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George Washington’s Monument

May 2024
7min read

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.

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.

The society gratefully deeded the thirty-acre monument site back to the United States, and a new completion date was announced: October 19, 1881—the hundredth anniversary of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. Only two questions remained to be resolved: Should the design of the monument be changed to conform with contemporary architectural tastes? Could the present foundation support the projected monument? Inertia on the part of a Senate public-works committee ended the debate on aesthetics, and an ominous report from Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers made it clear that the base would have to be considerably strengthened with additional concrete footings. Previous engineering surveys had also urged that the height of the monument be lowered. This view prevailed after the U.S. minister to Italy, George P. Marsh, discovered that the classical proportion of obelisks called for a height about ten times the base line. Since the monument’s base measured slightly more than fifty-five feet, the engineers redesigned the shaft to reach a height of 555 feet.

President Rutherford B. Hayes laid a second cornerstone in 1880, and the work was now pressed upward in earnest under Casey’s direction. Once the foundation had been reinforced, the most serious problem the engineers faced was trying to match the Maryland marble facing on the first one hundred and fifty-two feet. The next thirteen two-foot courses were faced with Massachusetts marble, but the contractor defaulted, and the rest of the stone was quarried in Maryland. Later these New England blocks weathered to a different tone, thereby producing the visible “ring” around the monument. But the Army’s main objective was to finish the project as soon as possible. And on December 6, 1884, in a raging gale, six men climbed precariously to a wooden platform high atop the monument carrying the largest piece (100 ounces) of aluminum ever cast. (Before this tip was set in place, it had been displayed in New York and Washington, where visitors frequently asked to be allowed to step over it, so that they might later claim to have stepped over what was then the world’s tallest structure and is still the world’s highest piece of masonry.) At the moment of capping, a flag was unfurled, a salute was fired, and the assembled workmen and dignitaries hurled their cheers into the wind.

The formal dedication was not held until the next Washington’s Birthday. President Chester A. Arthur, the fourteenth Chief Executive to be named ex officio president of the monument society (a practice still followed today), gave a brief talk. He then retired to the comparative comfort of the House of Representatives for a lengthy speech, written but not read by the ailing Robert Winthrop, who had spoken and spoken and spoken almost four decades earlier at the original cornerstone ceremony. Three years later, or one hundred and five years after the Continental Congress first entertained the idea of a memorial to George Washington, the structure was opened to the American public.

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