NATION IN WAITING
President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas caused ripples in the Mideast this week when he revealed an alleged Saudi peace plan that offers the Palestinians less than any ever conceived of. Our deep dive in the Octavian Report with the CFR’s Robert Danin on Abbas and the internal mechanisms of Palestinian politics will shed light on what’s really going on. Read it here.
He was the Cincinnatus a young American nation so dearly needed in the waking hours of the Republic: loyal, dedicated and, above all, modest. But even though George Washington was remarkable for his excess of civic virtue and humility throughout life — he didn’t even want the Presidency for God’s sake, much less to be fawned over like a mighty hero of America— he was finally, whether he would have liked it or not, exquisitely honored in death on this day in history, 1884: the completion of the Washington Monument.
Washington’s wife Martha had fiercely rejected the idea that Congress entomb the body of her husband after his passing away in 1799, so it took a while for the idea of a monument to catch on again. It would almost even longer for that idea to reach fruition. Although the Washington National Monument society first announced a monument design competition in 1835, a winner would not be chosen until 1848 — architect Robert Mills had the honor. Work would start, stall and start up over again as funding and politics interfered with the construction — imagine trying to build a spectacular monument of marble, granite and sandstone; then try imagine doing so with angry Confederates marching up from the South. Mills never even saw the finished job: he passed away in 1854. Still, just under a hundred years after Washington’s death, the American people had the monument he deserved. It also begs the question of which Presidents we’ll be building obelisks for in a century.
If that question depresses you — or maybe you’re a Hamilton addict who’s forgotten the original musical ode to the founding fathers — give 1776 the film a shot this week. This is the movie that, love it or hate it, will be sustained in the public consciousness for at least the near future in American history classrooms everywhere across the country. And, if we’re being honest, thank God: the movie’s blend of music, charm and historical drama makes it a timeless gem.
Now, this does not mean that the movie is incredibly accurate on a historical basis. No one really ever forgets the first time they heard the brilliant rendition of “Sit Down, John” or its wonderful opening lines: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!” It is worth noting though that John Adams, hated as he was while President, had not yet become that obnoxious, stubborn man while he was in Congress — he was actually fairly well liked. But leave the historical nitpicking to our next recommendation; 1776, if anything, was not meant to feel dry.
How dry you ask? Have you seen Good Will Hunting? Do you remember this scene, where the viewer is incorrigibly reminded that Matt Damon’s character is wicked smart? The showdown between Hunting and a generically annoying Harvard graduate student quickly swerves into a verbal sparring match over the likes of Gordon Wood and other great, influential historians of America. And how does one catch up on what Hunting refers to as the “pre-Revolutionary utopia and the capital forming effects of military mobilization” when teasingly citing Wood? Start with The Creation of the American Republic. Published in 1969, this crystalline view of the start to America is one of Wood’s first great works and well worth a read if any of this week’s Rostrum seems the vaguest bit interesting to you.
And in all seriousness, in a country like America whose citizens now more than ever need to keep an eye on how the founding principles of America reached the abysmal state of affairs seen around nationally and sometimes internationally today, reading books like The Creation of the American Republic could not be more critically important. What exactly is popular sovereignty anyway, how did America stumble onto it, and when exactly did Trump start stepping on its greatest contributions to the national government?