Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Washington Needle
By Robert Charles Winthrop (18091894)
[Oration on the Completion of the National Monument to Washington. U. S. H. of R., 22 February, 1885.Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions. 185286.]
IT was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, from whom the idea of our monument has been borrowed,I should rather say, evolved,to cover their obelisks with hieroglyphical inscriptions, some of which have to this day perplexed and baffled all efforts to decipher them. Neither Champollion, nor the later Lepsius, nor any of the most skilful Egyptologists, have succeeded in giving an altogether satisfactory reading of the legends on Pompeys Pillar and Cleopatras Needle. And those legends, at their best,engraved, as they were, on the granite or porphyry, with the letters enamelled with gold, and boasted of as illuminating the world with their rays,tell us little except the dates and doings of some despotic Pharaoh, whom we would willingly have seen drowned in the ocean of oblivion, as one of them so deservedly was in the depths of the Red Sea. Several of the inscriptions on Cleopatras Needle, as it so strangely greets us in the fashionable promenade of our commercial capital, inform us, in magniloquent terms, of Thothmes III., who lived in the age preceding that in which Moses was born, styling him a Child of the Sun, Lord of the two Worlds, Endowed and endowing with power, life, and stability. Other inscriptions designate him, or Rameses II.,the great oppressor of the Israelites,as the Chastiser of Foreign Nations, The Conqueror, The Strong Bull!
Our Washington Needle, while it has all of the severe simplicity, and far more than all of the massive grandeur, which were the characteristics of Egyptian architecture, bears no inscriptions whatever, and none are likely ever to be carved on it. Around its base bas-reliefs in bronze may possibly one day be placed, illustrative of some of the great events of Washingtons life; while on the terrace beneath may, perhaps, be arranged emblematic figures of Justice and Patriotism, of Peace, Liberty, and Union. All this, however, may well be left for future years, or even for future generations. Each succeeding generation, indeed, will take its own pride in doing whatever may be wisely done in adorning the surroundings of this majestic pile, and in thus testifying its own homage to the memory of the Father of his Country. Yet to the minds eye of an American Patriot those marble faces will never seem vacant,never seem void or voiceless. No mystic figures or hieroglyphical signs will, indeed, be descried on them. No such vainglorious words as Conqueror, or Chastiser of Foreign Nations, nor any such haughty assumption or heathen ascription as Child of the Sun, will be deciphered on them. But ever and anon, as he gazes, there will come flashing forth in letters of living light some of the great words, and grand precepts, and noble lessons of principle and duty, which are the matchless bequest of Washington to his country and to mankind.
Can we not all read there already, as if graven by some invisible finger, or inscribed with some sympathetic ink,which it requires no learning of scholars, no lore of Egypt, nothing but love of our own land, to draw out and make legible,those masterly words of his Letter to the Governors of the States, in 1783:
There are four things which, I humbly conceive, are essential to the well-beingI may even venture to say, to the existenceof the United States as an independent Power: First, an indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal head; Second, a sacred regard to Public Justice; Third, the adoption of a proper Peace Establishment; and Fourth, the prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the People of the United States which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community. These are the Pillars on which the glorious fabric of our Independency and National character must be supported.
Can we not read, again, on another of those seemingly vacant sides, that familiar passage in his Farewell Address,a jewel of thought and phraseology, often imitated, but never matched,The name of American, which belongs to you in your National capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations? and, not far below it, his memorable warning against Party Spirit,A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume?
Still again, terser legends from the same prolific source salute our eager gaze: Cherish Public Credit;Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all;Promote, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of Knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
And, above all,a thousandfold more precious than all the rest,there will come streaming down from time to time, to many an eager and longing eye, from the very point where its tiny aluminium apex reaches nearest to the skies,and shining forth with a radiance which no vision of Constantine, no Labarum for his legions, could ever have eclipsed,some of those solemnly reiterated declarations and counsels, which might almost be called the Confession and Creed of Washington, and which can never be forgotten by any Christian Patriot:
When I contemplate the interposition of Providence, as it was visibly manifest in guiding us through the Revolution, in preparing us for the reception of the General Government, and in conciliating the good-will of the people of America towards one another after its adoption, I feel myself oppressed and almost overwhelmed with a sense of Divine munificence. I feel that nothing is due to my personal agency in all those wonderful and complicated events, except what can be attributed to an honest zeal for the good of my country.No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore an Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an Independent Nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of Providential Agency.Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and of citizens.
And thus on all those seemingly blank and empty sides will be read, from time to time, in his own unequalled language, the grand precepts and principles of Peace, Justice, Education, Morality, and Religion, which he strove to inculcate, while, encircling and illuminating them all, and enveloping the whole monument, from corner-stone to cap-stone, will be hailed with rapture by every patriotic eye, and be echoed by every patriotic heart, The Union, the Union in any event!