Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Know Nothing about the Washington Monument?

Those blasted Know Nothings are up to no good again! Not only did they cause a riot, pitting the Plug Uglies against the Marines, they also spear-headed an effort to prevent the construction of the Washington Monument.

The Washington Monument was slow to get off the ground to begin with. Sure, the government and the people of the United States loved their Founding Father, but when it came to funding architect Richard Mill’s costly obelisk…well, it turns out they were sunshine patriots. Though the National Washington Monument Society convened in 1833, the cornerstone was not placed until1848. Because the federal government refused to entirely foot the bill, the Society asked states, nations, civil organizations, churches, and even Native American tribes to contribute money toward the project. However, rather than send money, states and organizations donated blocks of marble. Many of these stones came with engravings, such as, “Alabama. A union of equality, as adjusted by the constitution.” Alabama and Equality in the 1850s? Right. And I’m the Pope.

But speaking of popes, construction of the obelisk was moving along until Pope Pius IX donated a stone. The Know Nothings were anti-immigrant, which meant that they were anti-Irish, which meant they were anti-Catholic by extension. So fearful that the stone was an attempt by the papacy to take over the country, the Know Nothings stole stone and allegedly threw it in the Potomac. Through elections within the National Washington Monument Society, the Know Nothings managed to gain control of the society, halting construction. Acting sensibly, Congress opted to withhold funds from the Society until the party dissolved, but by that time the nation was heading toward a Civil War. Any available funds were diverted toward preserving the Union.

The Civil War ended, but the Washington Monument remained neglected. Some years later Congress finally mustered up the will to complete the project. A new cornerstone was laid in 1880 and the capstone was finally placed in 1884. If you look closely at the monument you will see that the marble at the bottom is a darker color than the marble that begins about 150 feet up. The project took so long that when construction resumed in the 1880s, builders needed to use stone from a different quarry. Exposed to the elements, the two types of marble have aged differently. And now you Know Something!

Source: David Clark, “Blending Stupendousness With Elegance: The Washington Monument,” Mental Floss, 2009.
National Park Service,
Washington Monument, available online April 2009.

Picture Source: Special thanks to friend of the blog and photographer Christine Ruffo for use of the photos! Her prints are available for purchase at


  1. A friend once tried to feed me a story about the Washington Monument being two different shades because it's lowered into the ground each night to prevent interference with air traffic in the area. She had apparently believed this for some time.

  2. Christine (our photographer for this post) used to tell children that it was the Highwater Mark for the Great Flood of 1874 when the Potomac River submerged the city in over 100 feet of water. Any other rumors out there?