–by Joanna Hallac
With the celebration of Presidents Day on Monday, it is very easy for us to forget that today, February 22nd, is actually George Washington’s birthday. In honor of Washington’s birthday today, we decided to do a little digging into the issues that arose over where to bury our first president and where and what kind of monument to build to him, both of which were discussed as early as 1783, well before Washington even became the first President of the United States. From the initial idea for a monument in 1783 to the later idea for his body to be interred in a crypt at the U.S. Capitol to the finally agreed upon design for the Washington Monument in 1836, the issue of how to best commemorate the contributions of George Washington was a long and ever-evolving process that spanned the greater part of the 19th century. We hope you enjoy our foray into the complexities of memorializing our first and, perhaps, greatest president.
The original idea for a monument—an equestrian statue—to Washington was approved by the Continental Congress in 1783, and it seems he himself was involved in these early discussions about how and where to commemorate his life and contributions (though more because he wanted to help in continuing to unify the new nation and government after he passed on, rather than for any narcissistic reasons). It would appear that he helped Peter L’Enfant choose the desired location in DC for that originally planned statue. Additionally, it appeared Washington had been discussing the issue of interring his body in the U.S. Capitol with architect William Thornton. In 1793, Washington approved Thornton’s plan for the building, which “included a ground-floor tomb for his own remains. The crypt would occupy the exact center of the capital, where the city’s four quadrants met, and in the rotunda above it Thornton indicated a new location for the equestrian statue.” While housing beloved figures in national tombs was far from a new idea, “The double monument of equestrian statue and tomb would have cemented the importance of the Capitol building as the unrivaled symbolic center of the nation.” Washington, however, despite privately discussing and in some cases approving such plans, knew he could not publicly support the idea of a tomb in the Capitol, as he felt it would be antithetical to the Federalist and republican spirit in which he had helped to found the country. Accordingly, he ensured that his will indicated that he was to be buried at his beloved home of Mount Vernon, a move many close to him believed was his true desire as it were. Washington’s unexpected death in 1799 would only further complicate matters.
With Washington’s passing, as per his will, he was laid to rest at his family home at Mount Vernon; however, with the Congress moving into their new home in the capital city in early 1800, the debate over Washington’s final resting place became contentious within the walls of the new Capitol. As if the issue was not enough of a mess already, after Congress had agreed to ask Martha Washington for her permission to move her husband’s body back to the Capitol for final burial in the still-unfinished Crypt, the Federalists in Congress then decided it would be an even better idea to have a larger, ancient Egyptian-style mausoleum separate from the Capitol to forever entomb and enshrine Washington’s remains, having already commissioned a design for it from architect Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe’s design and a subsequent enhancement of it by George Dance, a prominent British architect, would have this mausoleum standing at 150 feet tall, which would have been larger than the Capitol building at that time, something that set off Democratic-Republicans in Congress who believed it was apotheosizing him in a way that would have made Washington himself uncomfortable. When a vote on the mausoleum project finally came before the Congress, the vote went along party lines—Federalists for and Democratic-Republicans against—but since the Senate refused to go along with the House’s version of the bill, the matter finally died.
While the efforts to enshrine George Washington’s remains in a mausoleum that harkened back to the days of ancient Egyptian or Roman deities fizzled out, two questions remained: should Washington’s remains be moved to the Capitol Crypt (which does exist and is located directly below the Rotunda) or any other site, and what kind of memorial or monument should be built to honor the man who served as our first and most revered President? The first question would be answered pretty easily in February 1832, “on the eve of his centennial birthday, the Twenty-second Congress made a last-ditch effort to redeem the promise made to the hero’s wife thirty-two years earlier. The internment, however, never took place.” Washington’s great nephew, John Augustine Washington, was now the proprietor of Mount Vernon and refused to allow the body to be moved from the family home, and Congress deferred to him on the matter. The second question proved less easy to answer, simply because it took decades for a monument to Washington to finally come into being.
After a few decades without much talk of it, a movement began in the 1830s among a group of wealthy, private citizens to raise funds to build a national monument to George Washington to be designed by architect Robert Mills. Although, based on his initial design, the monument was to originally include some grander aspects, it was later decided that just a plain, Egyptian-style obelisk would suffice as a monument to the great man, though many would feel it was too impersonal for the Father of our Country. By 1848, the group had raised $87,000, which persuaded Congress to donate public land for the endeavor; while it was originally meant to be built at another point along the west end of the Mall, the managers of the project felt the foundation of the higher ground it stands on today would be more suitable for this undertaking. On July 4, 1848, the ceremonial first cornerstone was placed before a large crowd with much fanfare. A chronic lack of funds as well as the Civil War slowed the construction severely over the next several decades and the monument would not be finished and dedicated until February 21, 1885 and would not be opened to the public until October 9, 1888.
In the end, the Washington Monument would weigh in at 81,120 tons and at a height of 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches, and while it was hardly the show of restraint that many had wanted (and some would likely argue that Washington himself would also have wanted more restraint in designing any such monument or memorial to him), it was a far cry from some of the earlier iconoclasms that were suggested. Even though Washington’s birthday is no longer a separate holiday, we should all be sure to remember that on this day in 1732 our first and, to most, our greatest American President was born, not knowing at that point that he would soon help to forever change the course of world history. So, please join me in wishing a very happy 280th birthday to President George Washington…let us never forget your actual birthday again.
Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, (University of California Press, 2005).
Rubil Morales-Vazquez, “Redeeming a Sacred Pledge: The Plans to Bury George Washington in the Nation’s Capital,” in Establishing Congress: The Removal to Washington, D.C. and the Election of 1800, Kenneth R. Bowling and Donald R. Kennon, eds. (Ohio University Press, 2005), pp. 148-189.