Voltairine De Cleyre, “Washington Sights and Sounds” (1890)

For the Boston Investigator.


Mr. Editor:—When Charles Dickens visited us in 1842, he wrote that Washington was rather a city that was “going to be,” than an accomplished fact. Choosing between this opinion and that of a personal friend who declares it is the only city in the United States fit to live in, I should award the palm to Dickens.

Washington is still a largely “going to be” sort of place, a queer mixture of metropolitan airs and country village smells. I had heard so much of its magnificent distances that I was prepared to be tired at the first mention of sight-seeing; I imagined a walk from Fourteenth Street to the Capitol would be an all-day’s tramp, and the Washington Monument a sort of receding mirage that would beckon me through almost interminable space. For the benefit of similar sufferers allow me to say that it’s a piece of unwarrantable deceit. Though the grounds and streets of the Capitol are not “bright and glorious,” they are not “everlasting;” not near so distressingly stretched out as this Quaker City from which I write. It is wonderfully favored in scenic location, and if its people were not all either politicians or dependents of politicians, the one occupied in finding out the best way to blindfold the giant which creates them, the other sneering at them for their finding, Washingtonians might be poets and painters very naturally.

But I have heard before of the corruption of political life and now I know it. We used to say, out in Michigan, that to put any man selling wood would corrupt his morals, let him be never so saintly; he can’t stand the temptation to pile seven-eighths of a cord so as to fill the measure of a cord, and take money for ingenious holes. Alas! the politicians are selling the people holes at tremendous prices, and the various employes of the departments (about the only class of working people in Washington) seem to regard the sum total of officialdom as contained in the word “rotten.”

But lest I be supposed to be indulging in baseless invective of my own invention, come with me to that marble Capitol of which I spoke before, whose beautiful dome rises from the midst of the greenness and bloom which only the South affords in February. The great magnolias are in blossom, the catalpas are opening, and the growth of a blush burns soft and deep where the peach trees blow.

Inside the Hall of the People (I am not sarcastic,) with its wonderful rotunda, its checkered marble floors, its galleries like streets, you see upon the walls, and far up in the dome, beautiful paintings of beautiful women—always women! Liberty’s, Oh! so many of them, always women; angels, always women; muses, graces, Fates, always women, and in the aisle and through the halls and in the corridors and reception rooms, men, men, men!

As we passed into the one pitiful waiting-room which in all the great Capitol is for the living representatives of the pictured guides and goddesses, we heard a he-creature remark to an acquaintance: “As so and so says, ‘I believe my wife is my equal in every respect, except to be a servant to other people!’ ‘By G—d, that’s me!”

Oh, how I wanted to let my tongue loose on that man! How I wanted to ask him whether he preferred his wife to be a servant for the United States at five thousand dollars a year and the difficult duties(?) of misguiding people’s affairs, or working in a choking factory sixty hours a week for $6.00, as a million of the served, who pay the five-thousand, do. I wanted to ask why it was quite proper that wives should work in every department of the public machine, serving the servants, but not at the Capitol? I wanted to ask him of what use any one was in the world if she did not serve some one; anyhow I suppose he would have assured me she was his servant—he had a monopoly on her services, bought and paid for them.

For my part I am glad women have never soiled themselves with the contemptible business of legislation. I hope by the time our equality is recognized, that vast pile will have been turned into an enjoyment hall, really “for the people,” and there will be no more law-making; but as long as those people admit suffrage as a premise, I want them to use a little logic.

I didn’t wonder they were ashamed of the business, when we took seats in the gallery of the House, and watched how a law was made. Imagine an immense school-room, with a desk for each number, a waste-paper basket for each desk, a spittoon, writing materials, etc., and all this seen through a blue cloud which has curled gracefully upward from the illustrious Senators’ mouths, and rests around the heads of “we, the people,” who gaze down. But Oh, the members! Not sitting in their places like well-behaved school boys attending their lessons, but meandering about with (pardon) cuds in their mouths, attending to everyone else’s affairs, and making noise enough to disgrace the gallery gods of a variety theatre. I have been there—and sat it out, the only woman in the crowd; I have been among the lowest “alums” of this or other cities; I have seen the much dreaded emigrant in all his glory, and I have yet to see as disorderly, and apparently, purposeless as assemblage, as the National House of Representatives.

In deprecating this to a friend in a somewhat apologetic tone of voice, I was a mused by a little Spaniard’s enthusiastic description of a device to keep these disorderly members in their seats. The plan was to put a large frame divided into sections, each section containing an indicator, upon the walls of the house, the sum of the sections to equal the sum of the members; the indicator to be connected with an electric button at each desk. One push was to register “yeas,” two, “nays,” three, “don’t vote.” He had also perfected a mechanical plan for determining any tampering, and a scheme to lock the member in his seat while the vote is being registered. His reason for this was purely an economical one. He said:—“When I go dhere and see dhat man cry out, ‘order, order, jhentlemen, and brings down his fist, my grazhus! every time he puts down himself dhat cost fifty dollar, my grazus!’” So much for the Capitol.

One drizzling, misty day, I entertained myself at the National Museum. It’s a fine assemblage of minerals, geologicals, bugs, birds, toads, bears, and (to quote Dickens again) “human bones various.” There were lots of gods too, and one bright-eyed mulatto showed me the devil; like a little girl’s ring, “he was solid brass.” I sat down by a miniature fountain and reflected on the propriety of keeping God in the National Museum, though dear knows it would be sufficient reason for all the decent relics to arise and walk out. The monument! A vast needle of gray stone in the centre of what is “going to be” a beautiful roll of ground, a green gem setting for the silver of the Potomac, with blue Virginia hills behind. But to-day it is overhung by the sad veil of rain, (I used to call it God’s tears when I was pious,) the way is muddy, the Potomac dismal, and the hills somber, and far away.

A party of us crowded in the elevator and went creeping up, up, seeing nothing through the grates of our moving prison save gray walls, sparkling now and then in the electric light, and black numbers which indicated every twenty feet of the ascent. Arrived at the top we each made a wild dive for the window, anxious to dash our eyes upon a scenery which is said to stretch away like a dim picture from that immense height. Lo! formless mist! Nothing but the gray veil we could not tear! I imagined how God must have felt in that immense void from which he “made” things. Only we had the advantage—we had some superb masonry to stand on—he was enthroned on that big shroud of nothing.

Finding there was no view my friend and I concluded to race the elevator down. As we had a nine minutes start, and “the walking is good,” it was not a hard matter. We even found time to stop and admire the stone carvings on blocks presented by different societies in every part of the U. S. One poor old lady who is struggling hard with the world, told me her deceased husband put $600 into the Columbus, (O.,) presentation, saying with half complaining, but not bitter, lips: “I think he might better have left it to me.”

I turned from the sad face to the great gray pile; I thought of the rotted bones sleeping in Mt. Vernon, beyond the somber hills; I wondered if the monument built of living gratitude were not better than that mass of petrified heartache; and as my eyes fell from the aspect to the base, inwardly exclaimed with Anaxagoras, “What an amount of money turned into stone!” Pessimistic reflection no doubt; the proper thing is to admire and be patriotic and feel duly elated at having seen the highest monument in the world erected in my native country. But alas, I am a native of the world and I think more of the world’s people now, than I care for glory or remembrance in the future. When I read of the obelisks, the pyramids, the temples of the ancients, I always think, to what end did those who quarried them with their lives, and cemented them with their sweat and sorrow, rear those vast tombs? To sepulchre the idle; to glorify gods of stone? And I fear our own cannot but impose the thinking in like manner.

Let no one who visits Washington omit the Corcoran Art Gallery. Out of its splendid array of sculpture and painting I have carried the remembrance of a painted sea, whose waves moved upon the canvas like living water, the foremost running in upon the beach in that long shell-like curve which writes great circles in the sand, and the farthest seen, curling its great blue crest to break, while in between floated ridges of sparkling white now and then upthrown like flying hair. One might cool one’s self by that picture on a hot day; the very salt seems to be glistening in the air above it. in one of the side galleries there is the most wonderful moonglimmer I have ever seen outside of a June night on Lake Huron. Through a gap where soft water winds beneath the night shadows of watching hills, the light breaks like a smile between parted lips. It shreds the unmoving leaves, throwing dark doubles downward, and then glints and rests on the long rippling foreground of water, so rarely, so clearly, that gazing you would exclaim, “the ripples move!”

I observe that Miss Leland in her book “Around the World,” lays some severe strictures on ‘the old masters’ for putting on their paints roughly; but I suppose the masters, like these painters of sea and moonlight, worked for effects. Close to one they were very “dauby,” but at the distance necessary to get the perspective they put to shale all the more painstaking works, who fine finishing only rendered them flat and indistinct. I observed the same thing in sculptures. The piece which fixed me longest was the head of the “Veiled Non,” which, near at hand, looked shapeless, rough, and meaningless; but across the gallery the most beautiful features are revealed behind a veil, so filmy and delicate, one needed to touch it to believe it was of stone. In the centre of this gallery and facing the “Nun” is the reputed masterpiece—a cast of Powers’ Greek Slave—it is lovely, but it has the fault of being too perfect, too finished, to arrest the eye at any distance.

I could have spent hours within those fascinating halls, but time, tide, and trains wait for no woman, so went away with a sigh and a resolution to come again some other day. On my way to the depot I say the prettiest little spot in all Washington; a miniature grotto, in a quaint corner of the Capitol grounds, where a wee cascade sang to itself, and jealous rocks shadowed the wonderful greenness that bordered it.

On board the train I reflected: Well, I have seen Washington! It certainly is a novelty; it is different from all other places. It is ornamental if not useful; its papers are more honest than any I have ever met (probably because there are so many women reporters); its people are of many climes and nations; it has no fixed characteristics; its bump of continuity is small; but thank goodness it isn’t pious!

Of course I didn’t see a quarter of what was to be seen, but enough to justify the above conclusions which severally occupied my mind for different lengths of time until our “limited express,” on hour late, landed me at Chestnut Street in the midst of a whirl of snow. It was cold snow, just as cold as flies up North; but not cold enough to chill the remembrance of the pleasant friendships made, and the warm heart-wishes for all the bright radicals I met at the Capitol. Le me close by extending them to all who read these lines.

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Philadelphia, Pa.

Voltairine De Cleyre, “Washington Sights and Sounds,” The Boston Investigator 60 no. 6 (May 14, 1890): 1.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.