11 May 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: Newlyweds in the Capitol

Today, we finally get to the section in Mary Clemmer’s book on Washington that I‘ve been aiming for quite some time. It is part of the chapter on the Capitol I quoted last week, and begins with a paean to Washington in spring and an invitation “to the western front of the Capitol, to stand with me on the balcony of the Congressional Library, to survey the city lying at our feet within the amphitheatre of hills soaring beyond, the river running its shining thread between.”

Mary (and that’s her on the left) then moves a few feet east, under the recently-completed dome of the Capitol:

And so many people seem to have come under the great dome to rest. You wonder where they could all have appeared from. They are not at all the people who crowd and hurry through the corridors in winter – the claimant, the lobbyists, the pleasure-seekers from great cities who come to spend the “season” in Washington. Nearly all are people from the country, the greater proportion brides and grooms, to whom the only “season” on earth is spring – the marriage season. Pretty pairs! They seem to be gazing out upon life through its portal with the same mingling of delight and wonder with which they gaze through the great door of the Capitol upon the unknown world beyond. Early summer always brings a great influx of bridal pairs to Washington. Whence they all come no mortal can tell; but they do come, and can never be mistaken. Their clothes are as new as the spring’s, and they look charmingly vernal. The groom often seems half to deprecate your sudden glance, as if, like David Copperfield, he was afraid you thought him “very young.” And yet he invites you to glance again, by his conscious air of proud possession, which says: “Behold! I may be young – very. But I have gotten me a wife; she is the loveliest creature upon earth.” The affections of the lovely creature seem to be divided between her new lord and her new clothes. She loves him, she is proud of him; but this new suit, who but she can tell its cost. What longing, what privation, what patient toil has gone into its mouse or fawn-like folds; for this little bride, who regretfully drags her demi-train through the dust of the rotunda in summer, is seldom a rich man’s daughter. You see them everywhere repeated, these two neophytes – in the hotel-parlor, in the street-cars, in the Congressional galleries.

Newlyweds in the Capitol, as seen in this detail of a print that ran on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, August 30, 1890. (HathiTrust.org)

When Jonathan read to Jane, in distant Mudville, the record of Congressional proceedings in Washington, in the Weekly Tribune, both imagined themselves deeply interested in the affairs of their country; but here, on the spot, how small seem Tariff, Amnesty, Civil Rights, and Ku-Klux bills beside the ridiculous bliss of these two egotists. They do not even pretend to listen. But they have some photograph cards, and seek out their prototypes below. On the whole, Jane is disappointed. She was not prepared for so many bald heads, or for so much of bad manners. After all, not one of these men, in her mind, can compare with the small law-giver, the newly-found Lycurgus by her side.

Lycurgus was —for all of you, like myself, whose classical education is deficient— the possibly legendary lawgiver of ancient Sparta who instituted their system of governance founded on equality, military fitness, and austerity.

We will return to Clemmer’s prose next week.

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