Mount Rushmore is the name given to a South Dakota mountain into which is carved a monumental complex of sculptures of former U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. The monument was created by Gutzon Borglum (1867–1941) and completed following his death, under the direction of his son Lincoln. Considered by its creator to be a national “Shrine of Democracy,” in commemoration of the foundation, preservation, and continental expansion of the United States, Mount Rushmore is close to the core of American civil religion. The sculptures have been held in iconic status since their construction began, and, like religious relics, now have been surrounded by an aura of transcendence. The location in the Black Hills is maintained by the National Park Service as a place of pilgrimage, comparable only to some of the monumental architecture in Washington, D.C., the Statue of Liberty, Arlington National Cemetery, and perhaps the site of the Battleship Arizona in Pearl Harbor.
Although heroic in proportion, not all visitors see those portrayed as heroes or the massive portrayals as heroic. The monument does not command a unified response. Native Americans have protested it as a desecration (an especially noisy one during annual Fourth of July fireworks programs) of one of their most holy sites; its very location on tribal lands is a symbol of one more among so many broken treaties. Black Americans are free to see Washington and Jefferson as slaveholders. White Southerners may see Lincoln as the man who denied them their state's rights or who was responsible for an almost mythic ancestor's early death. Cubans can see Roosevelt as the man who epitomizes American domination and exploitation of their island. And despite Roosevelt's place in the history of the environmental movement and “conservation,” organizations such as Greenpeace may find the sculptures an ideal place from which to make an environmental protest statement.
While past and future generations of visitors will continue to project meanings onto this shrine for at least as long as repairs of winter freeze damage are continued—without which the faces soon will fall into the valley—the memorial also needs to be comprehended in terms of the sculptor's intent. It is not meant as just an empty sign. While Borglum, a lifelong Republican, held his deceased subjects in awe, he did not share the unalloyed faith or optimism of his contemporaries about the United States in the first third of the twentieth century. While the United States emerged from World War I as an economic superpower and a growing empire, Borglum did not assume America would last forever. His explicit intent in creating the sculptures was that they would serve not so much as a memorial but as a colossal beacon, a sphinxlike landmark that would survive the millennia in the relatively uninhabited and isolated mountains. While financial backers, including Congress, focused on individual presidents and politics, Borglum saw his magnum opus as a means to a far different end. An effective if unconscious heretic to American civil religion, he envisioned a day in which the United States could not just fall but be forgotten. These four heads would be its tombstone.
Borglum's preoccupation and purpose was that at some time in the far distant future, when perhaps even memory of the United States effectively had vanished from the earth, air or space explorers might see the heads and come down to discover their meaning. Once on the ground, they would find the “Hall of Records” he had begun to excavate in a cleft of the mountain behind the heads. Borglum, born in 1867 in a Mormon settlement in the Idaho Territory, grew up in a sometimes polygamous home. The Book of Mormon's central narrative deals with a mighty nation—the Nephites—believing in its own invincibility but being destroyed and vanishing from history. Memory of them was recovered only because the history of that people was engraved on metal plates and hidden in 400 C.E.;, to come forth again in 1830 C.E.;, through divine intervention. For the mature, secularized Borglum, having grown up under his father's influence, it was natural for him to assume that great nations could vanish without a trace and that a cave filled with engraved metal plates might be the only way to insure that the miraculous history of the United States might survive. And with some variations over the years that became his mission. While the entrance to Borglum's Hall of Records was excavated, he never could raise the funds to complete it. Cutbacks in funding in anticipation of World War II, and Borglum's death, ended all but finishing touches on the sculptures. Only in 1998 were Borglum's hopes for a Hall of Records partially realized, with a box containing relevant documents buried nearby. On the 1,200-pound (544 kg) black granite capstone sealing the box, Borglum's own words were etched: “Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”
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