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How the Leviathan State Built the Washington Monument

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Tags U.S. History


By the middle of the nineteenth century, anti-Catholic sentiment was raging. After a flood of Catholic immigrants came into the country — largely due the Irish potato famine — nativist sentiment turned against Catholics to such a degree that the first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, was (falsely) smeared as a Catholic by his opponents in the 1856 election.

Four years before this election, Pope Pius IX donated a block of marble for use in constructing the Washington Monument. The gift was made in the name of the Catholic Temple of Concord, and this enraged many proud anti-Catholics, such as the members of the so-called “Know-Nothing” party that rivaled the Republicans as the potential Whig Party replacement in the 1850s.

On March 5, 1854, nine Know-Nothing supporters broke into the monument where the marble block was stored, tied up the watchmen, and stole the Pope’s stone. They rolled the block of marble to a boat in the nearby Tidal Basin, smashed it into smaller pieces, and then loaded it up and took off. Many of the pieces of the stone were kept as souvenirs, and the rest were dumped.

The anecdote is often offered as an illustration of the anti-Catholic movement of the time, which is interesting in its own right, but there is a larger context to this story that tells us something about the change in the role of government in the 1850s and 1860s. The stone was a valuable donation to the Washington Monument because the project was not supported by government funds — it was a privately funded venture.

The Washington National Monument Society was formed as a private organization in 1833 to raise funds to construct the monument. The society, which was headed originally by Chief Justice John Marshall, did actually attempt to secure federal funds, but the proposal was shot down, as federal funding of such projects was seen as unconstitutional. Congress proposed and subsequently rejected a Washington Monument bill in 1799. So the project was undertaken without government funds (though the land was donated by the government).

The society held a contest for the best monument design, and the winner was an architect named Robert Mills for his pantheon design, which included the obelisk that today stands as the monument, though the original design would also have included a statue of a horse-mounted George Washington. When the construction began in 1848, all of the funds came from voluntary donations, and the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone — held on July 4th — drew thousands of spectators.

By 1854, the monument stood 150-feet high, but as the country was occupied by the incredible controversies of the decade, donations slowed and construction temporarily ceased. The Pope’s block of marble from 1852 had not yet been used, so it sat in storage until construction could recommence. In 1853, the Know-Nothings took control of the Washington National Monument Society, and the political divisions spurred by the controversial Know-Nothings contributed to the halting of new donations.

Shortly after the construction halted, the nine Know-Nothings stole and destroyed the stone marble as an expression of their anti-Catholic anger.

The Washington Monument stood at its unfinished 150-foot height for more than 30 years. During this period of non-construction, the Know-Nothings were almost entirely extinct (there would be an anti-immigration Gilded Age resurrection of the party, then called the American Party). Possibly of more significance, though, was the change in the federal government brought about by the Lincoln administration and the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln had long supported funding of federal infrastructure — the kind that James Madison vetoed as president for being unconstitutional even though he personally supported federal infrastructure. Lincoln himself did not fund the government takeover of the Washington Monument project — he was occupied with more pressing matters of the burgeoning federal government, such as the war and reconstruction.

But when Ulysses Grant held the office of the president, the federal government had permanently cemented its vast increase in powers, the country was centralized to an unprecedented degree, and the 100 year anniversary of the now unrecognizable nation was approaching. When the centennial came on July 4th, 1876 — exactly 28 years after the monument’s cornerstone was lain — President Grant authorized funding by the federal government to complete the monument.

The shift in control over the project, from a private organization to the federal government, brought with it a change in the source of the stone. The marble provided for every brick in the monument above the 150-foot high base and came from a different quarry. This is the oft-cited piece of trivia about why the monument has two different colors.

But the discoloration of the monument represents something more than just the benign change in quarries. It represents the change that the entire country went through during the Civil War. Prior to the centralization of power ushered in by President Lincoln and his administration, the federal government had already established that it had no role in funding such a project. But with the ushering in of the new era of federal jurisdiction, the centralized national government — the one envisioned by Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln — saw no reason to not appropriate tax dollars from a country, which was no longer held together under the illusion of consent, to fund a monument ironically symbolizing the hero of its independence from a government that exercised too much power.

Chris Calton is a 2018 Mises Institute Research Fellow and an economic historian. He is writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

See also his YouTube channel here.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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