WASHINGTON AND HIS MONUMENT
By Mike McCormack, AOH Historian
George Washington held a special place in Irish hearts. No, he was not Irish, but he did have an Irish cousin named McCarthy by marriage. However, he did appreciate the contributions of the Irish in his Colonial Army. During the revolution, he even issued a proclamation in honor of the high percentage of Irish under his command, declaring March 17, 1780 a holiday for the Army. It was their first holiday in two years and he wrote it was “an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence“. He also had two Irish-born Aides-de-Camp: Lt. Colonels John Fitzgerald and Stephen Moylan. When the Revolution ended, no man commanded more respect than he. After building a fighting force that won independence from the most powerful kingdom on earth, in 1789 he was unanimously elected President and defined the new office. He denied the trappings of power by refusing a kingship and, despite considerable pressure to do otherwise, gave up his most powerful position after two terms since he felt that a President could never become as powerful as the king they just fought. Though many wanted him for a third term, in 1797 he retired and went home to build a business with Irish-born Lt. Col. Fitzgerald.
Progress towards a memorial in his honor began in 1833 – the 100th anniversary of his birth – as the Washington National Monument Society began collecting donations. By the mid-1830s, they had more than $28,000 and they started construction believing that the appearance of the Monument would spur further donations. In 1848 a cornerstone was laid in an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony and construction continued until 1854, when donations ran out. The next year, Congress voted to appropriate $200,000 to continue the work but, they halted it before the money was allocated. The reversal came because of a series of shameful events.
The Society had also encouraged the donation of memorial stones to be used on the inside walls and organizations, societies, businesses and foreign nations donated blocks of marble, granite and sandstone. However, one stone stopped not only the Congressional appropriation but construction altogether. In 1854, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of costly variegated marble from the Temple of Peace in Rome built in 366 B.C. It bore the inscription, ‘From Rome to America’. The stone, 3 feet long, 18 inches high and 10 inches thick was stored with other gift stones from across the States and the world, waiting to be installed.
On the night of 5 March 1854, several anti-Catholic Know Nothing nativists tied up the night watchman, stole the Papal stone, broke it with sledge hammers and threw it into the Potomac to insure that the monument would fit their definition of ‘American.’ Two stones donated by Ireland were also lost. The watchman was fired and the Society put up a $500. reward for the thieves. They were never caught. Know-Nothings then ran a fraudulent election and took over the Society whereby Congress rescinded its $200,000 contribution. Know-Nothings added 13 parts to the Monument – all of which were of such poor quality they were later removed. Unable to fund the project, they returned all records to the original Society in 1858.
In 1876, the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Congress appropriated another $200,000 and the partial monument, which stood as a public embarrassment for 18 years, was now ready for completion. Construction resumed in 1879 under Irish-American Lt. Col. Thomas Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers. He strengthened the foundation to support more than 40,000 tons, followed the original plans and even incorporated the 170-foot tall pile of memorial stones which had been a target of ridicule by the media. Casey recognized that the donors wanted them to be a part of the memorial, so he installed all 193 stones as part of the interior walls. However, he was unable to find the same quarry stone used earlier, resulting in the bottom third of the monument being a slightly different color than the rest. On 6 December 1884, a 100 ounce aluminum capstone was put in place during an elaborate dedication ceremony. In the 1880s, aluminum was a rare metal, selling for $1.10 an ounce and used mostly for jewelry. All four faces of the pyramid-shaped capstone are engraved with related information and the words Laus Deo (Praise be to God) are prominently engraved on the east face. At the time, a 55.5 foot base and a height of 555.5 feet made it the tallest building in the world; it is still the tallest free-standing stone structure in the world and was, by law, the tallest building in Washington D.C.
I wrote this story in the Hibernian Digest and in conversation with our NY State Treasurer, Tommy Beirne, he informed me that the Pope’s stone had eventually been found and I should check out that part of the story. Knowing that Tommy is well informed in Irish and American history, I did just that. I learned that in June 1892, divers digging foundations for a new pier discovered the corner of a large stone. It was a sharply cut and beautifully polished piece of variegated marble about six inches thick, a foot and a half high by three feet long. One side had the damaged inscription: Ro—t—merica, cut deep in Gothic characters. In the crowd of spectators was an elderly gentleman who struck the stone with his cane. Shouting, Where did that thing come from? It’s the Devil’s own work and it’s come back from hell where it belongs, at which point the old man ran off. He was obviously an old Know-Nothing leftover! The stone was stored in a small shed nearby for safekeeping until it could be donated to the Smithsonian. However, on the night of 19 June, the crew locked the shed door and left for a supper. When they returned, the stone was gone. Nobody ever found out what had happened, although in May 1959, the local Evening Star printed an urban legend that the stone was buried under 21st and R Streets, N.W. Our thanks to Tommy for the ‘rest of the story’.
Memorial stones are now accepted only in very rare circumstances, such as the admission of a new state to the union or replacement of a previously donated stone. At any rate, a new “Pope’s Stone” was commissioned by a priest in Spokane, Washington and installed in the monument by the National Park Service in 1982. Later that same year, the Vatican did indeed donate another stone to replace the first. It is made of shiny white marble and is now inside the Monument, at the 340 foot level, on the west wall of the stairway. The inscription is “A ROMA AMERICAE” (Latin for From Rome to America.) Although it’s not the original, it’s a good reminder of the resilience of those it represents. Then on March 17, 2016 it was announced that the offer of a plaque from Ireland was accepted by the director of the National Park Service. The presentation was made in May 2016 by Senator Mark Daly of the Irish Seanad Éireann, Irish Spokesman for the Irish Diaspora. After 183 years, the monument is now complete!