All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1960

The Washington Monument

Mr. Bradford is a well-known writer, speaker, and business organization consultant.

From a mound On the Mall at Washington a stately obelisk points skyward—the Nation’s monument to its first President, whose birthday we celebrate this month.

But it is more. That splendid shaft of old-fashioned, marble-faced masonry is a symbol—an emblem of our country itself, and of the spirit of persistence and freedom which made possible that country and its institutions of gov­ernment.

Like the country and its govern­ment, and like most of us as in­dividuals, the Monument has had its vicissitudes. The story of its construction is one of delay, disap­pointment, criticism, suspicion, accusation, ridicule, bigotry, polit­ical chicanery, and general frustra­tion. But it is also a story of cour­age, high purpose, determination, tenacity, sacrifice, devotion, per­sistence, and finally of achieve­ment.

A monument to honor George Washington was first given con­sideration by the Congress of the Confederation as early as 1783, the year in which, as a victorious general, he surrendered his com­mission to the Congress at Annap­olis and retired, as he thought, to private life. But it was too soon. He was still alive, and so were his critics and detractors. He was a man, already elderly at 51, hollow cheeked, heavily pockmarked, fa­mous as a war hero, but not yet become a legend. Parson Weems had not yet invented the cherry tree story, nor had Gilbert Stuart painted that majestic portrait. So nothing was done.

On the twenty-fourth of De­cember that year, accompanied by his aides, Colonels Walker, Cobb, and Humphreys, the General rode home from Annapolis to Mount Vernon. He arrived late, but in time for Christmas, as he had promised Martha he would do in a letter he had sent her from Phila­delphia two weeks before.

And while in Philadelphia, amid all the preoccupations of closing out his affairs as Commander-in­Chief, he had not forgotten the ap­proaching Yuletide. For Martha, or Patsy, as he called her, he had purchased a locket, a hat, and a silver coffeepot. For Jackie Custis’ widow, Eleanor, he had provided a fine silk handkerchief. For Elea­nor’s three little girls, Eliza, Mar­tha, and Eleanor, a pocketbook, a thimble, and a colored sash apiece. He had also bought several chil­dren’s books to be distributed among them; and for little George Washington Parke Custis, aged two, there were a toy fiddle and a whirligig. There were other things, too, less sentimental and more utilitarian: fifty yards of carpet, a reading glass to aid his failing eyes, a handle for his let­ter seal, a shaving outfit, a tea waiter, an umbrella, and several pairs of hose.

This was the man pictured by some “modern” writers as cold, austere, unsentimental, and burnt out inside by the war!

It had been enough to burn him out, heaven knows. He could re­member bitterly his own mistakes and the nagging failures of the Congress. His pride was still galled by the remembrance of the cabal against him in that body, when he escaped dismissal by only one vote. He could still flinch at thought of the disgraceful rout of his troops at Kip’s Bay, or the fiasco of the Brandywine, or the failure at Germantown. But he could also remember, and with satisfaction, the redeeming success at Harlem Heights, the victory at Monmouth, the near-miracle of Trenton, and the final triumph at Yorktown.

But that was all past now. Once he had written: “When we as­sumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” Now he would lay aside the soldier and resume the citizen. And there would be much to do. He must develop his farms, which had gone sadly to pot during the war under the slipshod management of Cousin Lund. He must improve his stock. He wanted also to experiment with various seeds, and with crop rota­tion. There were commercial proj­ects in his mind, too—a grist mill on his place not far from the Man­sion House ; another mill and a foundry at the Great Falls of the Potomac ; his lands in western Pennsylvania to develop or sell; a canal around the Potomac shoals for commerce with the western territory. Yes—much to do.

The Country Needed Him

But he reckoned without the fame that had come to him. It would never again be possible for him to be a private citizen. He had been touched by destiny.

The war had left the colonies bankrupt. Some twelve million dol­lars were owed abroad on borrow­ings made from foreign govern­ments during the war. At home the continental debt in principal and unpaid interest was around 40 millions. The several colonies or states were also in debt in amounts variously estimated at from 50 to 70 millions. In addition, there was a huge volume of paper money, called “Continentals,” which had been lavishly issued during the war, and which had shrunk in value to almost nothing.

All this was partly the result of a fundamental weakness in the political organization of the new country. It was called the United States, but actually it was still only a loosely-knit federation of thirteen independent countries. When a man from Williamsburg referred to “my country,” he did not mean the United States ; he meant Virginia. These thirteen “countries” were ineffectually tied together by the Articles of Con­federation. The Congress, which consisted of a single legislative body in which each state had one vote, could make no laws respec­ting individuals. It could only act for, and upon, the several states ; and even so, a state could do pretty much as it pleased, in spite of Congress. Moreover, the states distrusted each other, and many disputes arose among and between them. New York enacted a tariff against New Jersey ; Pennsylvania and Connecticut were on the verge of going to war with each other over their respective claims to the Wyoming Valley.

The National, or Confederation, government was powerless to prevent such threats to the general peace and welfare because it didn’t have money enough to support even a police-force army. It could levy no taxes, but had to depend upon requisitions which it might make on the several states—but which the latter could pay or ignore, as suited their pleasure. Perhaps it was only the enormous asset of holding title to all the vast public domain west of the Alleghenies that enabled the Con­gress to continue its precarious existence as a government.

Certainly this was an impossible situation if the United States was ever to become a nation.

George Washington, private citizen, saw all this quite clearly. In 1783, he wrote Hamilton that unless Congress were given the powers it needed, then “the blood we have spilt will avail us noth­ing.” And later, in writing about the necessity of pointing out the defects of the Articles of Con­federation, he added, “All my pri­vate letters have teemed with these sentiments… and I have endeav­ored to diffuse and enforce them.”

His private letters! When you keep in mind that such letters in those days were handwritten by their author, the volume of cor­respondence he turned out is al­most unbelievable. The Library of Congress has about 40,000 Wash­ington papers, of which about18,000 were either written by or to or for, or signed by, Washing­ton ; and Dr. John C. Fitzpatrick, who edited the 37-volume edition of The Writings of Washington, estimated that the General wrote with his own hand between eight and ten thousand letters!

I do not know how many of these were written between 1783 and the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but it is certain that they were many. In his excellent book,

The Constitution of the United States, Mr. James Mussatti says of Washington: “He had… kept alive the idea of union at a time when his countrymen were in deep despair. In his ceaseless activity and work through correspondence with the leaders of other states, the Convention had had its origin.”

A Target for Criticism

Of course, Washington was guilty of one grave offense in the eyes of certain leftish modern his­torians—namely, he was rich! So were some others of the Conven­tion, such as Robert Morris, George Mason, John Rutledge, and the Pinckneys. One writer of some note, very popular a few years ago as a debunking biographer of the great, described the Convention as “fifty-five sleek, well-to-do gentle­men, sitting carelessly in a closed room.” And with a touch of venom he added that Washington, as pre­siding officer, was “grave, serious and bored.”

Bored? Maybe he was. Ninety-nine days of presiding over sharp argument and listening to long­winded speeches might bore al­most anybody. But he was there! He was there, guiding, counseling, and lending his great prestige to the Convention. As for those well-to-do, “sleek” delegates, icono­clastic writers have belittled nearly all of them, just as they have the signers of the Declara­tion of Independence. One his­torian some years ago was at great pains to trace each one’s economic status and commercial and finan­cial connections ; and he came up with what he seemed to think was the scandalous information that a good many of them were holders of the worthless paper that had been issued under the Confedera­tion. The inference was that the whole idea of the new Constitution was therefore simply a scheme to validate their paper and redeem their losses!

The answer to such nonsense is: Suppose it were true—so what? It would have been very strange indeed if many of those delegates had not possessed some of the near-worthless “Continentals,” or other paper obligations of the states or of the Confederation, Nearly everybody did, down to the village shoemaker ; and these men were leaders—businessmen, law­yers, bankers, educators, land­owners. Naturally, most of them were men of substance. And, of course, they wanted that near-worthless paper to have value. So did everybody else who had any of it. Was that bad? Was it an evil thing to get the new government out of bankruptcy and into sol­vency? True, there was shameless speculation in the depreciated paper; but that can hardly be laid at the door of the delegates.

Many of those delegates had abundantly proved their ability to rise above merely personal inter­est. The assembly included law­yers, merchants, farmers, educa­tors, financiers. More than half of them were graduates of institu­tions of higher learning. About two-thirds of them had served either in the Continental Congress or in the Congress of the Confed­eration. Eight had helped write their own state constitutions. Some had seen actual service under fire in the Revolutionary War. Some of them had put their necks in a noose a few years before when they signed the Declaration of In­dependence.

They were an able, representa­tive group of men, hard-headed, practical, business-minded. They knew the importance of trade and commerce and of a stable currency. They wanted to bring order out of chaos. They wanted—shame on them!—to restore the value of the country’s money. They wanted to re-establish the credit of the new nation. They wanted to create a government that would be strong and that would last. There were extremists among them. There were long and sometimes bitter arguments. There were also com­promises and accommodations. At times the Convention threatened to blow up, but the wise counsel of 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin and the leadership of George Washington kept them at their difficult task. And so at last they finished the job. At last they ham­mered out a Constitution and made a nation.

And then by unanimous choice George Washington was elected to be the first President of that na­tion. It was a hard task. There were great problems. There were no precedents. Everything he did was being done for the first time. He had to feel his way. He made mistakes. He worried too much about relatively small matters of protocol. He lacked imagination. He was not a theorist. He could not turn a graceful phrase. He was awkward when he tried to speak in public. He was criticized and vilified.

But he was a great rock of patient strength and towering in­tegrity. He was “the Cincinnatus of the West.” He was truly the Father of his Country.

The Long-Delayed Memorial

On December 14, 1799, he died at Mount Vernon, a world figure, honored and revered. He had scarcely been laid in the old family tomb when Congress took action authorizing the erection of a suit­able memorial. But as many an ambitious seeker of government funds has since learned, there is a notable difference between an authorization and an appropria­tion. A monument was authorized, but no funds were made available for its construction.

This is hardly surprising, in view of the financial condition of the government in the years fol­lowing the Revolutionary War. The matter was later brought up in Congress in 1816 and again in 1819 with negative results because the costs of the War of 1812 were to be met. It is an interesting point that even though veneration for Washington was by that time well-nigh universal, members of Con­gress nevertheless stopped to con­sider the condition of the treasury. What a shockingly unprogressive attitude that must be for some of our present-day spenders to con­template!

But the members of Congress evidently felt the same way in 1824 when President Monroe again laid the matter before them, and in 1825 when the subject was reopened by John Quincy Adams. Finally in 1833, a group of leading citizens was called together by the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. As a result of that meeting, the Washington National Monument Society was formed, for the purpose of pri­vately erecting the long-delayed memorial.

The Society went earnestly about the business of raising funds by subscription. It was slow work ; and it was not until fifteen years later that enough money had been raised to begin construction. Meantime, a great competition had been held to determine the design of the proposed monument. Many entries were received, some of them approaching the fantastic in their proportions and ornamenta­tion. The winning submittal was by Robert Mills, a well-known architect of that time. It called for a decorated obelisk 600 feet tall arising out of a sort of colonnaded Roman temple arrangement, cir­cular in form, about 100 feet high and 250 feet in diameter. This was finally modified to the classic obelisk design now familia: to all the world.

Finally, in 1848 all was ready to make a beginning on the actual construction. Congress again “au­thorized” the monument ; a site was selected ; the foundation was put in ; and on July Fourth the cornerstone was laid by President Zachary Taylor, who used the same silver trowel Washington had used 55 years before when he laid the cornerstone of the Capitol build­ing.

For the next six years the work progressed slowly but satisfac­torily, in spite of obstacles and op­position. Some people ridiculed the design. Others said the monument would fall of its own weight. There were not wanting those who charged that the Monument So­ciety was corrupt, and that funds had been misused. A few grumbled because the shaft was not located where L’Enfant had said it ought to be when he laid out the city—the grumblers being oblivious to the fact that this would have put the Monument in the middle of what was then an extensive swamp. Such things are the petty annoyances that plague those who undertake most any such great public work. It remained for the most insidious influence of all—religious intolerance—to bring the great enterprise to a halt.

As a means of stirring up wide­spread interest in the project—what we would now call the public relations angle—the Monument Society had encouraged the con­tribution of memorial stones to be placed in visible positions on the inner walls of the Monument. The stones came from many sources—from cities, states, territories; from fraternal and patriotic or­ganizations; and from foreign governments that wanted to pay tribute to Washington and culti­vate American good will.

Among many such stones, a block of Italian marble from a Roman temple had been sent by the Pope. It created no particular stir; it was just another memorial stone among many. And then one day—or perhaps one night—in 1854, it was stolen—and a very large chunk of fat was in the fire! To this day it has never been re­covered, and nobody knows who stole it. The theft was generally attributed to the so-called Know-Nothing political party, which at that time had a very large follow­ing and which, among other things, was strongly antiforeigner and anti-Catholic. The Society and the Monument were immediately and helplessly thrown into the middle of a prolonged and bitter religious controversy. The flow of contributions shrank to a trickle and soon stopped altogether—and so did the work.

Perhaps the storm would have blown over in a few years; but by 1854 the clouds of sectional acri­mony were growing very dark in­deed ; and before the Society could weather the “Know-Nothing” flurry, a real storm had broken upon the country, and the Civil War was beginning its work of desolation.

Of course, quite apart from the Know-Nothing issue, work on the Monument would in all probability have closed down anyway during the war. Even such a distinctly national piece of construction as the new dome over the Capitol building was continued only be­cause Lincoln insisted that it pro­ceed as an evidence and an emblem of national strength and unity. At any rate, the Monument was stopped cold. Wartime pictures of the Washington scene show the unfinished, truncated shaft, 154 feet high above the foundation, and to all outward appearance completely abandoned. And there it stood for 25 years until the project was finally resurrected, this time by the government itself under an act of Congress signed by President Grant on August 2, 1876.

The Scar of War

And then a strange thing oc­curred. The first 150-odd feet of the shaft had been built, or at any rate faced, with dressed white Maryland marble in 2-foot courses, backed with rubble masonry. When work was resumed after the quarter century hiatus, a few courses were pulled off to get down below possible weather damage. These were replaced and a few more courses added with white marble from Massachusetts. But then the builders went back to the same quarries, near Baltimore, from which the original marble had been obtained. But the old quarry had been flooded, and was under some 90 feet of water. How­ever, the same marble (so they thought) was obtainable about a mile away. It was of a little finer grain, but was the same color, and possessed even greater strength when tested. It was not until it had been incorporated into the Monu­ment’s face and had been exposed to the weather for some time that it was seen to be of a slightly different color. But by that time it was too late to do anything about it. As a result, even an un­trained eye can detect the differ­ence today, after the passage of 80 years.

A second interesting problem was the foundation. Originally, it was 80 feet square at the base and about 23 feet deep, rising in stepped-pyramid form to where the shaft proper began. It was built of blue Potomac rock, laid up in ordinary lime and sand mortar, with some cement added. When the Army engineers, who now took over, refigured the weights and stresses, they decided that such a foundation was not adequate to take the enormous pressure of the finished monument. It must be enlarged, they figured, from a bot­tom area of 6,400 square feet to an area of 16,000 square feet. But the structure, including the ex­isting foundation, was already nearly 180 feet tall, and weighed about 137,750 tons! The trick was to insert, so to speak, a new foun­dation, without weakening or dis­turbing the towering segment of the Monument that was completed.

The job involved digging out about 70 per cent of the earth under the old foundation to a depth of 13 feet 6 inches beneath it, and replacing the excavated earth with concrete. This concrete must reach back about 18 feet inside the outer edges of the old foundation, and extend about 23 feet outside. Also, in order to dis­tribute the weight over the new foundation, it was necessary to pull out the old rubble-stone foun­dation from under the walls of the shaft, and replace it with con­crete. This meant that a little more than 50 per cent of the old foundation was removed, and that about 48 per cent of the shaft’s area was undermined and replaced with concrete. It was an engineer­ing problem of serious propor­tions ; and it was solved without causing the smallest crack in the masonry above it.

For What It Stands

So much by way of history. But what of the symbolism mentioned at the beginning? In what ways is the Monument emblematic of our country?

Like that country and like all its institutions of government, it was born of a great idea, but came into being through toil and trouble, accompanied by delays, disappointments, vilifications, in­ternal dissensions, and financial disaster. And just as its original foundations were insufficient and insecure and had to be strength­ened with new undergirding while the structure was still a-building, so the original foundations of our government, the Articles of Con­federation, were weak and inade­quate, and our fathers had to re­place them, even while the nation was still a-building, with the new foundation of the Constitution.

And what of the demarcation in the color of the marble, the line that divides the Monument into two sections? That is the scar tis­sue, so to speak, of the Civil War—and it is significant that while the scar is there, it represents no weakness in the structure. I am told that there is no stronger spot in all the masonry than along that old line where the work was stopped so long.

Of course, it is easy to pursue such analogy too far ; and yet cer­tain considerations do emerge, and should be of particular meaning to those who are prone to dwell upon our country’s shortcomings rather than to enlarge upon its virtues. The shortcomings exist, of course; and there are also flaws and imperfections in the Monu­ment.

For instance, there is the rela­tively insignificant size of the in­dividual marble blocks that face the shaft. One would think that the designers would have had greater regard for architectural relevancy ; but as you stand close and look up at the towering face of the Monument, you are struck unpleasantly by the apparently trivial size of the blocks, compared with the height and breadth of the space they cover.

Also, some of the blocks are chipped a little, and surface-cracked here and there from pres­sure ; and, of course, there is ab­solutely no adornment of any kind. Even all kinds of planting are ab­sent from its base. The place is bare and stark and vault-like as you stand near it. The doorway is low and squat and uninteresting.

But now turn your back on the offending portal, on the too-small courses of marble, on the whole Monument. Walk rapidly away—not just a few hundred feet, but several blocks. Leave the Mall and start walking up 14th Street. Soon you will think you have lost your­self in the crowded city. But sud­denly over your shoulder, or over the shoulder, it may be, of some building, you catch a breathtaking glimpse of the great white shaft, lifted against the clouds.

Or walk down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial. Go past the reflecting basin. Then turn sud­denly and look back—and be pre­pared for a veritable shock of pleasure that borders upon awe.

At such moments you are not conscious of any architectural in­congruity. Etched sharply in the sunlight of noonday ; bathed at night in the soft light of the moon ; or when the night is black, picked out and dramatized by the floodlights that surround it—there it stands, a thing of massive and yet somehow fragile beauty, per­fect in its dimensions and in its conception.

And one wonders: how long would it stand if a group of people, without engineering knowledge or acquaintance with the laws of weight and stress, moved in some day and began pulling out sections of the carefully built foundation?

And what would happen if such people, ignoring the foundation and its limitations upon the super­structure, chose to festoon the shaft with great stone balconies or other adventitious monstrosi­ties that not only marred its clas­sic beauty but threw it out of bal­ance?

Washington’s Monument! The phrase summons up the image of that stately and beautiful marble shaft. It evokes, too, an image of the towering figure the shaft me­morializes—grown remote and al­most legendary now with the pass­ing decades, but real, human, dedi­cated, and of such transcendent historic importance that his real monument is a thing that rises higher than the great obelisk, and casts its shadow infinitely farther.

His real Monument is a nation which, like the obelisk, was placed upon a safe and secure founda­tion ; a nation which bears the scars of disunity, now happily ce­mented ; a nation which, whatever its defects and incongruities, yet rises as a majestic whole among the other nations of our globe.

Shall we keep it so? Or shall we overload it with debt and inflation and the concentrated power that Jefferson feared, until it totters off balance and on the brink of collapse?

Shall we keep it bravely and beautifully erect against the skies? Or shall we hack away at its foun­dations until a breaking point is reached, and the noble structure is brought down in ruins, to be­come a rubble monument to our greed, stupidity, and folly?

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.