George Washington’s Monument

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More than fifteen thousand people, led by President Polk, attended the gala proceedings, which were ornamented by the presence of Martha’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, prolonged insufferably by a ninety-minute oration by House Speaker Robert C. Winthrop, and climaxed by a pyrotechnic display in the evening. The 24,500-pound marble cornerstone—stuffed with such trivia as a 1783 penny, the thirty-first annual report of the American Colonization Society, and seventy-one different contemporary newspapers—was ritually laid in place with the same silver trowel that Washington had used in 1793 to begin construction of the Capitol building.

The most encouraging aspect of the ceremonies, from the society’s perspective, was the attendance of so many government officials, whose numbers included an obscure congressman named Abraham Lincoln. Such official sanction, together with general prosperity in the nation, would speed the monument to completion. Or so everyone thought. Fund appeals now went out, not just to individuals and organizations but to banks and even to the various states. When Alabama offered to provide a stone tablet instead of cash, the society seized upon the suggestion and began soliciting commemorative plaques for the interior walls. They came, by invitation, from various sources: states, fire companies, clubs, Indian tribes, and other friendly nations. It was an inviting idea, but one with nearly disastrous consequences.

In just six years, the society had managed to push its grand design 152 feet into the sky, and everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly. Then, early on the morning of March 6, 1854, a group of Know-Nothings, members of the xenophobic and anti-Catholic American party, broke into the premises, stole the slab sent by Pope Pius IX from Rome’s Temple of Concord, and presumably hurled it into the Potomac. The society, properly scandalized, fired its delinquent night watchman and offered a Sioo reward for the arrest of the thieves. But nobody was ever arrested, and when contributions dwindled to a trickle, work was suspended. In desperation, the society turned again to Congress; this time the lawmakers pledged to appropriate $200,000 on Washington’s Birthday in 1855. But the night before, the Know-Nothings struck a second time: what they “stole” this time was the monument and the society itself. A number of American party members had quietly joined the society, making them eligible for election as officers; by surreptitiously inserting newspaper advertisements announcing the society’s annual balloting, they were able to seize control at a private (and presumably illegal) predawn meeting. Congress, in disgust, rescinded its promise of construction funds.

During the three years the Know-Nothings were in charge, they managed to collect a mere $285.09 and added only four feet to the monument. Since this was accomplished with inferior marble that had previously been rejected, it had to be removed when the control of the society passed back into respectable hands in 1858. Taking the bad stone down proved rather difficult, since one of the block and tackle hoists was “lost” and the other had collapsed. The society applied for and was quickly granted a congressional charter to eliminate any future rump elections, but public confidence in the project had been shattered.

Now the stub, unfinished, stood untouched until 1879. Cattle and sheep and pigs, mobile provisions for the Union armies, grazed about its base during the Civil War. After Appomattox, despite the anguished efforts of the society, about’the only things raised on behalf of the monument were the periodic voices of prominent politicians. Several states, beginning with New York, voted appropriations, but the offers were made on a matching-fund basis. The society was unable to raise the necessary sums.

Finally, on Washington’s Birthday, 1873, a select committee of the House recommended a massive injection of federal aid for the purpose of completing the monument in time for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. The report was never voted upon, yet it was the centennial that indirectly ended the impasse over the monument. Philadelphia had requested a joint session of Congress in that city as part of its celebration; the House agreed, but the Senate refused. The ensuing furor in the press stung the patriotic instincts of many senators, and on July 5, 1876, a joint resolution to complete the structure was introduced and quickly carried without a dissenting vote; the figure finally agreed on was $200,000, in four annual installments.