"First in War, First in Peace…"

February 21, 1885

Thomas Nast

"First in War, First in Peace…"

Celebrations, Washington Memorial; Charity, Fundraising; Symbols, Columbia; Women, Symbolic;

Washington, George;

Washington, D.C.;

No caption

This Harper's Weekly cover cartoon by Thomas Nast celebrates the completion of the Washington Memorial in the nation's capital.  The caption is Henry Lee's famous encapsulation of the high esteem in which his contemporaries held George Washington.

George Washington, commanding general of the Continental Army during the War for Independence and first president of the United States, is honored by monuments and place names across the country.  During the centennial of his birth in 1832, a movement formed to honor Washington with a monument in the capital.  Congress appropriated $5,000 for a statue for the Capitol Rotunda.  The monument by Horatio Greenhough, which depicted Washington in classical garb like a Roman emperor or Greek god proved to be controversial and was moved.

In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society was founded by George Watterson, a former Librarian of Congress, and supported by Chief Justice John Marshall, the organization's first president, and other influential citizens.  They proposed to erect a monument to Washington on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.  In 1836, architect Robert Mills won a design competition, but his elaborate plan was scaled back by the Society to concentrate on constructing his proposed 600-foot shaft, based on Egyptian obelisks.  

The Society collected $87,000 in one-dollar contributions, and the groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument was held on July 4, 1848.  Speaker of the House Robert Winthrop laid the cornerstone and delivered the chief oration to a crowd estimated at 15-20,000, including President James K. Polk, former first lady Dolley Madison, and the first president's step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.

Progress on the monument was slow, so that by 1854 only 152 feet had been built.  The Memorial Society had solicited commemorative marble stones from states, territories, civic organizations, and foreign nations.  In 1854, the stone contributed by the Vatican was stolen, putting a damper on other contributions.  At the same time (and related, some suggested), the anti-immigrant American (or Know Nothing) party established its own Washington National Monument Society, and confiscated the official records of the original group.  When the American party soon collapsed, the original Memorial Society resumed its work, but the public had become confused, skeptical, or disinterested in the project.  In 1855, an attempt to secure Congressional funding was defeated in the Senate, and construction halted for 20 years.

After the Civil War, interest in the Washington Monument revived.  In 1875, Senator John Sherman of Ohio introduced a resolution for Congressional funding of the project.  An allocation of $1,000,000 was provided, and the Society transferred control of the monument and grounds to the federal government.  The Army Corps of Engineers, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas L. Casey, enlarged the foundation and resumed construction of the obelisk in 1880.  On December 6, 1884, a 3,300-pound capstone, topped by a nine-inch aluminum pyramid, was mounted on the 555-foot shaft.

The formal dedication on February 22, 1885, was conducted by Robert Winthrop, who had laid the monument's cornerstone nearly 40 years before.  It took three more years, however, to complete the interior of the monument.  On October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., was officially opened to the general public.

Robert C. Kennedy

Click here to see the entire poem.

"First in War, First in Peace…"
December 3, 2023

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