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Tom, George, Teddy and Abe

Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota

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After Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt Sr. and Lincoln, the two people most famously associated with Mount Rushmore are both Brits: James Mason and Cary Grant (yes, Grant was born an Englishman). During the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest, Grant and Mason fight it out on the face of the great mountain, silently watched by four of America’s greatest presidents.

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial, in Keystone, South Dakota, is a monument that’s as much as part of the American consciousness as the Statue of Liberty. That’s some achievement on the part of the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, as he only began work on the project in 1947, well within living memory.

It’s beyond doubt that the four guys that the sculpture commemorates richly deserve the honor of being immortalized in stone. First on the left (as you look up at the sculpture from below) is George Washington (1732-1799). George gets pride of place for being the first ever president of the United States, the man who set the tone for the government of the country right down to the present day, and still holds the record for appointing every single member of the bench of the Supreme Court.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is next in the line, working from left to right. Jefferson was the third president of the United States, and one of the most brilliant characters in the nation’s history. He drafted the Constitution, organized the purchase of Louisiana from the French and founded the University of Virginia, one of America’s oldest and most respected centers of learning.

Next along is Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt (1858-1919). For reasons of space (he has the widest face) he sits out of chronological order, between Jefferson and Lincoln. Roosevelt looked inwards and outwards: he was one of the first presidents to think seriously about America’s natural environment by establishing national parks, and he also laid the groundwork for the social security system that would eventually form the basis of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was also the first president to really seriously consider the US’s role as a world power rather than an inward looking, agricultural republic.

Last – and there are no ‘leasts’ in this list – comes Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), over on the right, his face turned inwards to look at the other three. The only president on Mount Rushmore to meet his end at the hands of an assassin, Lincoln was the man who steered America through the Civil War and laid the political groundwork for the abolition of slavery.

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the smallest of America’s national parks, but one of the most enduringly popular. When you visit you should make the most of opportunities to wander the walkways above and below the sculpture, and also visit the sculptor’s studio – now a museum – where much of the preparatory work for this huge piece of public art was done. You can watch a short film, ‘The Shrine’ about the lives of the memorialized presidents and Borglum’s job of immortalizing them in stone.

A great time to visit the park, if you can, is at night when the sculpture is lit from below. Not only can you pretend to be Cary Grant – though actually dangling from the presidential noses is strictly discouraged – you can enjoy the carved lines of the faces picked out in artificial light. During the day the sight is not quite as imposing. The best route – The Presidential Trail – is a pleasant stroll through wooded and rocky scenery to the viewpoint from which the most famous views of the mountain can be appreciated. Although the short hike is by no means difficult, it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re wearing strong shoes, sneakers or hiking boots, as the trail surface can be a little uneven – you don’t want your abiding memory of American history to be a turned ankle!

If you’d like to find out a little more about the sculpture, Park Rangers are always on hand at the Visitors’ Center and Information Center. There are various Ranger-led activities, talks and walks throughout the year. These are great for kids, especially the night-time lighting display and talk that happens at 9pm during the months of summer opening and at 8pm in September.

You might say that all this is just so much carved rock, and that what are really important to America are the flesh and blood people who make decisions today, not the historical presidents of yesteryear, no matter how great they were. You’d be wrong – it’s difficult to deal with the future unless you have at least some knowledge of the past, and, in that spirit, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a place that every American should try to visit at least once. We all have to remember where we come from.

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