The Washington Monument Collection and the Know-Nothing Party

Today’s post comes from John Lockwood, a long-time federal employee who has written numerous articles, many for the National Archives.

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Concrete underpinning of the Washington Monument, undated. (National Archives Identifier 57359332)

I was recently downtown at the National Archives, looking for old records of the Know-Nothing Party, when they were in charge of the Washington Monument’s construction for a few years. I did find one interesting possibility, in Record Group 42, Entry 449, titled “Contributions at the foot of the Washington National Monument.”

How successful were the Know-Nothings in getting donations from visitors at this particular site? Not very, it would seem.

The Know-Nothings were an anti-Catholic political party of the mid 1850s, who answered “I know nothing,” when questioned about their activities.

As for the Washington Monument, it was the brainchild of a local private group, the Washington National Monument Society, founded on September 26, 1833. They refused to accept any government money, relying on private donations gathered by agents in the field and collection boxes across the country—including one box at the unfinished Washington Monument. Construction officially began on July 4, 1848.

This fund-raising method never worked very well, and construction ground to a halt sometime in December 1854, due to lack of funds. The Monument at this point was 154 feet tall, compared to its finished height of 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches today.

At the society’s meeting on February 22, 1855, the Know-Nothings took over by means of ballot box stuffing and promised to complete the Monument. They failed, adding only three feet of inferior stone that later had to be removed. The Know-Nothings returned control back to the original society sometime in October 1858. By 1879, the U.S. Government had resumed construction of the obelisk and ulimately finished it on December 6, 1884.

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Volume 1 from RG 42, Entry 449. (Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital)

The two volumes of Entry 449 helped show how the Know-Nothings were even less successful than the original society—building only 3 feet vs. 154 feet. Volume I begins in September 1856, after the Know-Nothing takeover, and goes beyond October 1858, into 1864.

Volume I is a massive, dark green book, of the sort one could imagine Ebenezer Scrooge using. Visitors to the Washington Monument, if they chose, could write in the date, their name plus place of birth and current residence, and how much money they were putting into the Monument box. The staff would then add up all the donations at the end of each month, which certainly made my research a lot easier.

The largest monthly total (or “totle” as one staff member spelled it) was for September 1856, at $221.30, while the smallest figure was for May 1858, at $23.25. A good average would be in the 50s or 60s range for most months.

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Page in Volume 1 from RG 42, Entry 449. (Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital)

As for the daily donations, most visitors contributed $1.00. There were a few 50-cent and 5-cent gifts, and at least three $5.00 donors, but $1.00 was by far the most common.

Also, most of the contributors were American. There were a few Englishmen, including one J. Hamburger, who each gave $1.00; and a member of the Ottoman Turkish navy, who also gave $1.00; plus a visitor from Mexico who didn’t donate, but that was about it for foreign gifts during the Know-Nothing period.

Very soon after the Know-Nothings gave up control in October 1858, the nation had other things to worry about, namely the Civil War, followed by Reconstruction. Small wonder the U.S. Government eventually had to move in, if the obelisk was to be finished at all.

Want to know more about the Washington Monument? Read John Lockwood’s 2016 Prologue article, “The Men—and the Women—Who Built the Washington Monument.”

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View of the uncompleted Washington Monument, taken from the roof of the main building of the Department of Agriculture, ca. 1880. (National Archives Identifier 516531)

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