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A critique of Catherine Millard's interpretation of the artistic embellishment of the Supreme Court building.

Research by Jim Allison. Writing by Tom Peters.
A popular statement of the arguments we've been looking at in this section is contained in Catherine Millard's The Rewriting of American History, pp. 383-387 and 427-428. Millard's commentary pops up with distressing frequency on the usenet, so it's appropriate that we use her writing as a critical foil against which to present our contrary evidence, i.e., what legitimate historians and artists say about the architecture of the Court Building. As you'll see, almost nothing in Millard's commentary can be taken at face value: she omits relevant details, ignores contrary evidence, and generally misrepresents the intentions of the original artists.

In what follows we'll juxtapose Millard's commentary on specific artistic embellishments with passages from a booklet produced by the office of the Curator of the Supreme Court Building, and our own observations acquired from independent visits to the Court in the past several years.

Justice the Guardian of Liberty:

Here's Millard's commentary on the sculpture above the east entrance to the Supreme Court Building:

Contrast Millard's commentary with the official description of the sculpture provided by the artists himself, Herman MacNeil:

In other words, MacNeil says nothing to suggest that the 10 Commandments are "the origin and basis of our legal system." Rather, Moses is put on par with Solon and Confucius as simply an important lawgiver of the East. Additionally, Millard omits all mention of Confucius and Solon, the allegorical representation of legal themes, and the pagan story of the Tortoise and the Hare. Apparently, she doesn't want her readers to know about the non-Biblical aspects of the sculpture. Not an impressive beginning to her treatment of the Supreme Court art.

The Oak Doors

Here is Millard's commentary on the oak doors that separate the courtroom from the central hallway on the main floor of the Supreme Court:

Well, not exactly. As we note elsewhere, what's engraved here is not the 10 Commandments, but a depiction of tablets with Roman numerals on them. The Commandments themselves don't appear. This is a quibble, but it's an important quibble--we've sometimes heard people argue that the Commandments themselves are written out on the doors. It's possible that people got that impression from this passage, and we want to set the record straight.

The Courtroom Friezes

Here is Millard's commentary on the friezes on the walls of the Supreme Court Chamber:

Nope. Every source we've consulted (including sources that quote extensively from the frieze architect Adolph Weinman) say that the tablet in the middle of this sculpture represents "ancient laws," not the 10 Commandments. Millard simply reads into the sculpture what she wants to find. Her footnote on this point is to another one of her own books, not to any outside authority that agrees with her reading.

Millard continues with the following:

We'd appreciate some evidence that the Curator's office has rewritten the history of this sculpture. She does not quote Weinman himself or any other authority to establish that the tablet in question is the 10 Commandments. Conversely, every other source we've consulted disagrees with her. Additionally, as we'll demonstrate below, it is Millard that omits important information about the sculpture.

Millard now considers another courtroom frieze:

Note Millard's claim: the figures "security," "harmony," "peace," "charity," and "defense of virtue" could "well be taken out of Galatians 5:22-23." Well, here's the list of virtues described in Galatians 5:22-23: "love," "joy," "peace," "longsuffering," "gentleness," "goodness," "faith," "meekness," and "temperance." Only one figure in Weinman's sculpture corresponds to the list in Galatians: "peace." In Elizabethan English "charity" is used almost synonymously with "love," but by the 1930s "charity" takes on a quite different meaning. Still, we'll be generous and simply assume that "charity" and "love" are the same. This leaves "security," "harmony," and "defense of virtue" as unparalleled in Galatians. Moreover, if Weinman was trying to copy Galatians, he did a bad job of it, because "joy," "longsuffering," "gentleness," "goodness," "faith," "meekness," and "temperance" don't make an appearance.

It's beyond us how Millard can see a correspondence between Weinman's sculpture and Galatians 5: 22-23. It looks to us that Millard is simply so caught up with her thesis that she can see anything in a sculpture that she wants to see. This is propaganda, not unbiased scholarship.

Finally, we note that Millard omits important details that tend to disprove her thesis. In particular she doesn't mention the East and West friezes of the courtroom where Moses is depicted as simply one of 18 historic lawgivers. According to Weinman, Moses was no more important than Solon, Confucius, or Napoleon. Millard can't mention this because it's incovenient. This does not prevent her, however, from turning around and, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, accusing the Curator's office of rewriting the history of the Supreme Court. Our conclusion is that she applies different standards to others than she applies to herself.

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