The most famous memorial built to honor George Washington, located here in the city named for him, is the giant obelisk known as the Washington National Monument – or more simply, THE Washington Monument. As many residents and visitors to the structure may know, construction began in 1848 but stopped for a period of time and was not completed until 1884; there is a visible difference in the stone used as the exterior cladding of the monument, since different quarries were used. What many may not know, however, is that it was not only the Civil War which interrupted the building, but also a native anti-Catholic movement. The irony, as we shall see, is that Washington himself not only had many Catholic friends, but made several public gestures of friendship toward Catholics that, for his times were truly remarkable.
The Washington Monument is the tallest masonry stone structure in the world, and any time you are going to build something falling into the category of “world’s biggest”, you are going to be paying through the nose for it. As construction on the monument proceeded, the organizing Washington National Monument Society decided to offset some of the tremendous costs by inviting donations of marble, granite and sandstone for the completion of the structure. Stones came from the various states, territories, groups and foreign countries. One of the senders was Pope Pius IX, who in 1853 sent a block of marble from the ancient Temple of Concord in Rome, on behalf of the Holy See. This gift triggered an anti-Catholic backlash from the “Know-Nothing” Party, a group with which some of my readers may not be familiar.
The “Know-Nothings” were so called because, like the Freemasons and other secret societies, members were instructed not to discuss the party’s dealings with outsiders; when asked about party activities, the member was required to respond, “I know nothing”. The party was founded in response to the waves of Catholic immigrants who began to arrive in the United States during the 1840’s and 50’s. The group held that true American values were only to be found among white Protestant males of British descent, and membership was limited to those of such origins. They quickly became a powerful force in national politics, particularly through acts of violence against Catholics, claiming over one million members and including, as it happened, the office of Mayor of Washington, D.C.
Members of the Know-Nothings stole the papal gift (which they called “The Pope’s Stone”) in 1854, smashed it into pieces, and threw the fragments into the Potomac River. They then took over the Society for several years, did some shoddy construction work which later had to be removed, and presided over the drying up of funding for the project. By attempting to turn the monument of all people in honor of Washington into a monument to themselves, they found themselves suddenly confronted with a Tower of Babel that was impossible for them to finish.
The Know-Nothings as a party were a short-lived phenomenon, even if anti-Catholicism never entirely died out. They quickly fell apart over the issue of slavery, with Northern members supporting abolition and Southern members opposing it. They eventually relinquished control of the Society, which in any case by 1860 was depleted of funds thanks to public dissatisfaction with the Know-Nothings running the show. After the interruption of the Civil War, thanks to the efforts of President Ulysses S. Grant and a government takeover of the project, the Washington Monument was eventually completed and dedicated in 1884.
The irony in the action of the Know-Nothings is that George Washington himself, while certainly no papist, was friendly with many of the prominent Catholic leaders of his day, including the Carroll family. More importantly, Washington put his money where his mouth is, as the saying goes. If you were unfamiliar with the “Know-Nothings”, gentle reader, you may be even more surprised to learn that in addition to writing letters to prominent Catholics supporting religious tolerance and the common good, Washington also banned overt acts of anti-Catholicism and attended mass on several occasions.
While Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolution, Washington issued an official order in 1773 banning the traditional Guy Fawkes Day custom of burning the pope in effigy. He described this practice as being “ridiculous and childish”, saying that particularly during a time when the colonists needed the support of French Canadian Catholics to win the Revolution that this practice “at such a juncture, and in such circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused.” Later, in 1781, Washington attended a solemn mass of thanksgiving at Old St. Mary’s Church in Philadelphia to mark the defeat of the British, and also led a congressional delegation to mass there during the Continental Congress. It is doubtful that the “Know-Nothings” – who really were that stupid – knew about these things.
In 1982, Pope John Paul II sent a new stone on behalf of the Holy See, which was then installed at the Washington Monument in a ceremony hosted by the National Park Service and the Archdiocese. It was a fitting conclusion to what was an ugly chapter of American history, and one that has left a permanent, visible marker in the monument itself, where the casing changes color. More importantly, the gift is a recognition, as Pope Pius had originally intended, of Washington’s remarkable tolerance of and friendship with Catholics at a time when Catholics were very much hated and viewed with suspicion by many in this country.