Our next story about the development of anti-Catholicism in the United States concerns—of all things—the Washington Monument. There was a huge debate about the idea of a monument to George Washington that began while he was still alive—indeed while he was still in the White House. Well, wait a minute—not exactly. George Washington was never in the White House. The first president to set foot (and live) in the White House was John Adams. By the time the White House—which, by the way, has a Catholic connection in as that its architect James Hoban was a devout Catholic—was ready for occupancy, our first president had been in his tomb just short of a year. During Washington’s term of office the national capital and site of the presidential residences was New York (from 1789-90) and Philadelphia (1790-1797. That was when Washington went out of office; Philadelphia remained the national capital until 1800 when Congress and President Adams both moved to the new capital of Washington DC). Even before there was a presidency of the United States—as early as 1783 when we were still governed by the Articles of Confederation—there had been a congressional resolution that a statue of Washington on horseback (traditional tribute to a military leader) be erected in front of the building where Congress would meet. Various other proposals were made in Washington’s lifetime but as the new national capital city was in the planning and construction phase and there were “bigger fish to fry” as we say—the need for a building for Congress, a residence for the president, a navy-yard to defend the city from enemy ships coming up the Potomac (a real threat in the 18th century) and practical details like drainage of the swampy land we call Foggy Bottom and laying out some streets and avenues and building homes for the officials and workers coming to the new city—nothing happened with the monument. When Washington died, Congress got shaken into action and ordered the construction of a vault under the dome of the Capitol building rising on what had been called “Jenkins Hill” (owned, incidentally by the Catholic Daniel Carroll of the famous and extensive Carroll family of Maryland) where the first president could be entombed. The Washington family, however, declined to allow the body to be moved from its tomb on the family estate at Mount Vernon where the most illustrious of the founding fathers had been buried after his death on December 14, 1799.
The following year, 1800, the Federalist party was voted out of power and Jefferson and his Republicans (who are today’s Democrats) were voted in. They were not keen on a monument to Washington for two reasons. First, they were quite a radical party and didn’t believe that any one individual—even Washington (First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his Countrymen)—should be honored by anything so monarchical as a monument. They saw it a bit like we might see Lenin’s tomb today: an excessive display for an individual and therefore not in “revolutionary” taste. Remember too that they were opposed to any sort of thing that hinted of aristocracy or inequality, slavery excepted of course. Slavery suited their purposes. The Republicans (aka Democrats) also had a grudge against Washington. Washington had opposed any sort of party-system and felt that government officials should seek only the good of the nation and not become partisan. (Well, Washington was a liberal, rather hopelessly so.) When—to his dismay—parties formed, he not so much joined, as just fell into, the Federalist Party. He was actually sort of shoved into the Federalists by Jefferson whose extremist views regarding the French Revolution were more than Washington could agree with. Washington’s Vice President, John Adams, was less abashed about his Federalism and their subsequent alliance alienated them from Jefferson who openly disagreed with Adams. A lot of this had to do with Adam’s pro-England policies and Jefferson’s pro-France agenda, England and France being at war during much of Washington’s (and Adam’s and Jefferson’s and Madison’s) presidencies. Adams and Washington were appalled at the excesses of the French Revolution (just the excesses, not the revolution itself) while Jefferson applauded them excusing the bloodshed with the claim that “the tree of liberty must be watered from time to time…” Pardon me, I am getting too far afield and by this time you are probably wondering how this fits into Catholic history. You’ll see; I am never one to take a short-cut.
By the 1830’s, as the city of Washington was taking shape as something more sophisticated than government buildings in the middle of a cow pasture, the idea surfaced again of a monument to the first President. By this point the Republicans (now more commonly known as the Democrats) had calmed down a bit and actually were, in most respects, the more conservative party. Andrew Jackson was president and he identified with Washington. Like Washington he was a military hero in a war against England. Unlike Washington he was fashioning the Presidency as a far more powerful office, expanding the powers of the President, and willing to use the image of George Washington to do something that Washington would probably never approve of. (This is what the modern Republican Party would do in refashioning Lincoln to meet their ideology and perhaps even what some claim that President Obama is doing with the heritage of President Reagan. This is why history is so fascinating.) By 1832 $28,000.00 had been raised for a monument to Washington. That may not sound like much but in modern value it is worth about six hundred thousand dollars. It was still not enough however for any sort of a fitting tribute. A prominent architect, Robert Mills, came up with the design of a tall obelisk surrounded on its base with a round “temple” which in turn would hold statues honoring 30 other heroes of the Revolution and be surmounted by a statue of George Washington in a Roman Chariot. George, at least as far as I know, never drove a chariot, but hey don’t let details of history get in the way of art. He probably had never stood up in the boat crossing the Delaware either. Hold on, we are coming to the Catholic part.
Mill’s design would cost one million dollars –twenty-one million in today’s money. The money wasn’t there but then this was federal government so when has that been a problem? Construction started in 1848 and Congress invited the States, public associations, and foreign governments to contribute stones to be placed as tributes on the inner walls of the monument. OK, here is where the anti-Catholicism thing comes in.
1848 is an important year for many reasons. Not only was it the year that construction started on the Washington Monument, but it was a year that revolutions swept a number of European nations. France, Denmark, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Greater Poland, Austria, Bavaria, Prussia, Moldavia, Belgium and several other countries or regions all had uprisings demanding governmental change, generally in favor of more democratic government. In the Italian peninsula there were revolutions in The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples), the Papal States, and the duchies of Tuscany, Modena, and Parma. The Pope, Pius IX (the former Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti) had been a liberal, in favor of democratic reform, but there is nothing like a revolution against you to move a man from being a liberal to a conservative. Pius was forced to flee Rome to Gaeta, near Naples, where a British Warship was ready to bring him into exile for his own safety. He never went aboard however. The French came to his help and put down the Revolution and he returned to Rome. Believe me, the days of democracy in Rome were now officially ended. The Papal Prime Minister, Cardinal Antonelli—one of the last cardinals not to be at least a priest—cracked down imprisoning hundreds of pro-democracy Romans, reinstituting the Jewish Ghetto which Pius had dissolved before the revolutions, and establishing a papal autocracy in which he, Antonelli, controlled all communication to and from Pius.
The suppression of the 1848 Revolution and the Roman Republic it had created made not only Pius but the papacy itself a symbol of everything America and its republican tradition was opposed to. The American Whigs, opposed to Jackson and a strong presidency, had a particular hatred for the papacy and the Know-Nothings claimed it demonstrated clearly that Catholicism and Americanism were incompatible, that immigration from Catholic countries should be cut off, and that Catholics in the United States should be barred from political office and public service as they held allegiance to a foreign tyrant.
In 1853 Pius, like many other national leaders (he was at the time still King of the Papal States) sent a stone from the old Temple of Concord in the Roman Forum to be included in the monument to George Washington. One night the following March, before the stone could be placed into the monument, a band of Know-Nothings broke into the work site, stole the stone, and allegedly threw it into the Potomac. (In 1982 a replacement stone was sent by John Paul II and included in the monument.) That same year the Know-Nothing engineered a takeover of the committee overseeing the monument to make sure that no such stone, indeed any stone that wasn’t “American,” be included in the monument. They retained control of the monument for four years, during which time funds dried up and construction came to a halt. It was only after the Civil War (1861-65) that construction would continue on the monument. Next time we will look at the role Catholics played in the Civil War.
Today's image is Pope Pius IX