A Secular God

Montel Yancy
DC History
February 19, 2009

George Washington: A Secular god

When the United States was formed, there were problems with unity among the country. Issues and ideologies, such as urban versus rural and slavery versus anti-slavery, are some of the reasons for division. The infant country was in need of a form of unity and the exaltation of George Washington was that symbol.

George Washington was the first president of the United States. He was given the task of designing the capital, which is located in Washington, DC. Congress placed the project on his shoulders by giving him executive authority on the project and his design of the capital would not only reflect him, but the whole nation. He wanted the capital in Washington, DC to be a reflection of the nation and a symbol of democracy for people who came into the city and bought land. Washington had high hopes for the new city, which caused him and the people he hired (like Peter L’Enfant) to strive hard to make this city come true although it lacked realism. Washington wanted to make a legacy from this city that lasted long after he was gone. There were many obstacles that almost prevented the city from being built, but slave labor stopped the city from collapsing. Washington truly wanted to be remembered by the whole nation. Many years after Washington has died, he has been immortalized. He was put on the American 25 cent piece, American dollar bill, and has a monument built for him. He has been portrayed as a god; a symbol of unifying democracy in the United States.

The process in which a mere person ascends into the heavens and becomes a god or god-like figure is known as apotheosis. A historian noted that the reason why Washington worked so adamantly in building the capital was because he “desired above all else immortality in the hearts of Americans yet unborn.” Inside of the Capitol Building in downtown Washington, DC, there is a painting on the ceiling of the building that immortalized Washington. It was painted by the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865 and covers 4,664 square feet. Upon entering the building, I was awestruck by the pure beauty and tranquility of the drawings that seemed vivid as though they were painted that day. I found it hard to believe that it was painted more than a century and a half ago. The painting depicts Washington clothed in purple robes, which is a royal color, and he has a rainbow at the soles of his feet. He is up in the clouds and is depicted as a god. There are thirteen females that are around him and they have stars above their heads. These females are a representation of the original 13 colonies that were formed and there are some maidens who have their back turned to Washington. The maidens who have turned their back on Washington represent the states that have seceded from the Union when the painting was created. The painting was created after the end of the Civil War in its last 11 months and that is how the states that seceded were represented. Liberty is at the right of him and Victory is at the left. Liberty is holding an open book and fasces (a bundle of rods with a protruding axe that symbolizes power) and wears a red cap on her head. The red hat represents liberty. With further research, I found that in Roman tradition sons that were leaving home were given a red cap, which is known as a Phrygian Cap. The painting is a symbolic representation of Washington’s ascent into the heavens and the colonies are represented with maidens. Along with that is the personification of Liberty and Victory, which fully shows his climb into the apex of the heavens.

Although Washington wanted to be remembered as a great person among the hearts of Americans both born and unborn, I do not think that he would want to be revered as a god because of his religious beliefs. He was baptized in the Church of England therefore making him a Christian. In Christian belief, it says, “Thou shalt have no others gods before me.” This means that one worshipping Christ, as Washington was, can only have one God. By becoming a god himself, he broke the law that he was supposed to abide by, which was the biggest sin in his belief. Creation of false idols is a true sin in this religious practice because it professes monotheism (the belief in one god or God). As many people come into the nation’s capital, they see the obelisks and the monuments professing democracy as the main ideal. Many people both foreign and native travel down to the national Mall yearly in Washington, DC to “seek some kind of communion with the secular civic religion that is embodied in its temple like buildings and the democratic institutions they enshrine,” meaning that people come from all around the world and look to see at the flamboyant and gigantic statues made to commemorate the people who made this country what it is now. George Washington is like the god of democracy because he was one of the founding fathers and by apotheosizing him it gave the country unity that would probably not be as strong because of the constant clashing of ideologies. The country was young and there was much disagreement, which almost caused many states so secede from it. The apotheosis of Washington does not really make him a god, but more as a symbol of the unification of a new free country. It differs from that of a biblical God because the biblical God is to be worshiped, while Washington is more like a symbol and a lasting legacy of how the city has changed. Many people that come to Washington, DC, especially during tourist season, will see this painting along with the other shrines and they will see how the founding fathers made their legacy and the symbolism that is represents.

Another thing to point out about the painting is that some ideas represented in it are contradictory. Washington has been put as a god among the people and he represents liberty, yet he owned people and used them for labor. Slaves are what I am talking about. They have been the main reason why the city has not collapsed. If it weren’t for their hard labor, the city might not have been created. Although the Apotheosis of Washington is supposed to represent freedom and democracy among the people, it keeps out the contributions of slaves as if they were not even there. Their sacrifice to make this city possible has been left out among the history texts. What also makes the apotheosis of Washington contradictory is that he was once a slave owner, yet he has been identified with liberty. He owned slaves on his house in Mount Vernon and in his younger days he would raffle these people off as entertainment and those who refused to conform were taken to death camps in the West Indies. As he became older, he thought that the slaves that he owned in his Mount Vernon home were racially inferior because they were working sloppy, but he found out that the slaves were acting inferior because they were tired of slavery. He then wanted to abolish slavery because of his past actions and he sought to talk to other slave owners, but without any success. In his last years, he had an epiphany about slavery and the horrors there of. Historian Henry Wiencek said, “For all its superficial benevolence, the slave regime cloaked crimes that Washington no longer stomached.” Washington finally realized the true crimes that slavery has hidden because it was seemingly good, yet people were dying and treated as property not people. In essence, the painting inside the US Capitol Building is contradictory because it has a slave owner representing freedom and liberty, yet he was the main contributor to the slave trade and those people were the only reason that the capital survived, but you won’t hear about this in the history books. You will only see Washington as the symbol of unifying democracy.

In conclusion, George Washington was a visionary and an extraordinary leader. His contributions during the building of Washington, DC were essential and may possibly be the reason why the area has had such longevity. He has been a key figure in the building of this great city. Exalting him as a god serves as a symbol for what the United States represents: democracy. Democracy is what makes this country unique. Washington’s rise to the heavens embodies that facet of this magnificent country. Washington wanted to be known for his contribution to this city, and so he has. Unfortunately, if it were not for slave labor, this magnificent city would not have been created. It is also unfortunate that Washington favored slavery at one point in time, and he has been exalted as a god among virtues such as Victory or Liberty. That is a contradictory idea because he impeded on the freedom of people, slaves, and at one point he used them to make sure that the building of the capital would be a success. They have not been properly, if at all, acknowledged for their contributions, which makes the city known as what Charles Dickens called it, “The City of Magnificent Intentions,” because they had the intent of making a symbol of democracy and freedom for the nation, yet they owned people as property and had the audacity to exclude them as if they had not even existed.

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