Paul Soglin, George Washington, And The Symbolism Of Keys

The gotcha moment last week in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race was designed to create much chatter.  For having the ability to hit a controversial nail square on the head Governor Scott Walker succeeded.  Walker stated how alarming it was that in 1975 Madison Mayor Paul Soglin gave the key to the city to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  Politicos of all stripes are talking about it, mentioning it on social media, and writing columns concerning it in newspapers.

There are many favorable things to say about Soglin.  He is a respected leader, effective politician, and able to stand before an audience without notes and respond to questions with paragraph-length answers strewn with data.   One has to truly admire such a person.  Just recently I again called his office to register support for an action he took–the latest being his tough stand about liquor sales on State Street.

But when it comes to the symbolic move of giving the key of the city to Castro there is no way to say it other than to admit history agrees with Walker.  Except in some tortured revisionist writing the real world of the Castro dictatorship is well known.   Simply brutal and unforgiving.  That view of the Castro regime was known in 1975 when Soglin made his move.  As compelling as it may seem to link that symbolic gesture to improving communications and fostering better international relations in Cuba, let it not be forgotten that allowing a dictator to have the type of positive inroads with such propaganda was not warranted considering the despicable way he ruled.

Some argue that Soglin’s action was merely a symbolic move, and Good Lord, it was more than 40 years ago so let us move on and talk about the issues of the day.  But for many people symbolic actions are taken more seriously and it can be argued, should not be treated so cavalierly.

At George Washington’s Mount Vernon there is among so many artifacts, one that simply demands to be gazed at and pondered–regardless of how many others are pressing behind urging for those ahead to move along.  (Believe me, I know.)  Sent by Washington’s longtime friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, the key to the Bastille is hung prominently in the president’s state dining room.   The key represented a major turning point in the global surge of liberty.  It is noted Washington knew the significance of the key as a “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism by another.”

Do symbols, such as the key to Washington, or the one to Castro, matter?  I believe they do.

Not because they are, as in the case of the one in Virginia, something that can be seen and almost touched but because these symbols go beyond the tangible.  These symbols are steeped in their own significance of idealism and hope.

It is proper to always urge for the democratic rights of others in places around the world.  I applaud Soglin for making the verbal pleas for a more reform-minded Cuba during his discussions with Castro. But a repressive regime should never score a propaganda victory, as with a key to one of our nation’s capital cities.

Instead of Soglin now doubling down on why he thought the gesture with the key was important at the time, I wish he could be reflective about the decades of misery that Castro inflicted on his country.  I genuinely think elected officials who can concede making mistakes are stronger as a result.

And so it goes.

George Washington’s Bible

Some history for a windy, winter-feeling Friday.

This Bible contains a sheet of paper carefully inscribed with the marriage date of Augustine Washington (ca. 1694-1743) and his second wife, Mary Ball (1708-1789), as well as the birth dates of their six children. George Washington, their eldest child, was born “about 10 in the Morning” on February 11, 1731/32, according to the Julian calendar then in use. When England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 (which we still observe today) this date changed to February 22, 1732 – the day Washington considered to be his birthday.

See Mount Vernon From Your Own Home

One of the highlights from our spring visit to Washington, D.C. was the one-day side trip to Mount Vernon.  There is no way to describe in any adequate manner the feelings I had standing on the front side of the famed home of President George Washington while looking down on the Potomac River.  I spent several minutes there in reflection and would have so loved to been able to sit with a cup of coffee and watch the sun lower over the home and water and sensed more fully what Washington would have seen so often.   We visited on one of those hot days when the humidity was very high and that suited me just fine so to experience the conditions that often confronted those who lived and worked on this large farm.

There is a most wonderful link to the entire home at Mount Vernon you can experience as a virtual tour.   If you want a thrill take a look.  But if you want to truly feel the awe plan your trip to this place on the banks of the Potomac.  History is calling you.

Key To The Bastille Gates At Mount Vernon

James and I were able to see the key to the Bastille gates at Mount Vernon during our trip this spring.  Today is Bastille Day, the common name given in English-speaking countries to the French National Day, which is celebrated on the 14th of July each year.  As such, I want to give the background as to how the key was in the possession of George Washington.

With his military experience from serving during the American Revolution, the thirty-two year old Marquis de Lafayette quickly assumed a prominent role in the opening chapter of the French Revolution. After the Bastille fell, Lafayette was placed in command of a local national guard formed to keep order throughout France.

The Bastille main prison key was turned over to Lafayette shortly after the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789 by angry citizens rioting in the streets of Paris. The Bastille was a natural target when violence erupted after severe shortages of bread led the people into the streets. Lafayette was optimistic about the fate of the revolution when he prepared to ship the Bastille key to Washington in March of 1790.

Several months passed before the gift finally arrived at its destination. On the first leg of the journey Lafayette entrusted the key to Thomas Paine, well-known for his participation in the American Revolution. The actual presentation to Washington late in the summer of 1790 was an honor that fell to John Rutledge, Jr., a South Carolinian returning to the United States from London.

The principal key to the Bastille is made of wrought iron and weighs one pound, three ounces. Washington’s prominent display of this celebrated souvenir in the presidential household illustrated his appreciation to his French pupil as well as recognition of its symbolic importance in America. Shown first at a presidential levee in New York in August, the key continued to be showcased in Philadelphia when the seat of government moved there in the fall of 1790.  Shortly before Washington’s retirement from the presidency in 1797, the key was taken to Mount Vernon and given a place of honor in the first floor passage.

Here is the way I saw it at Mount Vernon this spring as I took this photo.



First Flown At Mount Vernon, Now At Our Madison Home

There were three very special things we brought back from our spring trip to Washington, D.C.

At the Iwo Jima Memorial two workers were taking apart a flower bed that had hundreds of tulip blooms just weeks before.  The pile of bulbs was quite large and after we passed them I turned and went back with a question for one of the workers.

“What are you going to do with those bulbs?’

“Not really sure,” was his reply.

“Might I have one?” I inquired.

“Take as many as you want,” he added with a gesture of his hand over the pile in front of him.

My Midwestern sensibilities did not allow me to place handfuls into my shoulder bag as I had the space–but I did take two and they are planted in a special place in our lawn.

The other extremely wonderful item we brought back is a flag that was flown at Mount Vernon, the home to George Washington.  Today we raised it here for the first time to fly at our home for July 4th.   It will come down tonight and be used only for future Independence Days or Presidents’ Day.

James has a special bag to store it in, and place it away for safe-keeping.

Mount Vernon Memories: Thoughts Of Military Might, Constitutional Compromises, And Too Many Teenagers

As I walked the long hall at Mount Vernon I thought of what it must have been like to see George Washington, perhaps after his arrival back home after duties with the Revolutionary War, or perhaps as an older man following two terms as president.  He would open the doors to the large front of the house and look out on the sloping hill that bent down towards the Potomac River.   Throughout the day spent at the home of our first president I tried to stop and just reflect what that place represented.  Who had stood on those grounds, felt the heat and humidity, and pondered the great issues of a people who championed liberty.  They had to not only grapple with how to attain freedom from England but then later when the union of colonies was created determine how to manage and adapt to the  growing and changing demands of nationhood.

How many times might Washington have seen this view from his home porch and wanted so badly to stay and enjoy the beauty but still felt the call to participate in the frothy construction of a new nation?

From down the slope of the hill one can perhaps image the tall and sturdy-built man looking out from his grand home.

I admit to only once over the entire trip wanting to spin around and inform a large group of school children ranging in ages from 7th graders to freshman in high school to “Shut up”, or some variation thereof.   May is the month every state sends this age of student on a class trip and only a very small percentage that I witnessed over 10 days had any care or interest in any part of what they saw.  They could have been at a beach or theme park and had just as much fun.  Their absence from D.C. would have made it so much more enjoyable for all the rest.

So it was as we passed the room at Mount Vernon where receptions would take place for the likes of Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry that I wanted to tell these sweaty teenagers to stop and think about the place they stood and who had graced these halls and helped usher in a grand experiment that still plays out today in this land.  If these walls could talk!

There is no way to be at this home and know the role of Washington and the times in which he lived without feeling the chasm of the stated ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence on the one hand and the sad reality on the other of how blacks were used as slaves.  The kitchen table of Martha always had a Virginia ham and places were usually set for many as Washington was adored and honored by visitors.  There was food to be made in the kitchen at the end of the home so to not heat up the residence.  Clothes and household items needed to be washed six days a week.  The slave quarters were small and would have been wretchedly hot.  There were over 8,000 acres in Washington’s hands and slaves made those farms economically sound.

Reading since a teenager of the disputes at the Constitutional Convention and the needed compromises to ensure passage by the states is one thing.  But it was really sobering to be where the joining of such high laudable hopes that Washington symbolized also was met and meshed with the immoral nature of slavery.  There was no way to walk on a very steamy Virginia day past the place where slaves would have toiled at washing or weeding crops and then look back up where the home was located and know who lived there and what was proclaimed in a document from 1776 and not feel another heat hotter than that of the sun.  It was that real of a feeling for me.

Granted, that perhaps comes from my love of history and all that I have read over the years.  On the way home that day I wondered how many others who made that same tour felt the same sense of unease and discomfort and pondered the complexities that some of the Founding Fathers lived every day.

The start of the end of Washington’s life has been told often–my favorite historian of this era, Joseph Ellis–writes the best narrative in His Excellency.  Bad weather and a long horse ride and wet clothes is the start of the end.  At Mount Vernon the resting place for the first First Couple is simple and yet quite remarkable.  It was one of four presidential burial sites we visited on this trip.

The resting place for President George Washington (below)


The resting place for Martha Washington (below)

I had often read of presidents taking the presidential yacht, USS Sequoia, down the Potomac for evening outings or to show a leader of another country a part of this nation’s charms.  So when James and I planned to visit Mount Vernon the idea of seeing the home of our first president via a trip on the Potomac was simply irresistible.

The War College is but one of the many sites that ones passes.  As it came into view the role that the military plays in the power structure of our nation’s capital was once more most obvious and clear.  The day we visited Capitol Hill there were members of the off-duty military walking about with uniforms emblazoned with medals.  The lady we rented our apartment from worked for the NSA.  The city pays tribute to past wars and soldiers with statuary everywhere.  One could easily sense Jack Ryan could pop out of any scene and get to work.

The military aspect is both historical and also very real.  To see a grouping of large Navy helicopters fly overhead and hear the intense beating of the rotors or to look out on the Potomac and know not so far away the battles that Lincoln was concerned about once raged makes for a sense of pride, and awe, and respect.  It creates a mood and a feel that is old-fashioned and that is just fine.

Needless to say D.C. takes on an epic feeling as you take the river route.  And as we came back to the city there above the fray of politics and all that we have endured for centuries stands the symbol of sturdiness and steadfastness–the Washington Monument.