National Geographic : 1947 Jun
The Washington National Monument Society BY CHARLES WARREN THERE is in the City of Washington an organization formed 114 years ago, in 1833, of whose existence most citizens are unaware, but which is still actively func tioning-the Washington National Monu ment Society. It has, however, a unique characteristic. By provision of its charter granted by Con gress in 1859, it has only 18 members but 53 officers-the latter being a president (the President of the United States ex officio), 48 vice presidents (the Governors of the States ex officio), two active vice presidents, a secre tary, and a treasurer. No national monument to the memory of George Washington was completed in the Capital City until about 85 years after his death on December 14, 1799. Nine days later, John Marshall of Virginia, in the House of Representatives, supported a joint resolution "that a marble monument be erected by the United States in the Capitol at the City of Washington," and that his body be deposited under it. The resolution was unanimously adopted. On January 1, 1801, the House passed a bill for a marble mausoleum with a base 100 feet square. In the Senate, the bill was postponed. In 1816, 1824, and 1830, House bills fa voring the erection of a marble monument or mausoleum again failed to pass, many Con gressmen taking the view expressed by Erastus Root of New York in 1810-that it was pref erable that "Washington's name live in his tory [rather] than in marble." John Forsyth of Georgia later said it was unnecessary: "When foreigners inquire of us, 'Where is his monument?' our answer is 'In our hearts, our deep, all-pervading, over whelming gratitude to the great benefactor of our country.' " George Cary of Georgia said: "We need no monuments. . . . He has a mon ument in the heart of every American . . . and let it be our peculiar pride to enshrine him." An Appeal to the Nation From year to year the project unfortu nately became involved in politics until, in 1832, when it was proposed to celebrate the centenary of Washington's birth, the division between the Democrats and the Whigs had become so bitterly partisan that Congress failed to ask President Jackson to attend the exercises at the Capitol, and the municipal celebrations were almost entirely Whig affairs. Possibly because of this heated political situation and the repeated failure by Congress to provide for a monument, citizens of Wash ington determined not to wait any longer or to rely on Congressional appropriation, but to appeal to individuals throughout the Nation. Accordingly, a Society was formed, Sep tember 26, 1833, at the City Hall for the purpose of erecting "a great National Monu ment to the memory of Washington at the seat of the Federal Government," and to obtain contributions for this purpose. It chose Chief Justice Marshall as its first president, and George Watterston (former Librarian of Con gress) as its secretary. Marshall on his death was succeeded as president of the Society in 1835 by former President James Madison, with Judge William Cranch as first vice president. Widespread appeals for funds were circulated. An archi tect for the Monument was chosen-Robert Mills *-who had designed the first monu ment of importance raised to George Wash ington (that in Baltimore in 1815-1829). Appeals Kept Issue Alive At first, individual contributions were lim ited to one dollar, but this limitation was soon abandoned. Though the Society had no great success in raising money (its funds being only $87,000 in 1847), its constant appeals to the Nation and its memorials to Congress, and the indefatigable efforts of its secretary, George Watterston, kept the subject constantly be fore the people. The eloquent nature of these appeals "to the American people" may be seen in the following extracts from that which appeared in 1846: "The object was to erect a monument at the seat of Government which should by its colos sal magnitude and imposing grandeur exhibit to the remotest age the gratitude of a nation of free men to the man whose excellent good sense and virtues had so pre-eminently con tributed to their happiness . . . The hope is still indulged that the American people, influ enced by the ardent memory of the great founder of their liberties, will not fail to con tribute to the erection of a structure that shall be commensurate with their gratitude and *A monument to Mills was erected in the Con gressional Cemetery, May 30, 1936, by the Architects of Washington, bearing this inscription: "Robert Mills, 1781-1855, First Federal Architect, whose in fluence moulded our Architecture, and whose genius gave us the Washington Monument, the Treasury Building, the Old Patent Office, and the Old Post Office."