Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


To the Father of Our Country

On the Washington Monument

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Almost a year ago, last August, there was an earthquake in Washington DC, and the Washington Monument cracked. It’s still cracked.

It wasn't easy getting that obelisk up. It took 40 years to build it. Work was held up by the Civil War, then by religious and ethnic quarrels. And before that, it took 48 years for congress to argue about whether or not to build it. Plans were delayed when the Federalists pushed for a monument that flashed back to ancient Egypt, but the Jeffersonians thought that seemed undemocratic. In the end, the Jeffersonians lost.

At roughly 555’ 5” in height, the Washington Monument is the tallest obelisk on earth. Rising from a 55’ square marble base, it’s a straight, tapered shaft of hollow rock—a fitting tribute to the Father of Our Country. As the Federalists were aware, there have been Fathers of many Countries. And many of them have left obelisks.

There are 3000-year-old granite obelisks all over the temples of Egypt. Covered in gold or electrum, their tips catch the sun’s rays at dawn.

And the pharaohs, or “Great Householders,” who had those obelisks erected were the Fathers of Their Country—in more ways than one. Akhenaten, the sun king, for instance, sent letters all over his empire asking for women. “I heed all orders of the king, my lord; I herewith send on 10 women,” one of his subjects wrote back. Another offered 10 maidservants. Some taxpayers were advised to send their daughters along—“prepare your daughter for the king, your lord, and prepare the contributions.” And Akhenaten wanted another 40 women from the prince of Gezer, at a cost of 40 shekels of silver per woman. “So send very beautiful women, but none with shrill voices. Then the king your lord will say to you, that is good!”

Some obelisks started out in Egypt, but ended up in Rome. Around 2000 years ago, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, had a pair brought up from sun city, or Heliopolis. Roughly 78’ of red granite inscribed by Rameses II still reads, in part, “I have granted to thee that thou shouldst with joy rule over the whole earth.” Another 71’ red granite pillar became the gnomon, or needle, of a great sundial—by which all of Rome told time. 3 generations later, Augustus’ great-grandson had his own 83’ red granite pillar brought up from Heliopolis, with 120,000 modii of lentils for ballast, and put in the circus. And 3 centuries later, another emperor took an obelisk that “towered aloft like the peak of the world” out of a temple at Karnak. Augustus had been reluctant to touch it; but Constantine tore the 106’ granite mass from its foundations, and it was towed up the Tiber to Rome under Constantine’s sons.

Like the pharaohs who came before them, most Roman emperors were the Fathers of their Country, or patres patriae, in the personal sense. At one point, Augustus is supposed to have gotten a letter from Mark Antony that asked, “Good luck if, when you read this letter, you haven’t been in bed with Tertulla, or Terentilla, or Rufilla, or Salvia Titisenia—or all of them. Does it matter where and in whom you have your erections?” At another point, Augustus is supposed to have incriminated himself in verse, with this outburst: “My cock’s dearer to me than life itself!” 3 generations later, Caligula liked to insult his subjects—by making public announcements about their wives’ prowess at sexual intercourse. “Ye gods! What a tale for the ears of a husband! What a fact for an emperor to know!” And 3 centuries later, some of Constantine’s co-emperors had trouble keeping their hands off of other men’s daughters and wives. “Wherever there was a more than usually good looking face, fathers and husbands had to withdraw.”

Federalist friends of the Father of Our Own Country wanted an emperor, of sorts. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, George Washington’s aide-de-camp spoke up against the “amazing violence & turbulence of the democratic spirit,” and proposed that the people of the United States elect an executive for life. “The English model was the only good one on this subject.”

George Washington had just one wife, the widowed Martha Custis, who brought him roughly a hundred slaves; there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon on the day that George Washington died, and set them all free. Those slaves, like most slaves, would have been sexually accessible to their master—as was Sally Hemmings, the mother of 6 children by the otherwise democratic Thomas Jefferson.

Slavery was abolished in the US before the Washington Monument went up; and most talk of an executive for life has stopped. Both good things for us anti-Federalists. As far as I’m concerned, that obelisk can stay broke.

Happy father’s day to my husband, the devoted father of our own wonderful children.

And happy father’s day, dad.


More from Laura Betzig Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today