Why write about the Washington Monument?

I became interested in the Washington Monument while I was going to school in DC. A couple of my classmates and I would jog to the National Mall at lunchtime, and we would nearly always run by the flags at the base of the Monument, a constant landmark. We got into an argument one day, as we looked at the difference in the color of the marble that you can see at the 160 foot level, about how long it stood unfinished before work was started again for its completion. (The answer is: from 1855 to late 1880, over 25 years. Maybe it's obvious from the title, but it took 36 years from start to finish building the Monument.) 

I was stunned that it stood neglected like that for so long, and it made me interested in the details about the delay. The standard answer is the Civil War happened and took up the nation's time, attention and capital. The Civil War was a dark time for the nation, certainly, but it didn’t last a quarter century. Besides, the fighting didn't stop the construction of the new dome for the Capitol, which was completed just after the war ended.

There had to be more to the story of the Monument, I told myself. It turns out that there is definitely much more to learn about the history of this most famous and iconic of memorials. The events and the political climate in the nation leading up to, and lingering on long after, the War Between the States significantly impacted and changed (for the better, believe it or not) the plans for the construction of the Monument. My hope is that, if you follow this blog and read my little book, you will understand why.

I went on deployment in the midst of my hobby of Washington Monument research, and when I returned home, I made a point to take a day and visit the Monument and take the tour to the top. The very day after my visit, an earthquake struck the northern Virginia area; the Monument, like many of the oldest buildings in DC, suffered minor damage from the quake and it’s been closed to the public ever since. It’s interesting and encouraging that a stone structure like the monument, designed and constructed in the 1800’s, would be able to withstand such an unusual event with so little damage, basically just some cracked stones near the top.

The fundamental reason that the Monument has stood so proudly for so long is this: When confronted with the truth that the foundation was too weak to support the completed obelisk, responsible people took decisive and ingenious action to fix it.

The truth about the weak foundation wasn't acknowledged until after a protracted and difficult period of bickering and accusations that involved even members of Congress. It wasn't until the late 1870’s that the decision was made to strengthen the foundation.

It would have been easier to tear the whole thing down, rebuild the foundation and then start again from the ground, but there was significant public sentiment against doing that. People argued that tearing down what had stood so long would have been a betrayal to the designer and the society of supporters who were there at the beginning. So the officers assigned from the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the monument devised an ingenious engineering feat to underpin the existing foundation without disturbing the base of the unfinished obelisk.

Similarly, the dramatic changes made to the overall design, partly due to a lack of funds and overall support, but which also came about from a desire to construct a truly timeless memorial to the country’s father, have made the Washington Monument one of the very most famous memorials on the entire globe. At the time it was completed, it was the tallest structure in the world, and it is still the tallest stone obelisk in the world. The Washington Monument is the most recognizable, iconic and entirely American symbol there is. Its clean, classic design, based upon the historic obelisks of Egypt, is truly timeless; it is at once ancient and completely and forever modern.

As I hope you will see, I quickly found out that I couldn't just explain the details of the planning and construction without taking into account what was happening in Washington around the Monument, especially the 25 years during which no work was done at all. It is impossible to consider the conception of the memorial, and the long, drawn-out period between the laying of the cornerstone in 1848 and the setting of the capstone in the last days of 1884 without considering the major political and social events of the time period, almost all of which were centered on the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the impact that it had on all aspects of American life.

The issue of slavery weighed heavily on the minds of the Founding Fathers, following them all to their graves, even as they envisioned with pride and hope the lasting success of the Union long after their passing. It was that vision of hope for the country’s future that inspired them in the first place to conceive the monument to Washington, a timeless and everlasting symbol of liberty, courage, and leadership, even as their pride was tempered by the bitter fact that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was not attainable by all people in the newly United States. 

So the Monument is also symbolic, in its reconstruction and redesign, of the country itself. The Founding Fathers knew, as they were drafting the Constitution, that the foundation of the Union was fundamentally flawed. The divisive and corrosive issue of slavery in the newly independent republic, supposedly founded upon liberty, corrupted the spirit of the Constitution, impugned the character and ideals of the Founding Fathers, and made a mockery of the words of the Declaration of Independence.

The Three-Fifths Compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 allowed for slaves to be (partially) counted as part of the population of a state for the purpose of determining the number of representatives in Congress. While this Compromise allowed for the signing and ratification of the original Constitution, it proved to be just like the weak foundation under the Washington Monument. The Compromise undermined the Constitution and subjected the young nation to the trials of discord between the North and the South, the threat of secession from individual states and factions (well before the Civil War), and the predations of foreign powers-including Great Britain-who saw opportunities for exploitation and dominance in the apparent weakness of the federal republic.

The War of 1812 is probably the most famous example of the challenges the young nation faced, but there were many more, most of them internal to the country. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolves of 1798 were written to reject the federal authority of the Alien and Sedition Act; they would later be used as precedence for the concept of "nullification" by South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 drew a permanent line between the North and the South concerning the issue of slavery. The Nullification Crisis and Andrew Jackson’s response of threatening Federal force against South Carolina in the early 1830’s were followed by the five Compromise of 1850 Acts, including the inflammatory Fugitive Slave Act which reaffirmed the requirement for free states to return escaped slaves to their owners. These events all served as signs of the coming horror of the War Between the States.

So, this is what lay in store on this blog: a year-by-year chronology of the fitful start, tremendous and protracted struggle, and victorious conclusion of the construction of the Washington Monument, combined with a concurrent look at the on-going struggles of the divided republic, whose tenuous foundation was re-forged and re-strengthened in the fires of the Civil War.

No comments:

Post a Comment