1964 while the civil rights bill was being debated in Congress. They and many subsequent "pilgrimage" marches on Washington have woven a new fabric of meaning, rendering the Lincoln Memorial a symbol of black freedom, and more generally of racial equality and of resistance to all forms of social oppression. Throught these demonstrations, the various pilgrims have shaped a new and more inclusive communal identity for themselves and for the American people. In the words of the conveners of this conference, these new systems of meaning and social cohesion have emerged from the "collective behavior of free individuals, each in search of a spiritual ideal." To quote King in his famous "I have a Dream" speech: "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which *every American* was to fall heir." (My emphasis)

The Power of Pilgrimage

Granted then that a case can be made for considering Washington as a pilgrimage center, what is the point of doing so? I believe that using pilgrimage as an interpretative category to understand the U.S. capital reveals the power it exerts over the imaginations and feelings of Americans, its power to effect social transformation. I do not claim that this analysis would apply to other important capitals, like London or Paris, but I am certain that it does apply to Washington because of the particular religious sensibilities of the American people. As De Tocqueville observed over 150 years ago, the United States is a nation with the soul of a Church. This insight has been reaffirmed repeatedly by analysts of American religion like Perry Miller, Sidney Mead, Robert Bellah, Martin Marty and Catherine Albanese. The words of the Founding Fathers and subsequent leaders have contained the same message. Washington had stated that the great experiment in democracy was under the protection of Providence and that the United States had a mission to bring this new form of governemnt to the rest of the world. That idea has been repeadted in many subsequent presidential inaugural addresses, by politicians, July 4th orators and preachers over the past two hundred years. Lincoln, during the darkest days of the crisis, had claimed that the United States was "the last best hope of the earth." This is the myth which pilgrims contact and have reinforced when they visit the capital.

I would argue that it is important to recognize the strength of the religious dimension in this rhetoric. Although Wilbur Zelinskis words, quoted at the beginning of this paper, may overstate the case, they do call attention to the power of religion to enhance and authenticate political convictions. Their deeply religious backgrounds predispose many sincere patriots to experience Washington in religious terms. One participant in the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial wrote to the architect Henry Bacon after the ceremony: "By sheer accident if not through divine guidance, I stood at the western end of the water feature of your work, saw and heard the service and rose with you into a plane of spiritual elation I shall not ask providence to grant again." (Concklin, 75ff.)

The ultimate test of a political system lies in its ability, without using coercive means, to enlist the loyalty and cooperation of its citizens. The American system has been remarkably successful in this regard, and those times at which it has been challended--during the Civil War, during the 1930s and again in the Vietnam era--it has been because some group of citizens have perceived themselves excluded from the full rights and benefits of citizenship. At these times, the spontaneous "pilgrimages" have taken place, giving the exculded groups an opporunity to occupy the sacred space at the center of the American universe and to demand their inclusion in the national community. In these religious or quasi-religious acts, they have laid claim to a new self-identity and effected a transformation of national symbols. If tey came a rag-tag group of protestors, many of the pilgrims have left the capital with a new sense of identity and a new sense of belonging.


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