Fort Report: Independence Day

Jul 1, 2017
Fort Report

I recently toured the newly renovated United States Capitol dome. It contains a striking fresco—entitled The Apotheosis of Washington—of a stern and purple-clad George Washington exalted in the heavens. On his right is the Goddess of Liberty, symbolizing emancipation, and on his left the Goddess Victoria, symbolizing victory. He is surrounded by 13 maidens representing the 13 original colonies. However, there’s a twist. The backs of several of the maidens are turned to Washington. They represent those colonies—Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—that had seceded from the Union just before work on the fresco began in 1863.

Around the rest of the dome are six allegorical scenes that project the defining ideas of America at that time: War, Science, Marine life, Commerce, Mechanics, and Agriculture. Perhaps a bit old-fashioned to the modern mind, they convey optimism about the frontier, economic progress, and what a new nation might achieve.

Although I have seen it before, something struck me differently this time. The scenes grasp an incomplete ideal. The Apotheosis of Washington shows a reflective and confident America—but what is missing is a fuller understanding of the nature of community, individual dignity, and freedom. The idea of progress is narrowly defined. And that narrow definition is with us still today. We only tend to value what we can measure—things like production, technology, and military victory—and they still rally us. But, as important as these things are, there is more to life. The more we have grown economically and technologically, the more our nation groans. And we have to ask why.

America is a far more complicated country than in Washington’s time, not only due to our prodigious size, wealth, and amazingly diverse population, but because rapidly advancing technology, a 24/7 media news cycle, and a highly competitive global marketplace have made life more frenetic, difficult, and alienating. Today, there is a widespread anxiety in our nation over economic inequality, declining opportunity, and concentrating wealth and power—as well as a new force expressing a loss of unity in community combined with a search for solidarity. While Congress spends most of its time debating numbers, financing, and budgets, a vision for America, expressed in its fullest sense, goes beyond such material dimensions. Our economic vitality must not only be measured in growth and efficiency, but also in how well we advance the higher purpose of human flourishing.

A group of men visited with me one day. They had worked their entire lives doing tough work, and it showed. In return for spending themselves physically, they were guaranteed a pension, a little bit of safety in their older years. But the portfolio management had erred, the process didn't work, and they were facing massive cuts to their income. They simply asked to be treated fairly.

We rightly mark our Independence from the British as the beginning of a new nation, a new experiment in government, based in freedom. However, freedom is most properly expressed in the freedom to do what we ought. Unlinked to responsibility to one another and higher ideals, freedom is a meaningless wandering. Progress, no matter how grand, is never an end in itself. Persons unconnected, an economy uncaring, and technology ever-accelerating can leave many behind. Independence from tyranny also means interdependence in community.

The Capitol dome is over 150 years old. Till recently, chunks of iron had fallen off, and water seeped through its cracks. Now it is made whole again, the seams repaired, with new original-like glass, and a fresh layer of protective coating—because we chose to do it. If we cling to her ideals, the gift of America allows us the freedom to preserve unity and make genuine progress—the freedom to be whole.

I wish you all a happy and safe Independence Day!