Building begins: 1848 - 1860


The ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the obelisk on July 4th was presided over by President James K. Polk. In attendance were former First Lady Dolley Madison and nearly every Washington worthy, including Abraham Lincoln, a Representative from Illinois. Speaker of the House Robert Winthrop gave the address, a two-hour marathon. He said, in part of a great deal more: “Let the column which we are about to construct be at once a pledge and an emblem of perpetual union! Let the foundations be laid…let each stone be raised and riveted in a spirit of national brotherhood!”  Benjamin B. French, Grand Master of Masonic Lodge 33, wore the same Masonic apron worn by Washington, himself a Grand Master Mason, when he laid the cornerstone for the Capitol in 1793. The cornerstone, a block of Maryland marble from the Thomas Symington quarry near Baltimore, weighed 24,500 pounds.

Later that same Independence Day, President Polk received at the White House the official treaty from Mexico that ended the US-Mexican War and symbolized the realization of Manifest Destiny that defined the Continental United States. When it was coined in the 1800’s, the term Manifest Destiny was popular and spoke to the hopeful expansion of the Republic “from sea to shining sea,” particularly during the war against the Mexican dictatorship of Santa Anna. The term’s negative connotations wouldn’t come until much later, when the nation began to embrace the responsibility of decades of mistreatment of the Native Americans.

During his one-term presidency, President Polk had secured the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of Oregon from Britain, and now, with the conclusion of the war with Mexico, the addition of the territories of New Mexico and California.

The new territories exemplified the strength, spirit and potential of the United States, but they also amplified the divisive problem of slavery: How would the new territories be administered? Which would be slave-holding and which would be free? Would the old 36° 30’ N line from the Missouri Compromise still hold? The debate on these questions would last years, and the sectionalism would increase. The Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slavery in all territories gained from Mexico, was fought against by southern congressmen, because they knew that, as new states were added from the new territory, their balance of power in terms of votes in the House and Senate would be undone permanently.

In September of that year, Robert Mills, the architect whose design was chosen and who was overseeing the initial work on the foundation, wrote:  “The foundations now preparing to support the lofty shaft are built with massive stones of the firmest texture, the blue rock of the Potomac Valley, many of the blocks weigh six to eight tons and which come out of the quarry in square masses as if cut with the tool and of varied shapes, so that when laid in the foundation they allow and are made to dovetail into each other forming thereby a stronger mass of stone masonry, than if the same were squared up as in regular masonry.”


The ground under the Monument is composed of organic clay and sand over crystalline bedrock of Decomposed Wissahickon Schist, a metamorphosed sedimentary rock. Between this time period and the completion of the Monument, the ability of this bedrock and the overlaying strata to support the weight of the completed obelisk would be a greatly debated topic. It’s difficult to recognize today, but back in 1849 the construction site was essentially on the bank of Tiber Creek which flowed into the Potomac; a smelly, mosquito-infested area that was definitely not the first place one would pick to build such a memorial. In those days the Tiber, which had originally been called Goose Creek, was part of the Washington City Canal system, which connected the Potomac and the Anacostia (then known as the Eastern Branch) with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

As construction on the monument finally got underway, the policy of inviting donations of stones was started. States, municipalities, and private organizations were invited to send small slabs of stone that would be installed in the monument. Eventually 192 stones were donated, the first coming in 1849 from the state of Alabama.

President Polk, who had promised that he would only serve one term, kept that promise and then died about 3 months after Zachary Taylor, a retired Major General and hero of the Mexican-American War, was inaugurated. Taylor was a Whig, but he disappointed many of the Whigs in congress, including Abraham Lincoln who campaigned heavily for him, in part because he was a slave owner (the last slave-owning president, in fact). However, his moderate public policy stance towards slavery, especially his personal support of the natural curtailment of its expansion into new states, angered his fellow Southerners. In short, Taylor personified the complex and self-contradictory nature of the Union itself in that time as the country grappled with the issue of slavery.


Robert Mills oversaw the initial work, but the day-to-day supervision was the responsibility of William Dougherty, the superintendent of construction. In June, Dougherty reported to the society that the hoisting fixtures, made of cast and wrought iron and used for lifting and setting the marble blocks for the shaft, were complete. “This machinery being of entire new construction, therefore, required all the necessary patterns for bearings, pullies, drums, clutches, etc., to be made new for that especial purpose, and, not being adapted to machinery generally, will be of no further use to the market. Therefore, as is customary and also just, they should be paid for their entire costs…Mr. McKinstry should receive $2000 for the work as above stated.”

The original foundation is a stair stepped pyramid of blue gneiss blocks that measures over 23 feet high and just some 80 feet on a side at the base. The blocks were mortared together with a mix of hydraulic cement, lime and sand.

Nearby at the Capitol, the Compromise of 1850, a set of 5 laws, was enacted:

1. The territory of New Mexico was organized, allowing slavery under popular sovereignty.

2. The territory of Utah was organized, allowing slavery under popular sovereignty.

3. California was admitted as a free state, the constitutional convention unanimously rejecting slavery.

4. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 enacted, requiring states to return escaped slaves.

5. The slave trade (though not slavery itself) was banned in District of Columbia (only after Alexandria (a big center of slave trade) was returned to the state of Virginia from the District of Columbia.)


By ’51, the height of the obelisk was approaching 100 feet above the foundation. Work was progressing well, slowed only by the difficulties encountered in the delivery of the stone, which came from a quarry in Texas, Maryland near Baltimore.

The American Colonization Society was active at this time. Started, like the Washington National Monument Society, by Marshall and Madison, the group hoped to transport blacks, free and slave, back to Africa. It wasn’t a very practical plan, but nevertheless it attracted fledging abolitionists like Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to end slavery but didn’t know how to go about it. “If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.”

It should be made clear that Lincoln did not share the idea, as some Northern abolitionists held, that the black man was wholly equal and should be in every respect treated the same as the white man. Lincoln’s conflicted views mirrored many good-hearted people of the time. From 1858, during the Douglas debates: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, -that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and the black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” This viewpoint is wrong from today’s vantage (thanks to Lincoln himself, and the Union army), but it was merely common sense at the time, and one could feel this way and still believe slavery was an evil that must be eliminated. If Lincoln didn’t believe that the Negro was equal to the Caucasian in every social respect, he still knew that, “in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned…[the Negro] is the equal of every other man, white or black.”


By the end of this year, the shaft was nearly 126 feet high. The bottom of each side of the obelisk measured just over 55 feet and it tapered gradually as it rose above the monument grounds. The facing was large crystal white marble and the backing was blue gneiss rubble. The facing stones were between 16 and 18 inches thick, two feet high, and over six feet long.

Newly-commissioned Brevet Second Lieutenant Thomas Lincoln Casey was assigned to Fort Delaware for his first tour with the Army Corps of Engineers.

General Winfield Scott, who would later command the Union army for a short time against the Confederacy, was defeated by Franklin Pierce in the ’52 presidential election, signaling the effective end of the Whig Party as a national political force and allowing the emergence of several new parties, including the nativist “Know-Nothing Party”. The main plank of the Know-Nothing party platform was distrust and enmity of recent immigrants and, especially, Catholics. 

Henry Clay, the famous Whig statesman from Kentucky and contributing author of the Missouri Compromise, passed away in this year, freeing the slaves he owned in his will. Lincoln eulogized him in part by praising his efforts in the Colonization Society, pondering how glorious it would be to see the end of “the dangerous presence of slavery; and, at the same time… [return] a captive people to their long-lost father-land.”


William Dougherty reported that, “So far, there has not been the slightest settlement in the work that I can perceive, and in proof of that fact, I would state that during the past season, when we had reached the height of 116 feet, we leveled around the obelisk and found that it was not an eighth of an inch out of level. In fact, I consider it impossible for any settlement to take place, the foundation being one solid mass of masonry – 82 feet square at the base and 25 feet high.”

Not all was well with the effort, however. Funds for the monument were essentially expended. Congress had approved a planned $200,000 for construction of the monument, but no funds had been released yet.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published the year before) enjoyed enormous sales and changed hearts and minds all over the nation on the injustice of slavery. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said to her when first introduced, “So you’re the little lady who wrote this big book that started this great war!”


By September, the height of the work completed was 164 feet above the ground. A stone donated by the Vatican created a crisis for the Association. Members of the anti-foreigner Know-Nothing party took the stone, a piece of marble from an ancient Roman structure, from a shed near the monument construction site and the stone was never seen again.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, authored by Stephen Douglas, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, was signed into law in 1854. It did away with the long-standing Missouri Compromise, and led to open warfare in the Kansas Territory between pro and anti-slavery groups. It would ultimately split the Democratic Party and unite Northerners and other abolitionists under the Republican banner.

Abraham Lincoln spoke out against the Act, and against Douglas himself, in October of that year: “[Douglas] has no very vivid impression that the negro is a human; and consequently has no idea that there can be any moral question in legislating about him…No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading sheet anchor of American republicanism…There can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”


On 22 February, Chairman of the Committee Henry May requested Congress to make a contribution of $200,000 to allow construction to continue.

On that same night, the Know-Nothings actually gained control of the Monument Society in a controversial meeting where they had their conspirators elect a new set of officers. They controlled the Society for a period of several years, but were unable to raise funds or do any productive construction on the monument; the small bit of stonework that was accomplished was of such a poor quality (their workmen used marble that had earlier been rejected by the master mason) that it had to be removed when construction resumed. It was in this year that work on the monument slowed and then essentially stopped. There was little notice, as the attention of the politicians and statesmen in the Federal City was directed elsewhere. The turmoil and strife brewing in many parts of the nation over the questions of slavery was getting worse. The question of whether or not that ‘peculiar institution’ would be allowed to spread to the newly-acquired territories was provoking deadly violence but no clear answers.

In March, a territorial legislature election in Kansas was compromised by groups of pro-slavery men from Missouri, who crossed the border to vote illegally and then returned home. The resulting pro-slavery legislature enacted a slave code that was essentially a carbon-copy of Missouri’s, which led to more fighting and bloodshed in the territory. 

Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend that summer: “The condition of the negro slave in America …is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever half slave and half free? The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution.” 

Photo taken after construction halted in the mid-1850's
By this time, there were over 90 memorial stones fixed in the center well of the obelisk. In the seven years since the first request went out for donations of stones, each of the states and two territories had made donations, as well as several foreign countries. The society had received more memorial stones than it could emplace, and the rest were stored in the building where the marble facing stones were dressed.
On May 29th, in a convention called for by Lincoln and other abolitionists, a free-soil party was launched in Bloomington, Illinois that would soon become the heart of the new Republican Party, even as violence broke out in many places over the slavery issue.
Lawrence, Kansas was attacked by a band of Missouri pro-slavery men. This prompted the attack by John Brown and his men on a group of five Missouri men, dragged from their beds and stabbed to death in the middle of the night.
In Washington, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was attacked and beaten on the Senate floor by a South Carolina congressman after giving a speech entitled “The Crime against Kansas”. Lincoln gave the keynote speech at the Bloomington convention, and he spoke of the need for Republicans to save the nation in the face of Southern threats of secession and dissolution of the Union.
Once again, in this final year that the Know-Nothings held control over the Society, no work on the obelisk was conducted at all. Contributions had completely stopped, owing in large part to the outrage and suspicion of the society’s motives resulting from the scandal of the Vatican stone being stolen and (assumed) destroyed. The marble supply line stopped completely, and tools, machinery and buildings deteriorated on the site.
The Supreme Court decision on the Dred Scott case stated that the Declaration of Independence had never applied to Negroes, who “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” It also averred that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories, because that would violate the property rights clause of the Fifth Amendment. This meant that the Missouri Compromise was never constitutional and that no territorial government could banish slavery.
This decision cut out the foundations of not only the Republican party, since it’s effect was essentially that slavery was legal in all states and territories, but also the “popular sovereignty” theory that Stephen Douglas promoted. Douglas himself was forced to talk about how the Dred Scott actually supported popular sovereignty by imagining that states’ governments might exclude slavery by ‘unfriendly legislation”, an argument that left no one convinced.
“Popular sovereignty” is a philosophical idea from Hobbes and Locke (among others) that, in and of itself, forms part of the basis of the Constitution. “Consent of the governed”, or the idea that the government serves the people and not the other way around, certainly is appealing to Americans; it is how we understand our system of government to be different from European and English monarchies and dictatorships.
Stephen Douglas sought to find middle ground in the slavery debate with the idea of popular sovereignty, particularly its expansion into the territories and new states. However, the practical result of Douglas’ pushing of the idea from his powerful position as Chairman of the Senate Territories Committee was to cause civil strife in those areas by the onslaught of both pro- and anti-slavery groups moving in to shift the number of votes on the issue. The territorial vote in 1855 in Kansas, mentioned above, was one example. “Squatter sovereignty” had replaced the political will of local, lawful inhabitants. "Bleeding Kansas" became the battleground between pro- and anti-slavery forces years before the Confederacy was formed.
The old board of the Monument Society regained control, and began plans to re-invigorate the push for both contributions and congressional support. The society attempted to secure contributions at voting sites and other public places, and sent letters of request to as many corporations, political parties, and civic organizations as they could. They met with very little success, however. Economic times were very hard, and the recent events in the political arena made it clear that more troubled times were coming.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas ran against each other for the Illinois Senate seat, ranging about the state facing each other in what came to be known as the famous “Great Debates”. In the last, Lincoln declared that slavery was the only issue that ever threatened the Union. “You may have a cancer…and not be able to cut it out lest you bleed to death, but surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it all over your body.”
In Alton, Illinois, in October, Stephen Douglas, still engaging the idea of popular sovereignty, said: “The whole South is rallying to the support of the doctrine that if the people of a Territory want slavery they have a right to have it, and if they do not want it that no power on earth can force it upon them. I hold that there is no principle on earth more sacred to all the friends of freedom than that which says that no institution, no law, no constitution, should be forced on an unwilling people contrary to their wishes; and I assert that the Kansas and Nebraska bill contains that principle.”
Lincoln, in his response at the same debate in Alton, said this:
“Allow me, while upon this subject, briefly to present one other extract from a speech of mine, made more than a year ago, at Springfield, in discussing this very same question, soon after Judge Douglas took his ground that negroes were not included in the Declaration of Independence:
I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal -- equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all and revered by all -- constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated; and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”
Lincoln won the popular vote but lost the election due to the number of Democrats in the state legislature, whose responsibility it was to elect Senators in Illinois.  “I am glad I made the late race,” he wrote to a friend. “It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of liberty long after I am gone.”


“I see by the papers of today it is the intention of your Society to go on with the building of the monument…I have a machine which will save you more than half in the matter of dressing the stone. I must assume this sounds fantastical, but all who have seen it (and many have) will confirm what I say…” – John W. Carter, New York.  (Mr. Carter would write at least three times to the society concerning his miraculous machine, but there is no record that I could find of the society ever acknowledging him.)

The Society, which had been incorporated by Congress early in the year to prevent a repeat episode of the Know-Nothing takeover, made a request to War Secretary John Floyd to have the Army Corps of Engineers conduct an examination of the foundation. As the obelisk rose in height above the site, concern grew that the foundation would not be sufficient to support it.

In October, John Brown (from Kansas) led a group of abolitionists on a raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to capture the arsenal and instigate a slave rebellion. Colonel Robert E. Lee and his U.S. Army soldiers captured the raiders, and in December of the same year, John Brown was hung for his crimes. Lincoln, speaking in Kansas, said that John Brown’s fate was just, “even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. [But if by secession the South should] undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.”

The Corps of Engineers assigned Lieutenant Joseph Ives to inspect the foundation of the monument. Lt. Ives reported that there was no settling of the base that he could detect, and only some minor chipping of the lowest courses of marble were evident.

During their party convention for the presidential nomination, the Democratic Party was split between the Northern Democrats, who supported Stephen Douglas and his “popular sovereignty” for the new frontier states (which would have almost certainly resulted in anti-slavery codes in at least some of the new states), and the Southern Democrats who supported the Vice-President, John Breckinridge. The convention convened in Charleston, South Carolina, but broke up before nominating a candidate. The two factions ended up meeting separately and nominating both Douglas and Breckinridge, which essentially guaranteed the success of the Republican candidate. The Republican convention met in Chicago that year and, after two inconclusive ballots, nominated the one man who had proven himself a worthy adversary to Stephen Douglas: the lanky lawyer from Kentucky and unsuccessful Senate candidate from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

Directly after Lincoln was elected President, South Carolina became the first state to vote, on December 20th, 1860, to secede from the Union. South Carolina was quickly followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The seceding states, there would be eleven total, formed the Confederate States of America, adopted a constitution and elected Jefferson Davis as their president. Davis would make Richmond, Virginia the capital of the Confederacy in May of 1861. 

“Perpetuity is implied if not expressed,” Lincoln wrote, “in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination…It follows from these views that no state upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union,-that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any state or states, are insurrectionary or revolutionary according to circumstances.”

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