“I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.”
Marquis de Lafayette; in a letter to
George Washington, 1784
In 1833, John Marshall, the first Supreme Court Chief Justice, and former President James Madison, two of the last remaining Founding Fathers, led a group to form the Washington National Monument Society. The group hoped to raise funds for the project of building a memorial in tribute of Washington’s military leadership.
Building monuments in honor of heroes was certainly a well-established practice, but this project, at least in its conception, was to be particularly ambitious and the result especially magnificent. The national pride and optimism represented by the effort was notable and emblematic of the time, with the country growing as new states joined the Union and new territories were settled. The difficulties the Society faced, right from the start, were also a reflection of the troubles that faced the young Nation, sectional discord and political intrigue were inseparably entwined with the expansion that was underway.
In the mid-1830’s, Andrew Jackson was consolidating the Executive Branch’s power to an unprecedented degree; his “war” on the Bank of the United States would earn him the dubious distinction of being the only President in the history of the United States (before or since) to be formally censured by the Senate. (Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton managed to avoid that mark).
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Maine to enter the Union as a free state in exchange for Missouri entering as a slave state to maintain an equal number of senators from each faction. The Compromise, which established the boundary of slaveholding in western territories at the line of 36°30’ North, “summoned the South into being” and began the States’ Rights outcry led by South Carolina. Thomas Jefferson called it “the knell of the Union.”
The Tariff Bills of the 1820’s were favored in the North but severely impacted the slave-based cotton industry whose main export market was Britain, the primary target of the tariffs. The issue further set the southern states against the North, and led to John Calhoun secretly authoring the South Carolina Exposition while he was Jackson’s Vice Presidential running mate. The Exposition introduced Calhoun’s provocative (and, many claimed, treasonous) idea of “Nullification”, the right of a state to nullify, or ignore, laws passed by congress if that state determined that the law was unconstitutional.
The Exposition was based on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798 against Federal authority. Calhoun, after he was exposed as the author, claimed that his goal with his nullification theory was to save the Union from the threat of secession. That proved not to be the case. After South Carolina led the South in seceding from the Union following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, the new Confederacy put Calhoun’s picture on their money and their postage stamps.
Still, the Civil War was a long way off when the Washington National Monument Society first met in 1833. The trials the Society would face in getting their monument built, just like the secession trials of the Nation itself, were still on the horizon, even as many could see the black clouds and sense the tension of the gathering storm.
Both Marshall and Madison passed away soon after they started the Society, but the group carried on with the memory of their leadership. In 1836, they held a competition for the design of the memorial. Architect Robert C. Mills won the competition with his ornate neo-classical plan of a flat-topped obelisk rising up from the center of a circular colonnade. The colonnade would support a statue of Washington in a chariot on its top and would contain inside the statues of thirty Revolutionary War heroes.
Robert Mill's original design for the Washington Monument
The top spot in the competition was by no means unanimous; there were protracted disagreements about the design of the monument which, coupled with significant problems in obtaining funding (the Financial Panic of 1837, brought about in large part by Jackson’s dissolution of the Bank of the United States, greeted Martin Van Buren’s presidential inauguration), delayed the start of construction for twelve years.
Finally, it was decided that construction on the obelisk would start, with the (faint) hope that money for the colonnade would come later. This pragmatic compromise proved to be very significant, and directly led to later changes that would create the monument that we see today.
On July 4th, 1848, in an elaborate ceremony, the cornerstone was laid for the new national Monument, a memorial to honor George Washington. It was located near the bank of Tiber Creek in the federal city also named for Washington in the District of Columbia. The location was close to the spot recommended by Pierre L’Enfant, the French-born architect who designed the city, for an equestrian monument to the first President. The actual spot, the perpendicular intersection of the lines of sight from the Executive Mansion and the Capitol, couldn’t be used; it was too close to the creek and the ground was swampy and unstable.
Three days before that elaborate ceremony, a 17-year-old boy named Thomas Lincoln Casey had received an appointment from President Polk to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Casey, the son of an Army general, would go on to have a superlative career in the Corps of Engineers and would retire as a general himself, but perhaps his most important and enduring accomplishment would be the completion of that very same national monument in December 1884, over 36 years after that elaborate ceremony took place.