I remember once reading that a champagne glass is modeled on the breast of Helen of Troy. I trust this meant the coupe, not the tulip or the flute. In any case, I mention this titbit of mammary memorabilia to prepare you for my frank declaration that the dome of the U.S. Capitol is evidently modeled on the breast of a buxom showgirl who once fascinated lonesome congressmen in a burlesque theater on one of the seedier streets in Foggy Bottom.
Unlike immortal Helen, the name of this siren of the Senate is forgotten, but not, for better or worse, the stately shape of her protuberant pap. This is nowadays the preferred backdrop of every boob on television, and we therefore see it nightly, lending its glorious and glandular gravitas to their grimacing grins and garrulous tongues.
Much has been said of late about the hallowed halls of our national assembly, but I must here exercise my Constitutional right to say that the U.S. Capitol is a preposterous building. Which is not to say unsuitable. Quite the opposite.
I should add that I have considerable first-hand experience with the U.S. Capitol, since I was long ago employed as a crack bicycle courier by the Ace Agency of Washington, D.C. I have therefore seen that dome gleaming in sunshine and dripping with rain. I once saw it (from below) while holding a door of the Capitol open for Tip O’Neil, then Speaker of the House. But from any angle, or in any light, that dome reminds me that it covers the greatest burlesque theater on earth.
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The modest knob on which the U.S. Capitol sits was once known as Jenkins Hill. At the foot of Jenkins Hill ran an equally modest tributary of the Potomac that was known to local sportsmen as Goose Creek. Just west of Jenkins Hill, where the National Mall now stretches in all its wind-swept and litter-strewn glory, Goose Creek once widened into a marshy arm of the Potomac estuary. Indeed, when Don Alexander Hawkins surveyed the site of the soon-to-be-built Federal City in 1791, he indicated a sizable swamp directly below Jenkins Hill. But this swamp, at least, was drained.
It was probably Thomas Jefferson who stripped Jenkins Hill of its respectable name, and then saddled it with the preposterous (although not unsuitable) name of Capitol Hill. This was an expression of Mr. Jefferson’s preposterous paganism, since he was likening Jenkins Hill to the Capitolium or Capitoline Hill of ancient Rome. As you may know, the Capitoline Hill was the religious center of pagan Rome, much like the acropolis of Athens or Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Capitoline Hill was home to many Pagan temples, the largest of which was the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. That is to say Jove, the greatest and bestest god that ever was.
If you know anything about Thomas Jefferson, you will understand that this was a stick in the eye for American Christians, since their “temple of democracy” was dedicated to Jove, and not Jesus or Jehovah. Perhaps it wasn’t their temple after all.
Preposterous and provoking, but not unsuitable. Jove is, after all, the god of wind and thunder, and nothing (except that buxom showgirl) is more honored than wind and thunder in the great temple of democracy. I have sometimes wished that the two houses of Congress had been named the House of Wind and the House of Thunder. It would please me to think of Thunderers thundering in the upper house; and when I held the door for Tip O’Neil, I would have delighted to cry, “make way for the mighty Wind.”
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Goose Creek nowadays runs through a sewer under the National Mall. The spreading estuary at its mouth, in which eponymous geese once honked, is now a landfill with tourists on top. But for nearly a century, Goose Creek flowed in the light of day with the preposterous name of Tiber.
In 1803 the Irish poet Thomas Moore visited the infant city of Washington and wrote.
“In Fancy now beneath the twilight gloom,
Come, let me lead thee o’er this modern Rome!
Where tribunes rule, where dusky Davi bow,
And what was Goose Creek once is Tiber now!”
And the hill once named for honest Jenkins was aggrandized to Capitol Hill. And the edifice on its brow, at first decently denominated the Federal Building, was aggrandized to the Temple of the Thunder God. And how those Thunderers ever afterwards thundered. And how those mighty Winds have blown.
Charles Jared Ingersoll is a long-forgotten American politician and satirist who, in 1810, published a long-forgotten book of spurious letters in the manner of Montaigne’s Persian Letters. These letters were purportedly written by a Jesuit priest who was a subject of the Turkish Sultan. The priest visited the young Republic and wrote these letters to report his observations to the Sublime Porte. As in Montaigne’s Persian Letters, the preposterousness of America was exposed through the misunderstandings and perplexities of a foreigner. Here is Ingersoll’s Jesuit writing from Washington.
“Within sight of my window, there is a large castle, with a flag flying from the top, in which two hundred congressmen, as they are called, are confined, like muedhdkins [muezzins] in the minaret of a mosque, preaching day and night for the salvation of the people.”**
This was, I must point out, before the dome atop that large castle was engrossed with its great augmentation. Before it sprouted those preposterous wings. Before it truly merited the name, Temple of the Thunder God. But oh how glorious, how grand–how absolutely Roman—that young Republic has since become.
*Thomas Moore “From the City of Washington” (1803)
**) Charles Jared Ingersoll, Inchiquin the Jesuit’s Letters (1810)