“Never was the American character more strikingly exemplified than on this day, 40,000 people, of both sexes, of all classes, and with every variety of political preference assembled” to honor the United States’ first president, George Washington, the Baltimore Sun reported.
The adulation wasn’t unanimous. The Anti-Slavery Bugle, an abolitionist newspaper, sarcastically asked if any of Washington’s old slaves “will be there to assist in the ceremony?” A Massachusetts congressman noted that slave markets were open in Washington “midway between the Capitol and the monument to Washington.” Polk was a slave owner and had brought enslaved people with him to the White House.
The Washington Monument has since become part of the United States’ July Fourth fireworks event and celebrations on the Mall. This year, despite the coronavirus pandemic and police brutality protests, President Trump plans a massive fireworks display, staging some of them from the grounds of the famous obelisk.
Congress first proposed “that a marble monument” to Washington be erected “in the city of Washington” on Dec. 24, 1799, a few days after the president’s death. But nothing happened.
In 1833, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall and former president James Madison formed the private Washington National Monument Society to raise funds. In 1845, the society picked a design by noted architect Robert Mills.
Mills had a grandiose vision. He proposed a 600-foot-high, Egyptian-style obelisk with a nearly flat top. The hollow obelisk would rise from a 100-foot-high rotunda with 30 columns. Inside would be statues of 30 Revolutionary War heroes and the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Outside on the roof would be a Godlike statue of Washington standing in a chariot pulled by six horses. The estimated cost ranged up to $1 million (equal to about $30 million now).
The society had only raised about $80,000, so it told Mills to scale back his design to a 500-foot-high obelisk without any rotunda. In early 1848, Congress approved construction on a site that Washington himself had recommended for a memorial to Revolutionary War soldiers. The cornerstone was hauled from Baltimore for the groundbreaking.
At 11 a.m. on July 4, horse-mounted soldiers escorted Polk’s carriage to City Hall, where the parade to the site began. Following Polk and his Cabinet members were 18 volunteer military units bearing “bristling arms” and two companies of 180 U.S. Marines marching to the music of a Marine band. Next came firefighter companies and members of civic groups, such as the Freemasons and the Temperance Society. They were followed by the carriages of the widows of Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
This was “the greatest parade in the city of Washington yet seen,” said the National Intelligencer. “Bright-colored country bonnets bustled and swayed about in the crowd, like poppy heads shaken by the wind.”
The parade proceeded to the monument site a few blocks from the president’s house near the Potomac River. “What pen can do justice to this picture?” the Sun reporter wrote. “The noble public and private buildings, the shady summit of Arlington, tall masts of the shipping at Alexandria, the broad Potomac’s rippling waters washing the beach at our feet.”
The Masons’ grand master began the ceremony by formally presenting “working tools” to architect Mills. Scores of items were placed inside the cornerstone’s zinc case. They ranged from copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to a U.S. dollar, a silk Texas flag and the “Annual Report of the Comptroller of the State of New York.” (The comptroller was future president Millard Fillmore.)
Former president John Quincy Adams had been scheduled to speak, but he died in February. So House Speaker Robert Winthrop of Massachusetts delivered a two-hour speech, which was deemed “exceedingly chaste and eloquent.”
Then the whole procession marched back to Pennsylvania Avenue where Polk, on horseback, reviewed the military troops. Polk and his wife hosted thousands of people inside the White House. That night crowds watched a “grand display of fireworks” launched at the monument site.
At 11 p.m. Polk signed a new peace agreement ending the Mexican-American War. “I desired to sign it on the anniversary of independence,” he wrote in his diary.
Two years later President Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War, walked over to join July Fourth celebrations at the Washington Monument grounds on a scorching hot afternoon. He became ill, reportedly after eating cherries and iced milk, and died five days later from food poisoning.
Construction came to halt in 1855 when funding ran out. The monument was only 156 feet high at the time. During the Civil War, the monument had “the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off,” Mark Twain wrote. “You can see cow-sheds about its base” and “tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow.”
Finally in 1876, the United States’ centennial year, Congress authorized funding to complete the monument. President Chester Arthur led the dedication on Feb. 21, 1885. At 555 feet, 5.125 inches, the Washington Monument was the tallest manmade structure in the world. That lasted until 1889, when it was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The final cost was $1.2 million (equal to about $35 million today.)
Completion of the Washington Monument set off an architectural debate that continues today.
“The monument speaks for itself,” said the Washington Critic newspaper, “simple in form, admirable in proportions ... it rises into the skies higher than any work of human art. It [is] the most imposing, costly and appropriate monument ever erected in the honor of one man.”
The editor of a Salem, Ore., newspaper, took a different view:
“A tall shaft rising into the air to a dizzy height is no doubt imposing, but it can hardly be said to thrill the soul or stir the blood. The difference between the Washington Monument and a village flagpole is after all only one of degree, and who ever wept over a flagpole?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Congress first proposed a monument to Washington a few months after the president’s death. It was a few days. The story has been updated.
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