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Bill Bryson on the architectural achievements of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

One of the many felicities of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I am currently engaged in reading and am enjoying greatly, is that noted warriors and statesmen do get mentioned, but for their peacetime activities.

The Duke of Wellington, for instance, gets just the two brief mentions, on page 128, for his habit of consuming a very large breakfast, this being an illustration of the then breakfasting habits of rich personages generally, and before that on page 49, when in his dotage Wellington was in nominal charge of an army of militiamen whose task would have been to quell any revolutionary outrages that the masses gathered for the Great Exhibition of 1851 might have felt inclined to perpetrate, outrages which were greatly feared at the time but which never materialised.

Concerning two big military and political movers and shakers on the other side of the Atlantic, Bryson has more to say, because they, unlike Wellington, made two very impressive and influential contributions (Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon) to the art of domestic architecture, and in consequence to architecture generally:

Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough, but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home. Despite these distractions, and without proper training or materials, they managed to build two of the most satisfying houses ever built. That really is quite an achievement.

Monticello’s celebrated contraptions – its silent dumbwaiters and dual-action doors and the like – are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but in fact they anticipated by 150 years or so the American love for labour-saving devices, and helped to make Monticello not just the most stylish house ever built in America but also the first modern one. But it is Mount Vernon that has been the more influential of the two. It became the ideal from which countless other houses, as well as drive-through banks, motels, restaurants and other roadside attractions, derive. Probably no other single building in America has been more widely copied – almost always, alas, with a certain robust kitschiness, but that is hardly Washington’s fault and decidedly unfair to his reputation. Not incidentally, he also introduced the first ha-ha into America and can reasonably claim to be the father of the American lawn; among all else he did, he devoted years of meticulous effort to trying to create the perfect bowling green, and in so doing became the leading authority in the New World on grass seed and grass.

It is remarkable to think that much less than a century separated Jefferson and Washington living in a wilderness without infrastructure from a Gilded Age America that dominated the world. At probably no time in history has daily life changed more radically and comprehensively than in the seventy-four years between the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and the beginning of the following century …

A “ha-ha”, in case you are wondering, is a fence set in a ditch, which works as a regular fence for impeding animals, but which doesn’t spoil the view.

Concerning those “proper materials” that Washington and Jefferson lacked, I particularly enjoyed reading (pp. 424-8) about the infuriations suffered by rich pre-revolutionary Americans when trying to get Brits to send stuff over to America for them to build and furnish their houses, in sufficient quantities, of the correct sort, not ruined in transit, and for a non-extortionate price. The Brits insisted that everything that Americans bought from abroad had to go via Britain, even stuff originating in the West Indies. Of this draconian policy, Bryson says (p. 428):

This suppression of free trade greatly angered the Scottish economist Adam Smith (whose Wealth of Nations, not coincidentally, came out the same year that America declared its independence) but not nearly as much as it did the Americans, who naturally resented the idea of being kept eternally as a captive market. It would be overstating matters to suggest that the exasperations of commerce were the cause of the American revolution, but they were certainly a powerful component.

Despite such things as the dramas now going on in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, most of us now live amazingly peaceful and comfortable lives, when compared to the hideously warlike and uncomfortable lives lived in the past. That being so, more and more of us are going to want to read books like this one by Bryson, about how life became as comfortable as it now is, who contrived it, and how, and so forth and so on. We are now becoming the kind of people who attach more importance to things like why forks are the way they are, or why wallpaper started out being poisonous, or how vitamins were discovered and itemised, or how farming got better just when big new industrial populations needed more food, or how gardening became such a huge hobby or how meat, fruit and vegetables first got refrigerated, than we do to such things as the details of the Duke of Wellington’s or George Washington’s battles.

All this peace and comfort may turn out to be a mere interlude, if all-out war between Great Powers is resumed, and if that happened, the people in the formerly comfortable countries, like mine now, would soon rediscover any appetite they might now be losing for learning about war rather than about peace. But despite recent claims that our times resemble those just before WW1, I personally see little sign of a real no-holds-barred Great War erupting soon between two or more Great Powers. Putin is not Hitler reborn and Russia now is not 1940s Germany; the Muslims are mostly killing each other rather than us; and attacks with H-bomb barrages remain as utterly terrifying now as they have been ever since they were first made possible.

10 comments to Bill Bryson on the architectural achievements of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

  • Paul Marks

    The house that John Jay (another Founder) had built makes an interesting contrast – more typically American (porch out front to sit in the chair talking to people).

    As for Putin – a vicious criminal, it is terrible that Russia has gone wrong (again), things looked so hopeful under Yeltsin (but then bad monetary and banking advice was followed).

    On the progress of America – yes BUT.

    There was remarkable progress – but then decline in many American cities.

    Some American cities actually have less people and (in some ways) are more primitive than they were a hundred years ago. The Harold Lloyd world of the 1920s is almost an alien planet – compared to what places like Bridgeport Conn, or some of the cities of Upstate New York, or Cleveland or….. are like now.

    Certainly the decline since (say) 1960 (in even basic metrics of civilisation – such as stable families) has been stark.

  • Putin is not Hitler reborn and Russia now is not 1940s Germany

    Putin may or may not stay in power for much longer, and his replacement may turn better or worse. The latter is also very much true of Obama, and of the current Chinese leadership. Much of that will depend on the state of the global economy, and that of the local ones. I do agree about the Middle East though.

  • CaptDMO

    “…attacks with H-bomb barrages…”
    I hardly think a barrage of H-bombs is “economically” prudent!
    1 or 2 has proved to be “enough”, no matter what “the movies” portray.

  • Dave Walker

    Hm. Sounds like Bryson never made it to the Duke’s house at Stratfield Saye during his years over here. It doesn’t have the irrepressible Jefferson’s inventions, certainly, but it’s a real gem on most other measures of the time (and a very nice place to visit, these days).

  • AndrewZ

    “little sign of a real no-holds-barred Great War erupting soon”

    The enormous cost and complexity of modern weapons has become a significant barrier to open war between the major powers. During WWII both sides designed many new types of aircraft from scratch and built them in huge numbers. But modern combat aircraft take years to design and months to build. In a war between America and China, or any combination of the world’s great military powers, neither side would even be able to replace its losses before the war was over let alone develop anything new. The same is true of ships and tanks. It would also take so long to repair the damage that every participant in the war would have to severely limit its military commitments for several years afterwards. The best any of the Great Powers could realistically expect is a Pyrrhic victory, and as the cost of new weapons systems continues to increase this constraint will only become stronger.

  • Paul Marks

    China is a worse long term threat than Russia.

    As for Islam – our leaders (and the media-academia mess they come from) tell us that both the Sunni and Shia groups “pervert” or “misinterpret” Islam.

    By this “reasoning” – so did Mohammed.

    America – the military is being systemically undermined (cut to bits).

    European powers?

    Not worth considering – including the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (whose military was undermined as far back ad the 1960s).

  • RAB

    Quite so Paul. UK has flown 4 missions over ISIS territory now and not dropped one bomb or missile. Maybe we are saving it til we really need it eh?

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    And here I thought that a century ago would mean 1914! 1939 would be 75 years ago. you should be talking about the Kaiser.
    I certainly think that Putin does not have a plan to conquer Europe, but he will snap up any countries if we are too weak to defend them. Equally, if we expand Nato just because we can, such as encouraging the Ukraine to join, then Putin will feel compelled to respond in some way.
    I’m glad Australia doesn’t live next to the Bear! Whatever Ukraine does, it has to consider its’ big neighbour.

  • Paul Marks

    Nick people are fuzzy on time – for example the friends of the person-in-Kent insist that the Frankfurt School people (Adorno and the other Marxists who ended up at Columbia and so on) were confined to “120 years ago” so they can be nothing to do with P.C.. Which is odd as they were actually still knocking about in the 1950s claiming that any opposition to leftism was mental illness (“authoritarian personality”, “paranoid style of American politics” and on and on), as well as carrying on developing new victim-group politics (the working class having “betrayed the cause” by not supporting Marxism after World War One) – hence “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia” and the rest of P.C.

  • Vinegar Joe

    @Paul Marks: “European powers?

    Not worth considering – including the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (whose military was undermined as far back ad the 1960s).”

    I’d say it goes back at least to the 1957 Defence White Paper: