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By JAMES V. SCHALL, Professor, Department of Government, Georgetown University
Delivered as an Address to the Fifth Annual Symposium on Public Monuments, The Public Monuments Conservancy, Rockefeller Center, New York, New York, March 21, 1995
I will begin my remarks as someone from another city by citing the following passage from The New York Times, for August 9, 1994: "The number of New York City firefighters killed or seriously injured in the line of duty this year is the highest in at least a decade, fire officials said yesterday. In the latest incident, Captain Wayne Smith suffered burns over 40 percent of his body, as well as to his lungs, in a Queens fire on Sunday." Captain Smith subsequently died fifty-nine days after the fire. Times published two poignant photos concerning Captain Smith, one of his funeral at St. Luke's Church, in Whitestone, Queens, the other of his truck, FDNY #136, bearing the insignia his men gave to him, "Wayne's World." From this account, I want to single out the word "duty," a topic to which I shall return.
Public monuments are central ways in which a polity defines itself, its goods, its principles, what it honors, what it praises and, indirectly, by way of contrast, what it abhors and rejects, what it discourages. We can tell a people by its monuments, or lack of them. Monuments, be they statues, tombs, or other artistic symbols, define not only the physical shape of a city or a nation but also, and perhaps more sharply, its moral shape, what it thinks of itself, what it encourages as well as what it blames or worries about.
If we have been in Paris, for example, we may have seen the Tomb of Napoleon. I came across an account recently by Victor Hugo, the French novelist, of that day, December 15, 1840, on which the body of Napoleon was triumphantly returned from exile in Elba to Paris to be buried. "I have heard the drums beat to arms in the streets since half-past six o'clock in the morning," Hugo began. At a quarter past two in the afternoon, the civil and military procession conducting the body of Napoleon had reached Les Invalides. Hugo continued:
"It is three o'clock. A salvo of artillery announces that the ceremony at the Invalides is at an end. . . . The sight of the coffin has produced an ineffable impression. The words which were spoken were simple and grand. The Prince de Joinville said to the King, 'Sire, I present to you the body of the Emperor Napoleon.' The King replied, 'I receive it in the name of France.' Then he said to Bertrand, 'General, place upon the coffin the glorious sword of the Emperor.' And to Gourgaud, 'General, place upon the coffin the hat of the Emperor.'
This simple account from another nation to whom ours owes so much serves to emphasize the majesty, the definition that a people bears of itself by what it chooses to honor in its official monuments. The very fact that France chose to bury Napoleon in Paris rather than to leave his body on Elba tells us much about what this country thinks of itself. Napoleon is still buried in Paris at Les Invalides. France still remembers Napoleon.
The City of New York has a Firefighters' Memorial. It stands since 1913 at West 100th Street and Riverside Drive. Its existence is designed to recall those members of its Fire Department who have, over the years, shown particular valor in time of crisis. Thus, this Memorial stands in the City because this huge metropolis has recognized that its own continued existence as a city required over the years, among other things, the services of men and women who have looked after its …