the pope, the know-nothings, and the washington monument -- 3/07/16

Today's selection -- from Washington by Tom Lewis. Though the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. is now beloved, it was a frustrating and difficult process to raise the funds to build it. And when Pope Pius IX made a contribution from Rome to the effort, the anti-Catholic "Know-Nothing" party took action to bring fundraising and construction to a halt. In large part because of this disruption, fundraising did not regain traction before the Civil War, and it was another thirty-four years before fundraising and construction were completed. Mark Twain called the unfinished marble stump an 'ungainly old chimney':

"Frustrated by Congress's repeated failures to honor its promise [to fund construction of a monument to George Washington], the fed­eral city's leaders decided to shoulder the effort themselves. In Septem­ber 1833, they established the Washington National Monument Society with Chief Justice John Marshall president and John Peter Van Ness vice president. The society believed that all Americans would want to contribute. It would build a monument costing no less than $1 mil­lion, but, in one of the worst decisions in the history of philanthropy, it decided not to accept more than a dollar from any citizen.

unfinished Washington Monument

"In 1836, the society selected Robert Mills's design for the monu­ment -- an Egyptian obelisk rising some 700 feet from the center of a circular colonnaded Greek pantheon. ... Raising money was the rub. Agents for the society crisscrossed the country in search of $1 donations; they brought in just $20,000 in the first three years. Other gambits, too, met with only minor success. ... It took the society until 1847, a dozen years, to raise $87,000 but it was enough to break ground. ...

"At last, on July 4, [1848] all was set. At sunrise, as church bells pealed and cannons fired, a great parade assembled at the Capitol. President Polk and the members of his cabinet led the distinguished procession, which included the Georgetown and Washington Freemasons in full regalia; military companies and militias from Maryland, Massachusetts, and Virginia; heroes of the Mexican War; members of Congress, such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John Calhoun, and an obscure Whig from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. ...

"But for the Washington National Monument Society, money [remained] the supreme concern. To drum up sup­port, the society invited states, Indian tribes, local fraternal societies, businesses, and foreign countries to send memorial stones for the inte­rior of the shaft. ...

"And then, as the tower reached 154 feet, Pope Pius IX sent a stone from Rome. Unfortunately, it arrived at a moment when the anti-­Catholic, antiforeign Know-Nothing Party was ascendant. On the night of Sunday, March 5, 1854, a group of Know-Nothings -- who were convinced that the papacy threatened the republic -- overcame a night watchman at the monument, broke up the stone, and dumped the shards into the Potomac. In February 1855, just as a reluctant Congress was about to vote $200,000 to aid the construction, the Know-Nothings seized control of the Monument Society's governing board. The next month, members of the new board took control of the building site. Too many foreign-born papist laborers were building an American monu­ment; they would raise the money from American donors and finish the obelisk with American laborers. Over the next three years they added four courses of inferior stone that the previous builders had rejected. They had raised a mere $285.09 for completion. The stump continued to scar the land west of the Capitol, but Congress did nothing.

"Support for the Know-Nothings dwindled in 1857 after some Wash­ington members of the party, reinforced by comrades from Baltimore, rioted at the Northern Liberty Market to disrupt the city's municipal elections. In a rare moment of fortitude, President James Buchanan called out the Marines to quell the violence, which left six dead and several score injured. The following year the Know-Nothings quietly slipped away, leaving the monument site in chaos.

"Internal divisions and sectional antagonisms over the issue of slav­ery swiftly extinguished the meteoric blaze of the Know-Nothing Party from the American firmament; by the end of the decade it was a mem­ory. Only the product of the Know-Nothing's mischief remained, the unfinished marble stump of a monument, an 'ungainly old chimney,' as Mark Twain would call it, in the middle of the marshy field that some hoped would become the Washington Mall."


Tom Lewis


Washington: A History of Our National City


Basic Books


Copyright 2015 by Tom Lewis


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