George Washington’s Monument

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What does a nation give a man who has everylflrthing? If a man happens to be the country’s first citizen, he may be rewarded with honor and fame and the respect of high office; after death, his name can be assigned to the archives of public memory. All of this happened to George Washington, who was certainly first in the hearts—though not, as it turned out, in the pocketbooks—of his countrymen.

The easy, inexpensive gestures, such as memorializing his name on everything in sight, including counties, towns, a state, a mountain and the Federal City itself, were accomplished readily enough. But building an appropriate monument, the cost of which was reckoned at twenty-five cents for each citizen at the time of Washington’s death in 1799, was something else again. It took more than a Century from conception to completion, and its progress was marred by turmoil, rancor, niggardliness, religious bigotry, theft, and incompetence. But the ultimate disgrace to the memory of this decisive man of unity was that the project (viewed on these pages through the lens of Francis Hocker about 1875, from a tower of the Smithsonian Institution) was left untouched, in Mark Twain’s phrase, like “a factory chimney with the top broken off” for twenty-one years.

Why was it so difficult to erect a memorial to the nation’s greatest and, more significantly, least controversial hero? The problem was financial. Naturally, different people had vastly different ideas for the monument. But even when there was agreement, the funds were seldom appropriated—starting with the unanimous decision of the Continental Congress in 1783 to put an equestrian statue of General Washington wherever Congress itself would eventually be situated. Washington was flattered, and said so. And he later approved the plan of Pierre L’Enfant, designer of the capital city, to locate the tribute on the projected Capitol Mall at the point where it passed the front of the proposed President’s home.

But nothing happened until Washington’s death, when Representative John Marshall interrupted the eulogizing to remind his fellow legislators of their sixteen-year-old unfulfilled promise. What Marshall had in mind, however, was not a statue but a tomb, located not on the Mall but beneath the rotunda of the Capitol. Even though the late President had specifically stated in his will that he wished to be buried at Mount Vernon, Martha, “taught by the great example which I have so long had before me never to oppose my private wishes to the public will,” reluctantly agreed. But several decades of debate later, when Congress finally acted upon Marshall’s resolution, the Washington heirs reneged, and the Capitol mausoleum has since remained empty except to store the black-draped presidential catafalque.

Then in 1833 a concerted effort was begun to implement the dream of the Continental Congress and the vision of L’Enfant. That year a group of citizens, exasperated by the failure of the two houses of Congress to agree on an appropriate memorial, organized themselves into the Washington National Monument Society, choosing John Marshall, by then Chief Justice, as their leader. Perhaps, they reasoned, private citizens could achieve what partisan politicians demonstrably could not.

Initially their optimism seemed justified. The first public subscription, which limited donations to one dollar a person, raised a modest $28,000 in three years. The society was sufficiently encouraged to announce a design competition; it was won by architect Robert Mills, who conceived an elaborate pantheonic and statuary-cluttered pedestal dominated by a six-hundred-foot obelisk. Though this design was widely publicized, the society concentrated from the beginning on only the obelisk itself.

Yet Americans simply would not contribute, despite an unending series of fund-raising gimmicks. Nor was Congress especially interested in even obliquely committing itself to a project estimated to cost in excess of one million dollars. Undeterred, the society continued to pass the hat. In 1839, the hat was held by thousands of deputy marshalls, who were then launching the decennial federal census. “The rich will, it is hoped, be munificent in their donations,” a circular letter from the society to the marshalls explained, “while from those in inferior circumstances any sum will be thankfully received.” The former dollar limit now served only to separate the impecunious from those who were promised an elegant lithograph of Mills’s winning monument design, autographed by such political luminaries as Zachary Taylor, James K. Polk, Henry Clay, Millard Fillmore, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Albert Gallatin. To make sure that the marshalls remembered to mention the monument, the society raised the commission on collections from ten to twenty per cent.

The results were hardly spectacular, but they were encouraging enough to rekindle the society’s hopes. A committee of ladies was formed to sponsor fairs and social events; the Masonic fraternity was tapped, as were the nation’s sailors by the Secretary of the Navy; and the Secretary of State instructed all U.S. consuls to seek contributions from Americans living abroad. By 1847, the society’s coffers contained about $87,000, enough to begin construction. The leaders promptly announced the laying of the cornerstone on Washington’s Birthday the following year, and asked Congress for a deed to the property. But Congress did not approve the site (relocated some one hundred yards southeast of L’Enfant’s original position, to ensure a better foundation) quickly enough, and the ceremony had to be rescheduled for the Fourth of July.