This Day in History: Washington, D.C., the Washington Monument, & the political firestorms they created

On this day in 1790, the United States capital moves from New York City to Philadelphia. Exactly 94 years later, the capstone is placed on the Washington monument in Washington, D.C.

Two quick stories about each of these history moments: First, the political firestorm that brewed over the location of the new U.S. capital.

The First Congress had a terrible time. Various regions of the country thought THEY should get the benefits of the new capital. Congressmen were completely unable to agree.

Do you hear echoes of modern-day budget fights?!

The angst over the location of the capital got entangled with another issue that was being contested at the same time: Should the federal government assume the states’ debts, acquired during the Revolution? Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, believed “assumption” was necessary to the restoration of public credit. But southern Congressmen, led by James Madison of Virginia, were blocking his proposal. Most southern states had paid off the greater part of their war debts. Why should they now help the northern states, which had been less responsible in paying back what they owed?

Thomas Jefferson decided to host a private dinner party for Hamilton and Madison. A compromise was reached: Madison would quit blocking Hamilton’s proposal. In return, Hamilton would support a capital location along the Potomac River. Congress approved the compromise, but Philadelphia was also named as a temporary capital until Washington, D.C. was completed.

Part of Washington, D.C., of course, is the eye-catching Washington Monument! On December 6, 1884, the capstone and aluminum tip of that monument were set.

The monument had long been the subject of public discussion. In fact, when Washington, D.C. was first being planned, a space for a monument was set aside. But congressional efforts to create the monument never seemed to pan out. Finally, a private organization was founded by John Marshall and James Madison. It began to raise funds and a cornerstone was finally laid in 1848.  

Naturally, more trouble lay ahead.

The Monument Society had an idea that must have seemed good at the time: It began soliciting donations of stones. The Pope even decided to donate a stone. Boy, did that cause some trouble! The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party reportedly stole the Pope’s stone and threw it into the river! A lot of trouble ensued, and the private effort that had been funding the monument found itself in bankruptcy.

What a mess.

Work would not resume until after the Civil War when the federal government took over. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was put in charge of the project.

Have you ever wondered why the stones change color partway up the monument? It’s because the original quarry became unavailable during this large delay in construction. In fact, the Army had a terrible time getting the project back on its feet. The foundation needed reinforcements and much of the original design was deemed too complicated, too expensive, or too structurally unsound. The new monument design was greatly simplified.

On December 6, 1884, an aluminum capstone was finally placed at the top of the monument. The monument was then the world’s tallest structure, although the Eiffel Tower would surpass it five years later.

Do you know what words are inscribed at the top of the monument? “Laus Deo” or “Praise be to God.”

Appropriate for a man who believed that the Revolution was won only because of divine assistance.