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Reading 2: Construction of the Monument

Progress towards a memorial finally began in 1833. That year, which marked the 100th anniversary of Washington's birth, a large group of concerned citizens formed the Washington National Monument Society. They began collecting donations, much in the way Blodgett had suggested. By the middle of the 1830s, they had raised over $28,000 and announced a competition for the design of the memorial.

On September 23, 1835, the board of managers of the Society described their expectations:

It is proposed that the contemplated monument shall be like him in whose honor it is to be constructed, unparalleled in the world, and commensurate with the gratitude, liberality, and patriotism of the people by whom it is to be erected....[It] should blend stupendousness with elegance, and be of such magnitude and beauty as to be an object of pride to the American people, and of admiration to all who see it. Its material is intended to be wholly American, and to be of marble and granite brought from each state, that each state may participate in the glory of contributing material as well as in funds to its construction.

The Society held a competition for designs in 1836. The winner, architect Robert Mills, was well-qualified for the commission. In 1814 the citizens of Baltimore had chosen him to build a monument to Washington, and he had designed a tall Greek column surmounted by a statue of the President. Mills also knew the capital well, having just been chosen Architect of Public Buildings for Washington.

His design called for a 600' tall obelisk--an upright, four-sided pillar that tapers as it rises--with a nearly flat top. He surrounded the obelisk with a circular colonnade, the top of which would feature Washington standing in a chariot. Inside the colonnade would be statues of 30 prominent Revolutionary War heroes.

Yet criticism of Mills's design and its estimated price tag of more than $1 million caused the Society to hesitate. In 1848 its members decided to start building the obelisk and to leave the question of the colonnade for later. They believed that if they used the $87,000 they had already collected to start work, the appearance of the Monument would spur further donations that would allow them to complete the project.

About this time Congress donated 37 acres of land for the project. The spot L'Enfant had chosen was swampy and unstable, making it unsuitable for supporting what would be an enormously heavy structure. The new location was slightly south and east of the original but still offered many advantages. It "presents a beautiful view of the Potomac," wrote a member of the Society, and "is so elevated that the monument will be seen from all parts of the surrounding country." Because it is public land, he continued, "it is safe from any future obstruction of the view...[and it] would be in full view of Mount Vernon, where rests the ashes of the chief."

Excavation for the foundation of the Washington Monument began in the spring of 1848. The cornerstone was laid as part of an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony hosted by the Freemasons, a world-wide fraternal organization that Washington belonged to and that still exists today. Speeches that day showed that the country continued to revere Washington: one celebrant noted that "No more Washingtons shall come in our time...But his virtues are stamped on the heart of mankind. He who is great in the battlefield looks upward to the generalship of Washington. He who grows wise in counsel feels that he is imitating Washington. He who can resign power against the wishes of a people, has in his eye the bright example of Washington."

Construction continued until 1854, when donations ran out. The next year Congress voted to appropriate $200,000 to continue the work, but it changed its mind before the money could be spent. This reversal came because of a new policy the Society had adopted in 1849. It had agreed, after a request from some Alabamians, to encourage all states and territories to donate memorial stones that could be fitted into the interior walls. Members of the Society believed this practice would make citizens feel they had a part in building the Monument, and it would cut costs by limiting the amount of stone that had to be bought.

Blocks of marble, granite, and sandstone steadily appeared at the site. American Indian tribes, professional organizations, societies, businesses, and foreign nations donated stones that were four feet long, two feet high, and 12 to 18 inches thick. Many, however, carried inscriptions irrelevant to a memorial for George Washington. For example, one from the Templars of Honor and Temperance stated "We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor."

It was just one memorial stone that started the events that stopped the Congressional appropriation and ultimately construction altogether. In the early 1850s, Pope Puis IX contributed a block of marble. In March 1854, members of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Party--better known as the "Know-Nothings"--stole the Pope's stone as a protest and supposedly threw it into the Potomac. Then, in order to make sure the Monument fit their definition of "American," the Know-Nothings conducted a fraudulent election so they could take over the entire Society.

Congress immediately rescinded its $200,000 contribution. The Know-Nothings retained control of the Society until 1858, adding 13 courses of the masonry to the Monument—all of which was of such poor quality that it was later removed. Unable to collect enough money to finish work, they increasingly lost public support. The Know-Nothings eventually gave up and returned all records to the original Society, but the stoppage in construction continued into, then after, the Civil War.

Questions for Reading 2

1. As the Washington National Monument Society saw it, what should the Monument's design show?

2. Do you think the statement made at the cornerstone-laying ceremony accurately reflected Washington's importance? Why or why not?

3. Should the Commission have encouraged the states to contribute stones? Why or why not?

4. What event caused Congress to rescind the $200,000 it appropriated for construction? Do you agree with its decision to take back the money? Why or why not?

Reading 2 was complied from Report no. 485, House of Representatives, 43d Congress, 1st Sess., and from Louis D. Torres, The United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Construction of the Washington Monument (Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, Office of Administrative Services, Office of the Chief of Engineers, 1984).



Comments or Questions

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