Fear has been part of American culture for over 300 years by now, so it is hardly surprising that Stephen Colbert picked 'Fear' as a guiding principle for his rally on October 30. Colbert understands what Americans want, and he is giving it to them. But what if the fear on display on the Mall that day isn't enough for you? What if you want to wallow more intensely in this all-American pastime? Where can you go to learn more about the history of fear in our nation's Capital? Fear not, we have a list for you.
1. The Washington Monument: Right there, at the center of the Mall, is a stark obelisk marking the life and work of our nation's first president. Its radical simplicity is a a permanent symbol of the man who, more than any other, ensured that this nation was created, and has continued to endure for over 200 years. You're probably asking yourself, then, how it could possibly be a monument to fear.
Look carefully about a third of the way up the monument. The color of the stone changes markedly at that point, and it is this mark that speaks of fear in our history. The Know-Nothing party erupted on the political landscape in the mid-1840s. Their fears were simple: Immigrants, and Catholics. And, of course Catholic immigrants. The Know-Nothings tried to reduce immigration and naturalization, but fought immigrants and naturalized citizens wherever they could – including at the ballot box. In 1857, several groups of Know-Nothings descended on voters determined to vote in the city election; they were kept from harming the potential voters only because one hundred Marines joined in the fray.
In 1854, construction of the Washington Monument was in full swing. Even as the courses were added steadily, groups and individuals from around the country – and around the world – were sending plaques that they wished to add to the monument. One of those sending a stone was Pope Pius IX. This galvanized the Know-Nothings, who broke into the construction site, smashed the Pope's stone, and threw it into the Potomac for good measure. They then proceeded to join the Washington National Monument Society in great numbers, and have themselves elected into all positions of power within it.
Unsurprisingly, this caused donations to the society to dry up, and though the Know-Nothings managed to add 13 more courses of stone, these had to be removed later because of the extremely shoddy job done on them. From 1858 on, no work whatsoever was done on the monument, and throughout the Civil War, at the center of Washington DC stood a monument not to bravery and selflessness, but fear.
2. 7th St NW between D and E Streets: Anti-immigration fear was far from the only source of tension in the 1840s. Anti-abolitionist hysteria had its own proponents, and these came to a head in 1848 after Daniel Drayton, a Chesapeake waterman, attempted to smuggle 77 slaves out of Washington DC. Poor planning and bad wind thwarted this effort, and all passengers of his boat, The Pearl, were brought back to DC in chains. Drayton and the others of his crew barely escaped lynching by a crowd that had gathered to watch this sorry spectacle, but were carted off in a taxi by police.
The crowd then looked for another outlet for their anger, and descended upon The National Era's offices. The Era was a staunch abolitionist paper run by Gamaliel Bailey, and so a natural target for their rage. For three days, the crowds swarmed around the printer's offices, demanding that the presses be removed from their city. Finally, on the fourth day, they found other things upon which to vent their ire and left poor Mr. Bailey in peace.
Today, nothing remains of the offices, but if you want to see where the crowds did their worst to perpetuate one of the all-time great crimes against humanity, go to 7th Street NW, between D and E Streets. It's a bustling street that would not at all be improved by the addition of a blood-thirsty mob.
3. Heurich House: In 1872. Christian Heurich first began brewing beer in DC, and for over 75 years produced beer to take the edge off of Washingtonians thirst in the hot summer months. That the collective thirst was well-nigh unquenchable is evidenced by the fact that Heurich was able to build himself an extremely nice mansion in 1892.
For all the joy that he brought to the people of DC, though, during World War I they were unable to get past the fact that Heurich was, in fact, born in Germany, and rumors began to swirl around the family. The most elaborate of the rumors concerned the impending nuptiuals of President Wilson to local girl, Edith Galt. There seemed to be real concern that the nefarious Germans would use the Heurich House to tunnel under New Hampshire Avenue and blow up the Galt house, particularly ironic as the President had walked right by the Heurichs on a near daily basis for several months as he courted Miss Galt. For Americans caught up in anti-German hysteria, the equation was simple: German=Beer=Bad. This contributed, sadly, to the wholesale banning of alcohol in all its forms in 1919, and we all know how that ended.
The Heurich mansion continues to stand at 1307 New Hampshire Ave NW, and is well worth the visit.
4. Constitution Hall: If slavery was an indelible blot on the United States until 1865, so has racism been one ever since. No chapter is more ugly than that of the story of Marian Anderson and her attempts to sing in Washington DC.
Marian Anderson was the celebrated soprano of her time, and when her manager set about organizing a concert for her in Washington in 1936, it was clear that she would have to sing in the largest public auditorium in town in order to handle the crowds that were sure to assemble. The Daughters of the American Revolution had built Constitution Hall in 1929, and with its 3700+ capacity, was the obvious choice. Unfortunately, the DAR had a 'white performers only' policy, and forbade the concert. Instead, Anderson performed at a local African-American high school.
The story took a turn for the worse in 1939. Once again denied the chance to sing at Constitution Hall, Anderson instead scheduled a concert at a local white high school. The DC school board denied this, mainly because the DAR president had final say over the matter, as well. Constitution Hall remains at 1776 D Street NW to this day, and houses all manner of concerts and events throughout the year.
5. J Edgar Hoover's grave The big daddy of all fears, though, and the defining hysteria of the 20th centiry was anti-Communist panic. From the Palmer raids of 1919 until President Reagan's 1983 'Evil Empire' speech, nothing riled up US citizens more quickly or thoroughly than the invocation of 'Communists.' Often, 'communists' was simply a euphemism for 'foreigners,' and in fact the Palmer 'anti-communist' raids of 1919/20 were mainly an attempt to remove undesirable aliens from the US. For years thereafter, every now and then, another flare-up of hysteria would shake the nation. The most famous of these are the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, when the junior senator from Wisconsin decided to make a name for himself by rooting out communists in the State department. For months he ran around announcing that he had 'lists' of agents who were working on the government's dime, while refusing to name a single name. Instead, he demanded this of others, and his hearings soon made a mockery of the whole concept of democratic rule.
The most long-lasting fighter against communism, and the most famous purveyor of the canard that the US was about to be taken over by Karl Marx's disciples was none other than J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover wrote (or, more likely, had ghostwritten) several books with the message that the commies were coming. His insistence on searching out and prosecute anyone whose politics he felt were suspect often antagonized his superiors at the Justice Department, and blazed the trail for wholesale anti-communist hysteria in the US. Without him and his paranoia, the United States might never have wasted so many years in the 50s, and destroyed so many innocent lives, ferreting out communists in all areas of society.
J. Edgar was born on Capitol Hill, and returned here in death. His grave at Congressional Cemetery is a wonderful place to ruminate on the importance of fear in American history, not the least because FBI agents have erected a bench just in front of his grave to allow visitors to pay their respects and stoke their fears.