Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although there was agreement in principle that George Washington should be honored with his own monument as the founder of the United States, the Washington Monument’s construction was fraught with disagreements and delays. For many, the monument symbolizes American freedoms.

Summary of Event

While General George Washington was still commanding the Continental army, there was already strong public sentiment to honor him with a permanent monument. In 1783, the Continental Congress Continental Congress, Second passed the first resolution calling for an equestrian statue, only two years after the Battle of Yorktown had secured the new nation’s future. However, an empty treasury and other pressing problems prevented this good intention from coming to fruition. Washington Monument Washington, D.C.;Washington Monument Washington, George [p]Washington, George;monument to Architecture;Washington Monument [kw]Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument (July 4, 1848) [kw]Broken for the Washington Monument, Ground Is (July 4, 1848) [kw]Washington Monument, Ground Is Broken for the (July 4, 1848) [kw]Monument, Ground Is Broken for the Washington (July 4, 1848) Washington Monument Washington, D.C.;Washington Monument Washington, George [p]Washington, George;monument to Architecture;Washington Monument [g]United States;July 4, 1848: Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument[2630] [c]Architecture;July 4, 1848: Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument[2630] [c]Engineering;July 4, 1848: Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument[2630] [c]Government and politics;July 4, 1848: Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument[2630] Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;and Washington Monument[Washington Monument] Mills, Robert

In 1790, after the Articles of Confederation had been replaced by the U.S. Constitution, the new Congress decided that the nation should have a new capital. When French-born American architect Architecture;Washington, D.C. Pierre Charles L’Enfant planned Washington (he designed the capital’s street plan), he included the statue originally authorized by the Continental Congress Continental Congress, Second in 1783. However, President Washington squelched the idea, announcing he wanted no memorial while he remained alive.

Washington’s sudden death in 1799 led to renewed determination that the founder of the country be fittingly remembered in “his” capital. It was first suggested that his remains be re-interred in the Capitol rotunda under an elaborate sarcophagus, but his family opposed it. Furthermore, the conflicts sparked by the French Revolution (1789) were spilling across the Atlantic, drawing the new United States into the War of 1812. The subsequent financial and political crises drew attention away from plans for a memorial.

In 1832 the one hundredth anniversary of Washington’s birth renewed interest in a memorial, but Congress could not agree on a plan. Instead, a group of citizens led by Chief Justice John Marshall Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;and Washington Monument[Washington Monument] organized the Washington National Monument Society to construct a suitable monument through public subscriptions. The original idea was to collect one dollar from every citizen, thus making the monument everyone’s work. However, it quickly became clear that such a program would never amass sufficient funding, and the contribution limit was lifted.

In 1836 society members opened a competition for suitable designs, specifying that the monument should blend simplicity, durability, and grandeur. They finally settled on a design proposed by Robert Mills Mills, Robert , a student of Benjamin Henry Latrobe Latrobe, Benjamin Henry . In harmony with the interest in ancient civilizations then common, Mills combined designs from ancient Greece, ancient;architecture Greece and Egypt. A slender shaft reminiscent of an obelisk would be surrounded by a structure rather like a Greek temple.

The unfinished Washington Monument about six years after construction was stopped. The monument retained the same appearance until construction resumed two decades later.

(Library of Congress)

The monument society, by 1848, had enough money to begin work. Because of the disappointing size of contributions, however, they decided to build only the obelisk, although they left open the possibility of constructing the temple at the base in the future. With some delicate political maneuvering they got Congress to authorize the construction of the monument on the Mall, at the point where the views of the Capitol and the White House intersect.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 4, 1848, and the cornerstone was laid. In 1849 a group of citizens in Alabama proposed contributing a stone of their own to the interior wall. The society liked this idea so much that they invited other states, territories, and organizations to contribute stones of their own. Even foreign governments joined the undertaking. Most stones were placed without incident, but one caused major division.

The saga of the pope’s stone reflected the uneasy relationship of the United States with the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;and United States[United States] . The Roman pontiff still ruled the Papal States, a sizable temporal realm in central Italy. Many American Protestants had questions about the loyalties of Catholic Americans, particularly immigrants. When Pope Pius IX Pius IX [p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and United States[United States] sent to Washington, D.C., a stone taken from the Temple of Concord in Rome, several anti-Catholic groups objected to the stone’s inclusion in a secular monument. On March 6, 1854, intruders stole the pope’s stone, which was never found. It is widely believed that the culprits were members of the Know-Nothings, a particularly militant anti-Catholic and nativist American group (officially called the American Party American Party ), who allegedly threw the stone into the Potomac River to ensure that it would never be recovered.

Although Catholics were particularly outraged, many Protestants were appalled. As a result, contributions effectively ceased. Its funds exhausted, the monument society had to stop construction by the end of 1854. By that time, the nation’s attention was shifting to the divisions that would lead to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Just as Congress was about to bail out the society with a financial gift, the Know-Nothings Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party];and Washington Monument[Washington Monument] took over the society’s governance, leading to further dissension and delay. A few feet were to be added to the monument’s height, but only by using inferior stone that would later have to be removed. Although the original board was able to throw out the Know-Nothings by 1858, Congress was no longer interested in helping, and two years later the nation was launched into the furnace of the Civil War.

Throughout the war the unfinished monument stood like a sad reminder of good intentions. Cattle grazed around it, and a slaughterhouse was built at its feet to prepare beef for the soldiers at the front. After the war, newspapers called the uncompleted monument a national disgrace and pleaded for its swift completion, but the exhausted nation was too busy healing its wounds.

Only during the early 1870’s, as the nation’s one hundredth birthday approached, was there a renewal of significant interest in finishing the monument. A letter-writing campaign was organized, suggesting to Congress that the centennial would be a fitting time to dedicate a completed monument, but congressional delays meant that nothing got started until the date had come and gone. On August 2, 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Washington Monument[Washington Monument] signed into law an appropriation of funds to complete the work. From that point the monument’s construction would be a government project, although the society would continue to advise.

By that point, there were serious questions about whether or not the ground at the site could support the completed shaft. Thus, the first job of the new project head, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, was to strengthen the foundations. He developed an ingenious system of underground buttresses to give the shaft a firm footing without damaging the existing structure.

New questions were raised about the design of the finished monument. In the decades since work stopped, public tastes in architecture Architecture;Washington, D.C. had moved from the neoclassical to the Gothic styles of the Victorian era. Some critics called the original obelisk too stark, and architects proposed replacing it with an elaborate structure more like a cathedral spire. Casey refused to be drawn into the controversy and stuck to the original obelisk design, now refined by the studies of George Perkins Marsh Marsh, George Perkins to mimic the dimensions of authentic Egyptian obelisks. While Mills’s Mills, Robert original design had called for a flattened top, Casey decided to give the completed monument a pyramidion, or small pyramid, which is found at the top of a true obelisk. The simplicity of the design won over even the doubters.

By the time construction resumed, the quarry that had provided the stone for the original part of the monument was worked out. Although Casey was able to obtain marble from another quarry nearby, it belonged to a different geological stratum and was noticeably different in color. As a result, there is a definite break in the visual continuity of the shaft.

On December 6, 1884, thirty-seven years after work began, the capstone of the monument was put in place. It was subsequently covered by an aluminum cap that would serve as part of a system of lightning rods to protect the monument. At the time aluminum was very difficult to refine in any quantity, making it more valuable than gold and silver. Not long after, the electrical method of refining bauxite was developed, and aluminum became so inexpensive it was effectively disposable.


After its completion, the Washington Monument was soon hailed as a soaring symbol of American freedom. It is the largest freestanding masonry structure in the world at just over 555 feet and offers an unparalleled view of the nation’s capital. Congress passed a law in 1911 that restricted the maximum height of new buildings, in effect ensuring that no structure within Washington, D.C., will ever surpass its height.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Thomas B. The Washington Monument: It Stands for All. New York: Discovery Books, 2000. Looks primarily at the symbolism of the Washington Monument but also discusses its history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashabranner, Brent. The Washington Monument: A Beacon for America. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002. A clear and concise history of the construction of the Washington Monument and the challenges faced by its builders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryan, John M. Robert Mills: America’s First Architect. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001. A biography that helps to place Mills’s design for the Washington Monument within the larger context of both his complete body of architectural work and the cultural trends shaping architecture at the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landau, Elaine. The Washington Monument. New York: Children’s Press, 2004. A basic overview of the Washington Monument written especially for younger readers.

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