Tuesday Nov. 17, 2015

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The Divine Image

To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

"The Divine Image” by William Blake. Public Domain.  (buy now)

On this date 215 years ago, in 1800, the United States Congress met in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for the first time. Construction had begun on the domed building in 1793, but it soon fell behind schedule and went over budget, so in 1796 the planners made the decision to build only the Senate wing. On move-in day, some of the rooms were still incomplete, but the building was sufficiently finished to accommodate the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and some district courts. President John Adams had pushed for the move, even though the building wasn’t complete, because he hoped to gain Southern votes for his re-election campaign.

The weather didn’t cooperate, christening the first day of the new session and the new building with heavy snow. The welcoming parade had to be canceled, and congressmen were delayed trying to get to their offices, with only 15 making it into the chamber on opening day; it would be a further four days before enough senators were there to answer the quorum call and open the session. At that point, the House and Senate sent word to President Adams that they awaited his address. He arrived the following day; his was to be the last personal address to Congress by a president for the next 113 years.

Members of Congress were less than pleased with their new accommodations. Although richly appointed, the building leaked and had no heat. Washington was a primitive backwater, especially when compared to the civilized and well-established Philadelphia, where they had met for the preceding 10 years. One New York senator observed that Washington needed only “houses, cellars, kitchens, well-informed men, amiable women, and other little trifles of this kind” to make it perfect.

In its early days, the Capitol moonlighted as a church on the weekends; beginning with the Jefferson administration in 1801, church services were held every Sunday in the House of Representatives. Jefferson did not feel that this violated the separation of church and state, because attendance was voluntary and the services were nondiscriminatory — at least as long as you were Protestant, since all (and only) Protestant denominations were represented. Jefferson and his successor, James Madison, attended the services themselves. Worship services were expanded to include the Catholic Mass in 1826, and church meetings in the House continued until after the Civil War.

Both wings of the Capitol were completed just in time for the building to be burned by the British in 1814, during the War of 1812. Reconstruction began in 1815 and was completed in 1819; the first dome, however, wasn’t complete until 1826. By 1850, with the ongoing influx of new states and their new congressmen, it was clear that an expansion was in order. Built largely by slave labor, the new Capitol was nearly twice as long, which threw it out of proportion to the original dome. In 1855, they tore down the old timber dome and replaced it with the cast-iron version we’re familiar with today: three times the height of the original, and topped with a 20-foot statue of a woman holding a sword and a laurel wreath, known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, or sometimes, Armed Freedom.

It’s the birthday of novelist and historian Shelby Foote (books by this author), born in Greenville, Mississippi (1916). He was an editor of his award-winning high school paper. He used the paper as an editorial platform for his strong opinions — including challenging his fellow students to read more literature, and criticizing the school’s strict principal (who once suspended Foote for reading Ulysses, which he considered pornographic). Foote’s best friend in Greenville was the future novelist Walker Percy, and Foote hoped to follow his friend to the University of North Carolina after high school. But it was customary at the time for colleges to get an opinion from each applicant’s high school principal, and Foote’s principal gave such a poor opinion of the young man that he was not admitted to college. Instead, Foote got a summer job at the local gypsum mill. After Walker Percy came back to Greenville with his stories of college life, Foote was so determined that he drove more than 600 miles to Chapel Hill and insisted to the administrators that they admit him. He finally wore them down and they agreed to let him take the placement tests. When he got some of the top scores at the university, he insisted on sending the results to his former principal and suggested that they be published in the high school school paper.

Despite all the trouble he went through, Foote dropped out of college. He returned to Mississippi, then spent a few years as a captain in the U.S. Army, but he was constantly in trouble for challenging authority and was kicked out. He worked for a while as an Associated Press writer, volunteered with the Marines, and worked at a local radio show, but he wanted to be a writer and work for himself. In 1946, he adapted the novel he was writing into a short story and sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. The Post accepted the story and sent Foote a check for $750, so he quit his job to write full time.

He wrote several novels that didn’t sell many copies but got decent reviews. One of them, Shiloh (1952), told the story of the Civil War battle from the perspective of multiple soldiers, both Union and Confederate. The president of Random House liked Shiloh and wrote Foote to ask if he would be interested in writing a short history of the Civil War in honor of its centennial. He offered Foote a $400 advance for a 200,000-word book, which Foote expected would take 18 months. He said, “I figured that I could write about twice as much history per year as I did fiction per year — fiction is hard work; history I figured, well, there’s not much to that.”

Foote went to work, writing with an old-fashioned dip pen — he said, “The very notion of a word processor horrifies me.” Twenty years and 1.5 million words later, he finished his three-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative (1958–1974). He said: “In response to the complaints that it took me five times longer to write the war than the participants took to fight it, I would point out that there were a good many more of them than there was of me.”

The Civil War established Foote’s reputation as a historian, but he didn’t become famous until he was featured in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about the war. Viewers loved his insights, his voice, his style — for a while he was averaging 20 calls a day from fans who wanted to invite him over for dinner. His Civil War trilogy sold 400,000 copies in the months after the documentary was broadcast. Foote’s novels include Love in a Dry Season (1951) and September, September (1978).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®