Sermons in Stones

Plenty of folks have responded to what seems to me to have been an extraordinary Second Inaugural address by President Obama.  See two Jim Fallows posts for starters.  It was, as Fallows says, a striking speech on at least two levels:  that of content, with the president’s clear and unequivocal declaration of liberal intent; and that of rhetoric with its phrases infused with historical intent, American civic scripture, and compact, elegant, present-day exegesis.

But the symbolism within the speech did one aspect of the speech that hasn’t got much (any?) notice — perhaps because Chuck Schumer told the story, not Obama.

That is:  the setting of the president’s speech, the porch of the US Capitol, provided a visual and material rhetorical grace note to the claims on history and present urgency that President Obama expressed in words.

Here’s the background: design work had begun on a new dome  for the building in 1854, following an expansion of its two wings of the Capitol, completed in 1855.  That work was nowhere near complete on 4 March, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s first inauguration:


Work on the dome — or rather payment for the work — ceased for most of 1861.  The lead contractor on the project had $1.3 million worth of building materials on site — I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that you can see some  of the construction materials for the dome in the foreground of the image above — and decided it was better to keep going and hope that the federal government would pay up in time, which they did.  As the Historian of the Capitol, William Allen, notes the story that the new president himself  [PDF] ordered the continuation of the work is a myth — but the symbolic significance of the project didn’t escape Lincoln either.

The exact form of the Lincoln quote in reply to a question as to why spend money on architecture in the midst of war seems a bit apocryphal to me, but there seems to be a pretty broad recollection that he said something like  “if people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”  Certainly, when I interviewed him for this film, Allen emphasized how potent the ongoing construction was for the troops from all over the Union who mustered on the Mall before marching off to the forward positions of the Army of the Potomac.

The dome wasn’t quite complete in March, 1864, but it looked mostly as it does now — that towering white, grandly neo-classical confection, its domed shape a recognized symbol of the cosmos as a whole — of the order of heaven — in a bit of architectural iconography established at least as far back as the Emperor Hadrian, who so pointedly staked his claim of divine sanction in one of the foundational statements of western architecture.

And of course, to play a little of the political numerology so beloved of pundits, that means that the first Second Inaugural to play out against the backdrop of the dome was Abraham Lincoln’s.  The most recent, complete with language deliberately echoing Lincoln’s, came yesterday.

Schumer’s anecdote played on that connection — that Lincoln asserted the claims of union against the forces of disunion and authoritarian oppression, while Obama yesterday advanced the notion that we are a society, not an atomized cloud of individual secessionists.

We’ve lived a to-me unprecedented four years in which the opposing party has challenged not just the policies or politics of the administration, but its legitimacy, the right to exercise power conferred by democratic choice.  The echoes of race, of secessionism, of the authoritarian claim that the consent of the governed is tolerated only so long as hoi polloi make the right choices are all distant (and not always so muted) echoes of 1860 and 1861.  And yet the black man with the funny name just took the president’s oath for a second time, directly beneath what we might, not quite accurately, nonetheless call Mr. Lincoln’s dome.

This is how rhetoric engages historical change. The meaning of the dome is not the same as it was in March, 1865.  Still, it connects.  And even if President Obama’s opponents cannot bring themselves to accept the blunt reality of a Democrat, an African American, and  a mainstream-progressive (if that characterization makes sense, and I think it does) not just winning, but holding power, the dome is there to remind them of a lesson very similar to what the traitors of 1865 learned to such cost: that the union is not merely the property of entrenched power.

That’s the chief significance of the visual language of Obama’s greying head beneath that wedding cake of dome.  It’s sufficient.

But there is actually one more thing.  Somewhere — it may have been a Balloon Juice comment thread, actually — I read someone quip that with all of Obama’s talk of internal improvements, infrastructure and investments in the future, the man sounded like a Whig…just like that railroad lawyer, the young Abe Lincoln.  In that context, the Capitol dome is a perfect symbol of the innovation and swelling ambition of the nation, then and now.

For the dome is a glorious lie.  It may look like shining marble, a masonry structure just like the grand baroque domes of Europe, St. Peter’s and the like.  It’s not.  The entire thing, inside and out is a jigsaw puzzle of cast iron, painted to fool the eye.  I’ve had the exceptional good fortune to climb inside the dome, between the inner shape you see from the rotunda and the familiar gleaming confection that stands over the mall.  When you do you climb up the stairs there you duck through the ribs that hold up the outer skin and from which rods connect to the (self-supporting) inner one, each made of plates bolted together.


(Don’t be fooled — all those coffers on the inner dome that appear to be pale carved stone in the drawing above are cast iron too, painted a dull grey on the side the punters don’t see.)

The iron segments that accrete into the dome were cast — in NY, I believe, though I’m on the road, away from my notes, and my memory may be playing tricks.  The material was shipped to Capitol Hill and assembled there, like a giant erector set.

The meaning — or at least a meaning?

You see in the fabric of the building at least two connected thoughts:  an object lesson in the sources of the defeat of the Confederacy:  already, by the 1860s, the American metal working industries — largely concentrated in the loyal North —  were advancing to and past the capabilities of the world leader, Britain.  And in our Civil War, Yankee industrial power and skill beat an economy based on the theft of human labor.  Paying attention to science, to technology, to the skills needed to play in the big leagues actually made a difference in that war, logistically, the difference.

Such attention is still all-in-all. . Hence the significance of that portion of President Obama’s campaign and inaugural address that spoke and speak to the need to invest in the brains and the technologies that matter right now.  And all the while he spoke, the dome stood behind him, granting historical assent.

Material objects have always been able to serve as both things and symbols. That China has just opened the longest high-speed rail line in the world is of obvious practical consequence for that nation.  No one doubts it has rhetorical significance as well.  The Mars rover Curiousity is so much more than a go-cart.  And so on.

Symbols as they age change:  they gain resonance; that accumulate layers of meaning, perhaps even some that complicate each other.  The Capitol Dome was completed as an element in the argument over what kind of country the United States could hope to be.

The second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, performed under that great structure, advances the cause of union and of this Union at this precise moment in time.  It is altogether fitting and proper that it should do this.

*Actually, the first dome was a visual disaster all on its own, one of Charles Bulfinch’s least impressive efforts — though it must be admitted that he didn’t have an entirely free hand in his design.

Cross-posted at the Inverse Square Blog.

35 replies
  1. 1
    FlipYrWhig says:

    Nicely done! I enjoyed this vignette too, though it wasn’t as resonant as it could have been in Schumer’s not-exactly-stentorian voice.

    The “Whig” crack was definitely here — I spotted it, but it wasn’t me.

    As I heard the Obama speech, it definitely sounded like he was pushing hard on the idea that government and American notions of the common good didn’t cease in the Revolutionary generation but were dramatically expanded, and rightly so, in the 19th century. A lot of the speech was about the continuance of 18th-century small-r republicanism, which is interesting, but the 19th-century material felt like an innovation in presidential speechmaking.

    A FB friend of mine thought that the speechwriters had to have been reading a lot of Garry Wills recently.

  2. 2
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    OT progamming note: TCM is showing “How to Steal a Million” and “Topkapi” as part of their Tuesday night caper flicks feature.

  3. 3
    The Fat Kate Middleton says:

    Thank you so much for this, Tom – it adds such depth and resonance to yesterday’s events.

  4. 4
    gbear says:

    @FlipYrWhig: What the heck is so wrong about Chuck Schumer’s voice? I really enjoyed his speech about the dome and it’s importance to a complete, united country. He spoke clearly and he seemed deeply moved and joyous about the event at hand. It came through to me and I couldn’t understand all the crap that he was getting on this site yesterday.

  5. 5

    It’s strange: Bulfinch designed the dome of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, which is a fine-looking dome (though the gold leaf on the outside apparently wasn’t originally there).

  6. 6
    beltane says:

    I thought of Tom yesterday while watching Scalia in his Thomas More, “I’m gonna burn me some heretics” hat. Is Scalia a Holbein fan or just a man for no seasons?

  7. 7
    me says:

    OT: Oh for fucks sake. The Snooze Hour has Ramesh Ponnuru on to talk about the presidents speech.

  8. 8
    scav says:

    “Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. “. Has there been a lot of discussion unpacking the MLK antecedents? I’m a dunce at this but the idea of the nation advancing on a journey toward equality, towards realizing what had been written seemed there for me. Is that a common enough trope that it doesn’t matter?

  9. 9
    Origuy says:

    Davis X. Machina gets the credit for the Whig reference.

  10. 10
    Chris says:


    As I heard the Obama speech, it definitely sounded like he was pushing hard on the idea that government and American notions of the common good didn’t cease in the Revolutionary generation but were dramatically expanded, and rightly so, in the 19th century.

    The idea that all human political evolution and progress peaked with the Founding Fathers is one of the more irritating delusions on the right. The America we have is as good as it is at least as much because of the people who improved on their model as because of them, maybe more. All that “getting away from what the Founding Fathers wanted?” Feature, not bug, in more cases than not.

  11. 11
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @gbear: Just from the perspective of the voice-as-instrument, his is kind of thin. It doesn’t have that “voice of God” quality like, e.g., James Earl Jones’s voice does. (Think of Mufasa appearing in the clouds to Simba, and sounding like Chuck Schumer. Ruins the moment.) But it was a good speech.

  12. 12
    👽 Martin says:

    And an assurance that parts of the country continue to move forward:

    Assembly Bill 154, authored by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, would revive last year’s push to expand abortion access by allowing nurse practitioners to perform non-surgical early abortions.

    That landscape has changed now that U.C. San Francisco has completed its study and seen the results published in the American Journal of Public Health, Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said at the rally. The study concluded that trained nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives could safely perform early abortions.

  13. 13
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @Chris: Totally agree. The agrarian republic was ready for the scrap heap by the middle of the 19th century. And that was what I found interesting about the speech: it embraced the “Founding Fathers” in a way that was covertly slightly askew, by setting forth the idea that “We, the People” started almost immediately pushing the ideals of the Revolutionaries in new directions in order to address the new challenges and new possibilities of modernity.

  14. 14
    smintheus says:

    And, obviously, the Capitol dome evokes a civic rather than a religious pantheon for our Republic.

  15. 15
    Ben Franklin says:

    The “Know Nothing” Party controlled the Committee in charge of the construction budget.

  16. 16
    👽 Martin says:


    The idea that all human political evolution and progress peaked with the Founding Fathers is one of the more irritating delusions on the right.

    You mean slavery should no longer be a founding principle? Madness!

  17. 17
    geg6 says:


    Heh. I had similar thoughts.

    I also thought that corrupt egomaniac just HAD to make it all about him. Thankfully, the Kenyan Muslim Soshulist Usurper gave a kick ass speech and his Romulan sex goddess of a wife outshone any and all attention whores like Fat Tony.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    Baud says:


    Is that the rally Forrest Gump spoke at?

  20. 20
    Raven says:

    @Baud: “Thank you for the Black Panther. . .Party”!

  21. 21
    RareSanity says:

    This was an awesome read…

    ¡Viva el Profesor Levenson!

  22. 22
    Groucho48 says:

    Off topic, but there was a link on the Fallows page to an interesting study on education.

    Basically, we generally score low in overall rankings because we have a lot more poor people than the top education countries. If we control for that, we stack up a lot better than the overall rankings that the right loves to use to bash unions and public education. (A nice little twofer for them.)

    I posted the link in order to troll some right wingers in another of my regular forums. They hate having America do well in anything. Something I delight in pointing out to them.

  23. 23


    The America we have is as good as it is at least as much because of the people who improved on their model as because of them, maybe more. All that “getting away from what the Founding Fathers wanted?” Feature, not bug, in more cases than not.

    Also, too, if Founding Fathers didn’t want us to change and fix stuff, why did they include Article V in the Constitution and invoke it 12 times within the first couple of decades that the Constitution existed? They knew perfectly well they weren’t going to get everything right, so they designed the Constitution to allow change and were perfectly happy to make those changes when they noticed problems. If you think our government was perfectly designed and never needs changing, you’re going directly against what the Founding Fathers believed.

  24. 24
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @Groucho48: Bob Somerby has been on that angle (re: education and poverty) for a long time.

  25. 25
    MariedeGournay says:

    ” And in our Civil War, Yankee industrial power and skill beat an economy based on the theft of human labor.”

    Blunt and to the perfect point. You’re a lovely writer.

  26. 26
    Jay C says:


    They hate having America do well in anything that might contradict their pet political/ideological shibboleths.

    Edited for clarity….

  27. 27
    Mr Stagger Lee says:

    Fun fact the senator in charge of remodeling the Capitol was none other than Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

  28. 28
    schrodinger's cat says:

    @beltane: What was the significance of the hat?

  29. 29

    @MariedeGournay: Many thanks!

    I’ve picked up that frame for the Civil War and the south from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has emphasized the essential act of theft at the heart of slavery for a long time now.

  30. 30

    @Mr Stagger Lee: Secretary of War, I believe, at least for a time.

  31. 31
    SoINeedAName48 says:

    Worthy of a Bookmark!!

  32. 32
    Tehanu says:

    Lovely post, Tom. Thank you.

  33. 33
    fuckwit says:

    @Roger Moore: whenever I hear bullshit about the founders, I think of this

  34. 34
    Gretchen says:

    Beautiful post.
    The reason that Lincoln was able to get big things like the railroads and establishing the Land Grant colleges through Congress was that the Southerners had seceded, so he only needed the votes of the Northerners to do big things. Now Obama can’t get things like high-speed rail through Congress because the Southerners are back in and will vote against them. 150 years later, they’re still fighting the future.

  35. 35
    Miki says:

    Beautiful – thank you.

    Shared and bookmarked.

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