The Washington Monument: A view from the museum

By Sara Murphy
Pink marble fragment

The view from the western side of the museum is spectacular. It includes the western end of the National Mall, the World War II Memorial, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and, of course, the Washington Monument. During a recent meeting, I looked out the window at this view and began wondering why the nation decided to build a tall marble obelisk as an homage to our first president. As it turns out, it is quite a story!

The idea to build a memorial to George Washington pre-dates both Washington, D.C., and Washington’s presidency. In the 1780s, members of the Continental Congress resolved to build an “equestrian statue” in Washington’s honor, but there was a debate over the location of the statue. Washington’s death in 1799 renewed interest in a memorial to honor him. That year, Congress recommended that a “marble monument be erected in Washington, and that the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it.” Eventually, plans to entomb Washington beneath the monument were abandoned.

Although the proposal of a monument to Washington was introduced several times, no progress was made. In the early 1830s, several prominent Washingtonians decided they had had enough—if Congress wasn’t going to build a monument to the first Commander in Chief, they would; and so the Washington National Monument Society was formed. The society put forward a call for designs and later selected the winning proposal: a marble obelisk with surrounding colonnade, designed by Robert Mills.

Conceptual drawing of Washington Monument
Robert Mills’s original design for the Washington Monument included a subterranean space, a colonnade, and equestrian statues. Due to construction costs, only the obelisk was built.

To raise money for the project, the monument society appointed agents to collect funds, and public participation was limited to $1 so that all could contribute. However, after three years the society had only collected $20,000, and due to a recession in the late 1830s, collecting was suspended. After the recession, the $1 limit on contributions was lifted. To raise money the society made lithographs for contributors who donated at least $1; the lithographs showed the proposed design alongside signatures of various prominent politicians of the day, including Zachary Taylor, James Polk, George Dallas, Henry Clay, Millard Fillmore, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster. Additionally, contribution boxes were placed in post offices around the country. 

Metal collection box with handwritten instructions attached to side
This Washington Monument contribution box is from Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

In 1849, after receiving a block of marble for the monument from the citizens of Alabama, the society began soliciting blocks of marble from other states, territories, trade unions, Native American tribes, and foreign governments. Not all donations were equally popular. On the evening of March 5, 1854, several men broke into the monument’s construction site and stole a block of marble that had been sent by Pope Pius IX. The men then threw the stone into the Potomac River. Although no arrests were made, it was common knowledge that the perpetrators were members of the American Party, more commonly known as the “Know-Nothings.” The Know-Nothings, who quickly rose to political power in the 1840s, were strongly anti-Catholic and opposed the growing number of immigrants to the United States. 

Pink marble stone fragment shaped mildly like the Washington Monument
Although the pattern of the marble doesn’t match the original description, this stone came to the museum with the claim that it is the Pope’s stone. 

From 1855 to 1858, the Know-Nothings seized control of the Washington Monument Society. During this time, very few monetary contributions were collected and only a few feet of marble were added to the monument. Ultimately, the Know-Nothings fell from political power and returned the monument to the Society’s original members, but the lack of progress convinced many Americans that the federal government needed to intervene. In February 1866, President Andrew Johnson stated, “Let us restore the Union and proceed with the monument as its symbol until it shall contain the pledge of the States of the Union . . . Let us restore the Union and let us proceed with the monument founded as its symbol until it shall contain the pledges of all the States of the Union . . . Let your monument rise . . . higher and higher.” Ten years later, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a joint resolution stating “we, the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled, in the name of the people of the United States . . . do assume and direct the completion of the Washington Monument, in the City of Washington.” This joint resolution, unanimously adopted by both the House and Senate, meant that the Washington Monument Society ceded “all property, rights, and privileges” to Congress. Now, Congress was officially responsible for completion of the Washington Monument. 

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Casey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was appointed to resume construction of the monument. After inspecting its “stub” he found that the foundation did not provide enough support and the section of marble installed by the Know-Nothings was inferior and needed to be removed. Under Casey’s direction, progress on the construction of the monument proceeded quickly and efficiently. Between 1880 and 1882 the monument grew in height—from 154 feet to 340 feet. In November 1884 the monument hit the 520-foot mark, temporarily becoming the tallest structure in the world. 

Finally, in February 1885 the dedication of the Washington Monument took place. During the ceremony, Senator John Sherman stated, “the monument speaks for itself—simple in form, admirable in proportion, composed of enduring marble and granite, resting upon foundations broad and deep, 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.”

Pamphlet with small carton illustration of George Washington
The Order of Proceedings for the Dedication of the Washington Monument took place on Washington’s Birthday. This program belonged to Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Baird.

Although the monument was dedicated in 1885, it wasn’t officially ready to receive visitors until 1888. Since its opening, hundreds of thousands of people have climbed to the top, and hundreds of thousands more have used the monument as a landmark. Not only is the Washington Monument a memorial to our first president, but it has been a witness to numerous events on the National Mall. The monument stood as a backdrop to the Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1960s and played a key part in the 1963 March on Washington. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the monument’s grounds were used as a rallying point for both anti-Vietnam War protestors and the National Guard. For the nation’s bicentennial, the monument was the centerpiece of a fireworks display. And in 1987 an AIDS quilt with the names of those who had died was displayed on the National Mall with the Washington Monument standing in the background. Most recently, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a life-sized image of the Saturn V rocket that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins into outer space was projected onto the Washington Monument. The monument has borne witness to innumerable events in Washington, D.C., and it will bear witness to countless more. 

Overhead map showing the parade route for the March on Washington
The Washington Monument served as a visual marker for those that participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.

Sara Murphy is a museum specialist and collections manager in the Division of Political and Military History. She has previously blogged about how first families have memorialized and mourned and about the process of exhibition installation.