When Political Extremists Hijacked the Washington Monument

WashingtonMonument11120802_sMy mother was in town recently, and she forced me to visit the Washington Monument with her.  As we were in the middle of our thirty-fifth attempt at one of those angled gimmick photos that would make it look like my mother was casually leaning against the monument with her elbow propped on top of it, I noticed something.

“Wait, is it me or is the Washington Monument like two or three different colors?”  I said.

After I convinced my mother that I wasn’t high on drugs, she looked at the photos on her camera and reluctantly agreed that the monument did, in fact, seem to be of at least two distinct colors of stone.  The story why, as I later discovered, is pretty crazy, and has some troublesome parallels to the present political moment.

It all started in the middle of the 19th century, when a political party called the American Party started winning elections.  It was a secret party at first, and their rule was that if someone asked a member about their affiliation with the party, their answer should be, “I know nothing.”  Enemies quickly turned this into a derisive nickname:  the “Know-Nothing Party.”  Their platform was mainly anti-Catholic, which at that time was code for anti-immigrant, since the vast majority of the German, Irish, and Italians coming into the United States at that time were Catholic, in contrast to the Protestants who’d preceded them.  The party’s official origin story involved a conspiracy about how the Pope had foiled the European revolutions of 1848, and was therefore “an enemy of freedom.”  The strange thing is that those revolutions were leftist uprisings of peasants against oligarchs, and yet the Know-Nothings used them as a launchpad for an extreme-right platform of xenophobia and isolationism.

Anyway, these guys didn’t like Catholics, so they especially didn’t like the Pope.  In 1854, the party started surprising people by winning elections left and right.  (Their candidate, one John T. Towers, even won the mayor’s race that year right here in the District.)  Historians, in retrospect, attribute their startling and sudden success to the fact that they’d tapped into populist fear and anxiety at a historical moment when one of the two main political parties – the Whig Party – was falling apart due to infighting and political incoherence.  (Didn’t I tell you this had eerie parallels with the present moment?!)  At this time, the Washington Monument was in the middle of being painstakingly assembled, block by block.  Congress, looking to pinch pennies, had launched a program through which groups could donate stone blocks, engraved with a message or logo of their choosing, to the building of the monuments.  Blocks had been coming in from everyone from schoolteachers to teetotalers, all carved with a custom message.  And then the Pope sent one over from Rome.

The Know-Nothings immediately claimed that the placement of the Pope’s stone into the monument was a secret Catholic signal for all Catholic immigrants to rise up in violent revolution.  Unsurprisingly, people didn’t find this convincing, so the Know-Nothings were forced to take matters into their own hands.  In March of 1854, a group of Know-Nothings broke into the Washington Monument’s construction site, and stole the Pope’s marble block.  No one’s sure what happened to it – they claimed they threw it into the Potomac, but years later, former party members were showing off slivers of marble they said had come from the stolen Pope stone.  At any rate, the stone was gone.  Not satisfied with their symbolic victory, the Know-Nothings then rigged the election for the committee that oversaw construction of the monument, stacking it with Know-Nothings.  Their first move was to bring construction to a halt, to ensure that the monument could be thoroughly “Americanized.”

Congress, annoyed but otherwise powerless to expunge the newly-elected committee members, did an end-around by simply cutting off all funding for the Washington Monument.  The monument, then just 150 feet tall, was abandoned for the next 33 years years, until funding was restored in 1878.  By this time, the blocks of the existing structure had weathered and aged, so everything above is distinguished by a slightly lighter tone.  In the following years, the Know-Nothings drifted farther and farther to the right, became integral to the pro-slavery wing of politics, and experienced a steep decline in the lead-up to the 20th century, and their brand has since become a synonym for a certain type of anti-immigrant agitation.  In 2010, a New York Times editorial titled “Building a Nation of Know-Nothings” used the term to describe the people who were then accusing President Obama of being a secret Kenyan citizen.  And you may recall that the birther movement, as it came to be called, provided the first real political platform for a certain anti-immigrant presidential candidate storming to the nomination of one of our major parties.  Full circle!

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