After a week's vacation in my home region of New England, I returned to Penn State just in time for Tuesday's mild earthquake. Aside from a brief shimmy in the floor, I noticed no other signs of the quake here in Happy Valley. Of course, it was disappointing to learn of the damage that the quake caused along other parts of the East Coast, particularly to some of the national monuments and historic structures in Washington, D.C. You likely know by now that the National Cathedral sustained significant damage, and the Washington Monument sustained cracks in the blocks near its pinnacle. Now comes news that the monument will be closed indefinitely and might not reopen to the public, even when repairs have been completed.
This is not the first threat to the monument, which was a source of consistent controversy early in its construction. Upon Washington's death, there had been several calls for a permanent memorial to the nation's first president, but it was not until the centennial of his birth, 1833, that citizens formed the Washington National Monument Society and began to raise money for that purpose. The original memorial design called not only for an enormous, 600-foot-tall obelisk, but also a colonnade surrounding it that would contain statues of 30 Revolutionary War heroes. Prohibitive construction costs and sharp criticism of the plan's grandiosity as unbecoming a memorial to a republican leader soon forced the Society to focus solely on constructing the obelisk itself, however.
Construction began in 1848, but limited funds caused the Society to resort to innovative methods to subsidize the monument. They invited states, philanthropic organizations, individuals, and fraternal societies, among others to contribute blocks of granite (of standardized sizes) for the interior of the monument. Conceived as a novel way to raise funds and support from across the nation, this decision unwittingly ensured that the memorial would become mired in divisive political debates that contributed to the antebellum realignment of political parties that precipitated southern secession and Civil War. The donated blocks carried inscriptions from the providers, effectively turning the monument into a platform for promoting various, often opposing political views and social values. Stones advocating such disparate political issues as temperance and even Welsh nationality were donated to the construction. The territory of Deseret (now the state of Utah), whose leaders repeatedly defied federal authority in the territory and claimed an autonomy that seemed to separate it from the rest of the country, contributed a stone perhaps as a meager olive branch of sorts to the nation.
More important than these oddities, a stone contributed by Pope Pius IX, thrust the monument into the middle of violent, new political conflicts over the place of Catholicism and immigrants in American culture. As the political parties realigned in the North after 1854, virulently anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Know Nothings briefly emerged as the main opposition to the Democratic Party. They seized upon the Washington Monument as a potent symbol of their national movement, and in 1854 Know Nothing devotees stole Pope Pius' stone (like many of the other inscribed stones, it had not yet been installed in the interior of the monument). They did not stop there, seizing control of the Washington Monument Society, and portraying their stewardship of the still-uncompleted obelisk as a means of "purifying" both the monument and the nation (Ironically, according to the NPS website for the monument, the construction that proceeded under the Know Nothings' stewardship was so shoddy that it had to be torn down and replaced).
The Know Nothings' politicization of the uncompleted memorial proved so controversial that it caused a Congress to rescind a $200,000 appropriation that it had made to the Society (after years of cajoling and lobbying by its previous officers). The monument thus came to reflect the increasingly sharp political divisions of the antebellum period. Know Nothing mismanagement of the Society and the party's sudden collapse dealt a serious blow to efforts to raise funds for the monument's completion. The intensifying sectionalism of the 1850s appeared to trump the hopes of the Washington Monument Society's original officers, that the monument itself would be a source of national pride and a symbol of national unity. Finally, the Civil War halted construction of the memorial. From the disastrous management of the monument by the Know Nothings through the Civil War and Reconstruction, little progress was made on building the obelisk for over 20 years.
This ultimately proved to be a temporary lull, and not the death knell of the monument itself. The national centennial in 1876 provided new impetus to finish the memorial to Washington. With the destruction of slavery and the reunification of the country, the monument gradually re-emerged as a symbol of national unity. As Reconstruction ended and fundraising improved, the Society conducted extensive inspections of the existing structure and base to ensure the viability of continuing the project. Construction on the obelisk resumed in 1879, and in 1884 it finally was completed at a height of 555 feet. As they did before construction resumed in the 1870s, today engineers are giving the obelisk a thorough inspection to assess needed repairs. It will be a shame if visitors no longer will be able to enter the monument after the repairs are completed, but at least we can rest assured knowing the structure will be repaired and likely strengthened. That was something Americans could not be sure of in the middle of the 19th century, when it looked like the monument might never be completed.