Anti-Catholic sentiment almost doomed the construction of a tribute to the first president of the United States.
There are so many monuments in Washington, D.C., but one certainly towers above the rest — literally and figuratively.
Literally, because the Washington Monument is still the tallest obelisk in the world.
And figuratively, because it honors the memory of the nation’s first president and the general who led the Thirteen Colonies in the War of Independence.
But, like the nation’s struggle for sovereignty itself, the Washington Monument was born of strife and hardship.
The monument was reopened this past week after repairs and renovations following a 2011 earthquake.
It will not surprise people today, when congressional gridlock seems to be par for the course, that in 1832, the centennial year of Washington’s birth and 33 years after his death, Congress could still not agree on a plan to memorialize the Father of the Country with a suitable monument. The public then took over, with citizens of Washington, D.C., forming the Washington National Monument Society in 1833. The society would solicit donations to pay for a monument.
It wasn’t until 1848 that they decided on a design and had raised enough funds to begin work. But the society always seemed to be short on funds, so in 1849 it adopted an idea first proposed by the State of Alabama, to accept memorial stones that could be fashioned into the interior of the monument, providing a symbolic tribute to Washington from each state of the union while also saving money on materials.
The idea caught on, and in time, Native American tribes, societies, professional organizations, labor unions, businesses, individuals, and even foreign countries—England included—wanted to donate a memorial stone.
In 1854, Pope Pius IX donated a memorial stone, with the inscription “Rome to America.” Aside from the fact that fundraising and work on the monument by now had slowed to a halt, owing to increasing tensions between North and South and economic conditions, the “Pope Stone” led to even more problems.
The nativist American party, better known as the “Know-Nothings,” were strongly against immigration, and feared that if the number of Catholics rose in the country, the pope could take over. Even a stone from the pope inside the monument to Washington was seen as a threat.
So, early in the morning of March 6, 1854, a band of Know-Nothings forced their way into the monument’s stone yard, overpowered two armed guards, carted the Roman stone away, and dumped it into the nearby Potomac River.
“There was no doubt that serious damage had been done to the Society’s cause. Anger was widespread among Catholics, who rightfully felt that the vandalism had been directed at them, and among Protestants, who looked suspiciously upon the motives of the Know-Nothings,” writes Louis Torres in “To the immortal name and memory of George Washington”: The United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Construction of the Washington Monument. “As a result, contributions to the Society, already meager, ceased altogether.”
The Know-Nothings were able to take over the Society, Torres said. “Arguing that the Society had hired too many foreign born and Catholics, they elected new officers and a new board of managers sympathetic to their political and social views.”
The Know-Nothings relinquished their control over the Monument Society in 1858 after an unsuccessful attempt to raise money, Torres said. “In the three years they controlled the monument, they added only 26 feet of masonry, marble that the master mason had originally rejected as imperfect.”
Congress incorporated the Society to safeguard it for the future, but the whole project had to be put on hold until after the Civil War. It was finally finished in 1884. Inscribed on the aluminum cap placed at the pinnacle of the obelisk are the words “Laus Deo,” Latin for “Praise be to God.”
And, in 1982, a priest from the other Washington—the state—donated a stone with the inscription “A Roma Americae,” replacing the original Pope Stone.