Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C.

By Jeffrey F. Meyer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
A “National Church” and
Its Holy Scriptures

In 1882 a young scholar named J. Franklin Jameson made his initial visit to the library of the State Department in Washington, D. C., to undertake research in American constitutional history. Three years later, in the introduction to his first published monograph, Jameson explained that he had noticed a curious phenomenon: “The constitution of the United States was kept folded up in a little tin box in the lower part of a closet, while the Declaration of Independence, mounted with all elegance, was exposed to the view of all in the central room of the library. ” 1

My point in recalling Jameson's observation is that the Constitution is far more than the “charter” or “instrument” embodied in the plan of Washington. It is not just a dry legal document that defines how power should be distributed and exercised by the various branches of government. Shortly after Jameson's experience, the physical document began to assume a new aura of sanctity that would ultimately lift it to “biblical” status. Ever more reverently treated and gloriously enshrined, it would end up an icon in the National Archives, where it is viewed today by millions every year in a hushed atmosphere of solemn public veneration. It has taken its place as a part of the national cult in its Washington temple.

This chapter examines the fate of Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plan to develop an important site for a national church, creating a prominent square for the location on an axial street that was arguably second in importance only to Pennsylvania Avenue. Although the national church was never built and the axial street (Eighth Street) was interrupted at several intersections, declined in importance, and gradually almost disappeared, the church's functions have been parceled out to other locations. In a strange way, the original site of the Patent Office (now shared by the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American Art), built where L'Enfant had sited the national church, has assumed some of the functions he had intended for it.

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