I have often written about guide books to Washington D.C., focusing on what they have to say about Capitol Hill. So when I found a thick volume entitled Thirty Years in Washington, I had to get it. Written by “Mrs. John A Logan” – actually Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan [pictured] – the book is subtitled Life and Scenes in Our National Capital, Portraying the Wonderful Operations of All the Great Departments, and Describing Every Important Function of Our National Government Including its Historical, Executive, Administrative, Departmental, Artistic, and Social Features, With Sketches of the Presidents and Their Wives and of All the Famous Women Who Have Reigned in the White House from Washington’s to Roosevelt’s Administration.
While pedants may argue that no one ever ‘reigned’ at the White House, the title does a good job of explaining what is captured within its 752 pages. Today, however, I will focus on the chapters relating to the Capitol itself, saving sections on the further reaches of the Hill for future columns.
When Mrs. Logan arrived in Washington in 1859, after her husband was elected to Congress, the Capitol was not quite completed yet, as work on the dome had only recently begun. She had plenty of time to witness it in its full flower: While Mr. Logan resigned his position in 1862 to take up arms for the Union, the two would return in 1867, and Mr. Logan would represent Illinois in both the House and Senate until his death in 1886.
Mrs. Logan remained in Washington, and it was thus a long, tumultuous time that she looked back on. Her description of the Capitol, however, does not reflect this. Instead, she begins her section on the Capitol with the lyrical sentence:
In all the broad land there is no spectacle so bright, so inspiring as the gleaming Capitol on a June day. The crocuses and violets that dotted the green slopes of the Capitol grounds a few weeks ago, and the plumed seeds of dandelion are now sailing around us through the deep, still air.
A little later, she writes
Early summer always brings a great influx of bridal pairs to Washington. Whence they all come from no mortal can tell; but they do come, and can never be mistaken. Their clothes are as new as the Spring’s. The groom often seems to half deprecate your sudden glance, as if, like David Copperfield, he was afraid you thought him “very young.” The affections of the lovely bride seem to be divided between her new lord and her new clothes.
Mrs. Logan was not always so charmed – her description of bas-relief over the west entrance of the Rotunda, named “Pocahontas saving the Life of Captain John Smith” is quite pointed:
The idea is national, but the execution is preposterous. Powhatan looks like an Englishman, and Pocahontas has a Greek face and a Grecian head-dress.
Mrs. Logan does a good job of describing the building from top to bottom – including a page on the climb to the top of the dome. The only thing she fails to mention is the use of the rotunda as a place to have great men and women lie in state – as her husband had some fifteen years earlier.