The Magazine


A Manifesto for a Lost Creed

Mar 3, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 24 • By DAVID BROOKS
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The original Library of Congress building celebrates its centennial this year. When I mention the Jefferson Building, as it is now called, to people who have done research there, they smile at the memory of it. There's something about the place that seems to inspire affection.

In fact, the building just overpowers you with its exuberance and grandeur. The interior is unabashedly ornate and infinitely decorated. You may cross into the main reading room in a sober mood to get some serious work done, but then this great dome opens up above you. It's covered by a thousand floral medallions and a complex weave of terra cotta figures. You're surrounded by warm amber marbles, bronze sculptures, and a collection of frescoes, columns, and pediments without end.

But the Jefferson Building is more than just a giant Faberge egg. When you get down to looking at the details, you find that the craftsmanship is actually mediocre: You can travel around Europe and find a hundred buildings with better paintings and better sculpture. Nonetheless, there is something about the energy of the building that makes it more than the sum of its parts, that makes it not so much an artistic wonder as a spiritual artifact. How did any group of builders muster so much vitality?

The answer is that this is an American building. For all its classical and Renaissance style, this 1897 building speaks to us in American. It embodies the optimism and brassy aspirations of Americans in the Gilded Age, their faith in the power of beauty to elevate, their confidence in America, their brash assertion that America was emerging as a world-historical force.

What a melancholy thing to compare today's Washington with the Washington in which there was such enthusiasm for grand American projects. The congressmen who appropriated the funds for this building wanted to make sure it was the most expensive and most glorious library on the face of the earth (some even toured Europe to check out the competition). Its architects chose the Renaissance style to invite comparison to that golden age -- to suggest that America was making contributions to world culture equal to it or any other epoch. The librarian of Congress at the time, Ainsworth Spofford, gave pride of place to American heroes like Benjamin Franklin and Robert Fulton in the pantheon of historical likenesses that covers the walls. Spofford and his colleagues saw the building as a statement of American greatness -- and as a way to elevate America to greatness.

It is worth noting that for all its aspirations, the Library of Congress was not completed at a moment of giddy prosperity. In the 1890s, Americans endured a depression during which unemployment peaked at 17 percent (it hovered above 12 percent when the library opened). A quarter of the nation's railroads had become insolvent. America was under strain on other fronts, too. During the 23 years it took to design and build the library, more people immigrated to America than in the previous 250 years combined. The nation's population almost doubled, and white Americans settled more land in these years than in the preceding three centuries. Cities grew exponentially. Slums spread. It was a period of labor unrest.

But menaced by these threats to national cohesion, Americans redoubled their devotion to American nationalism. Hit by economic blows to their confidence, they reasserted their faith in themselves. Faced by anxiety and intellectual uncertainty, they did not succumb to malaise or cynicism. Instead they counter-attacked, with big projects like the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the Library of Congress.

At their worst, Gilded Age Americans reacted to anxiety with dogmatism -- ponderous chest-thumping about the "superior races." But at their best, they asked big questions: How can America produce a culture it can be proud of? How will the inhabitants of some future world power look back on American achievement during its moment of supremacy? What are the steps that a nation can take to preserve the virtues that lead to greatness in the first place?