Five US monuments to stir your soul and the stories behind them.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of different monuments in the world. Some commemorate famous people, famous events, or tragic wars. They are meant to be permanent structures that will inform and inspire future generations that visit them. Here I will look at five special monuments that celebrate powerful ideas, which is the highest form of monument there is.
To do this, I will leave out war memorials for another blog entry, as they are a special type of monument that carry their own energy. I will also leave out natural wonders, inspiring as they are, they aren't true monuments. In thinking about monuments, many of which I've visited myself, I wondered what their purpose was and how could I talk about them more deeply to hopefully inspire my readers.
So without further ado, here are my picks for the five most inspiring monuments in the USA.
1- Statue of Liberty- New York
When I think of inspiring landmarks, the Statue of Liberty is always at the top of the list. It's iconic location in New York Harbor makes it stand out, and its association with freedom, liberty, and hospitality. Liberty has appeared in dozens of Hollywood movies and been visited millions of times. It appears on US currency, stamps, and all sorts of official forms, making it the ultimate symbol of the country.
It's a bit ironic, then, to learn that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from another country- France. Our most important national monument was dreamed up, designed, and constructed in France. Two Frenchmen- writer Édouard René de Laboulaye, a writer and sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi came up with the idea and design of the monument after the end of the American Civil War. Laboulaye was a staunch abolitionist and wanted to celebrate the end of slavery in America. The design of the statue was loosely based on the Roman goddess of liberty- Libertas, though no one knows for sure what the main inspiration was.
Liberty holds a torch in her right hand to symbolize enlightenment. The official name of the statue is "Liberty enlightening the world". The torch is the most important part of the memorial, as torches throughout history have signified liberty, freedom, inspiration, knowledge, and teaching. Perhaps that's why the Olympics uses them so much.
In her left hand, the statue holds a tablet with the date July 4,1776 written in Roman numerals. It symbolizes a book of law, and represents the sculptor's admiration for the US battle for independence. (France at that time was still a somewhat repressive monarchy). At her feet are broken chains, partially hidden so as to not inflame the ex-slavers who still lived in the US.
Though the statue was proposed in the 1860's, it wasn't dedicated until 1886. Though France designed it, Americans had to pay for a lot of it through dedicated fund-raising campaigns. One of those campaigns included the famous poem The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus. The poem, which is now mounted on a plaque inside of the pedestal ends with these famous words:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The Statue of Liberty is one of the first things that immigrants to Ellis Island saw upon arriving in the US. It continues to inspire all those that come to visit it today.
2- The Lincoln Memorial- Washington, DC
It's interesting that the two most iconic national landmarks were both inspired by the same thing- the Civil War. This period was a major turning point in the country's history and its president at the time, is memorialized in a majestic 19-foot tall statue at the center of a large and impressive marble structure. With over six millions visitors per year, The Lincoln Memorial is the most visited monument in the entire country. (Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is #1 worldwide).
The Lincoln Memorial appears on the penny and the five dollar bill, as well as in movies as diverse as Forrest Gump and Night at the Museum. Though the war ended in 1865, the memorial didn't get dedicated until 1922. Martin Luther King used it as a backdrop for his famous "I have a dream speech", and the Lincoln Memorial has become a symbol for racial harmony.
Besides the giant statue, the memorial includes two large murals depicting the freeing of the slaves, as well as inscribed copies of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. The memorial is large, open, and made of marble, but it is dedicated to much more than the man it's made out of. Looking out, you can see the large reflecting pool that dominates the National Mall, and you can appreciate the struggle that began just across the Potomac River in Virginia and beyond.
Lincoln's Second Address, coming in 1865 just before his assassination is one of the most iconic of his speeches. It ends:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
3- The Gateway Arch- St. Louis, MO
Formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Gateway Arch is now a National Park. As a St. Louis native, I've grown to take the Arch for granted, but every time I visit it I see something new. It is a towering (630 feet- largest among all US monuments) tribute to the western frontier as Thomas Jefferson saw it in 1803 when he completed the Louisiana Purchase. While the monument commemorates Jefferson, he is a minor player in the stories told in the museum here.
The Gateway Arch sits on a river bluff above the majestic Mississippi River, and it is surrounded by a large park lined with trees and paths. The Arch itself is a magnificent work of art and architecture, designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen after a worldwide competition that resulted in its sleek, modern design. It has become an iconic symbol for the city of St. Louis, appearing everywhere. From conception in 1933, it took over thirty years to complete on the St. Louis riverfront. Though the outer structure was done by 1965, it wasn't dedicated and completely opened until 1968.
Small elevators take visitors up to the top of the Gateway Arch, where tiny windows allow visitors to look out over the city. The highlight for me is the extensive museum beneath the arch that's dedicated to the story of western expansion. This museum paints a complex, layered picture of the history of the western frontier, not shying away from the horrific treatment of Native Americans and Mexican nationals, both of whom were displaced from lands they had used prior to 1803. This rich history lesson gives unique perspective on the areas west of the Mississippi and the consequences of the Louisiana purchase.
As a long-time visitor to the Gateway Arch, I believe that it's no longer a monument to white settlers who headed west. It's something much bigger. Instead, it's a symbol of a giant gateway to an uncertain future, something we can all relate to. Here are some of the words of Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the dedication ceremony.
"The arch is to the West ... and to the future ... a soaring curve in the sky that links the rich heritage of yesterday and the richer future of tomorrow..."
4- The Martin Luther King Memorial- Washington DC
Not far from the Lincoln Memorial sits a smaller, simpler memorial to another giant in the battle for civil rights- Martin Luther King. While King died in 1968, this memorial was finally dedicated in 2011, fittingly by Barack Obama. It features two giant stone structures- a "mountain of despair" split into two, and a "stone of hope" in the middle and in front, with the body of King emerging from it. It comes from a passage of the "I have a dream" speech in which King said "This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."
Dr. King came along at a critical period in race relations in the US. His words and actions inspired many who were fighting the battles for voting rights and civil rights. I had hoped that things would have come further by now than they have. Racism is still a thing, though often invisible and couched in crafty wording. The words of Dr. King are still as important now as they were then, making this monument an essential part of the American experience. Here are some other King quotes carved into stone at the monument.
"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Washington National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
Strength to Love, 1963.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963.
"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits."
Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo, Norway, 1964
5- The Liberty Bell- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Probably the smallest monument in America is the four-foot tall Liberty Bell, once rung across the street in Independence Hall, now housed in its own special building. Park service employees report that visitors are often underwhelmed by the Liberty Bell, expecting something much bigger and grander. But its history and significance have lasted over 300 years.
The Liberty Bell was first cast in 1752 for the city of Philadelphia. It is made of bronze and weighs a bit over a ton. For almost a century in the early days of the US it was rung for very special occasions, eventually developing a famous crack the origins of which are unknown. By 1846 its ringing days were done and the bell became a national symbol on money, stamps, and war bonds. It traveled the country from time to time in special exhibitions, but has been housed in Philadelphia most of the time.
Over 2 million people visit the bell every year, mostly because of its significance in the early days of the country. Bells in general hold a special significance in most of our ceremonies and celebrations. While today they've been replaced by digital representations of bell-ringing, they still grab attention when they ring out loud. Bells have been used for weddings, coronations, and new beginnings of all sorts. Cancer survivors famously ring a bell once they can announce that they've beaten the disease. Making loud noises was believed by early civilizations to ward off evil spirits, and bells became the noisemaker of choice because of their pleasant sound and ability to be heard for long distances.
Bells symbolize peace and freedom, and the Liberty Bell is probably the best known symbol of those qualities, even if it's small size underwhelms.
I have visited all of these monuments except the last one, and found them worth my time. Monuments are meant to inspire and inform, and I hope that more people look for ways to find inspiration in times that appear confusing and dark. We walk in the footprints of others who've helped make this world a better place, and it's our mission to follow and make it even better for those who follow us, leaving memorials behind that mark our progress.