When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

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In the darkness of the early morning hours of March 5, 1854, a group of men on a mission to save America broke into a shed at the base of the Washington Monument. The monument was only one-third finished and the shed contained stones sent from countries around the world to be used in its completion. The secret cell looked for one stone among the many. It was marked “Rome to America”.

The team tied a rope around the block of marble and dragged it out. What happened after this is subject to rumor and conjecture, but the theft led to a near-permanent halt in the building of the monument.

The stone had been sent as a gift to America from Pope Pius IX. It was of black marble, three feet long and a foot and a half high from the Temple of Concord in the Roman Forum.

More than a year before the stone ever arrived in the United States it had been the focus of anti-immigrant hatred. Protestant minister John F. Weishampel published a pamphlet attacking the stone entitled Rome to America: the Pope’s Stratagem!An address to the Protestants of the United States against placing the Pope’s block of marble in the Washington Monument. Anti-immigrant activists warned that Irish and German Catholic immigration threatened to swamp native (white) American culture and that immigration was part of a larger plot by the Pope to take over the United States. The placement of the Pope’s Stone would signal to immigrants that the day of their triumph had come at last, possibly leading to a violent Catholic uprising.

Wash-monument-buffaloThere are dozens of memorial stones in the Washington Monument donated by foreign governments, states of the Union, and civic groups and unions.

The secret cell that stole the Pope’s Stone was part of an anti-immigrant mass movement called the Know Nothings.  The men either overpowered the armed watchman guarding the marble block, or perhaps the watcher was a Know Nothing himself. The team may have thrown the stone into the Potomac River or broken it up into tiny pieces as souvenirs of their blow against Catholic immigration.  Certainly at least one Know Nothing claimed decades later to have a sliver of the stone.

Not content to have destroyed the stone, the Know Nothings held a fraudulent election and took control of the society building the monument either to “Americanize” it or to get their hands on the considerable donations it received. Appalled at both the act of terrorism and the financial chicanery, Congress halted support for the building of the obelisk and it fell into disrepair. 1

Wash-Monument

The Washington Monument during the period when work was suspended. Mark Twain wrote in 1868 that it was an “ungainly old chimney that…is of no earthly use to anybody else, and certainly is not in the least ornamental. It is just the general size and shape, and possesses about the dignity, of a sugar-mill chimney… It is an eyesore to the people. It ought to be either pulled down or built up and finished.” – San Francisco Alta California, February 14, 1868

Work on the Washington Monument would not resume until 1878. When it was restarted, new rock had to be ordered. To this day you can still see the effects of anti-immigrant rage. The color of the stones above the 150 foot mark where work stopped in 1855 is slightly different from that used after 1878.

Wash-Mom-color-changeThis modern photo from the National Park Service shows the difference in stone coloration from the First Phase of Construction before the Know Nothing attack to the Second Phase which began in 1878.

The Know Nothings’ scar on the Washington Monument is permanent, but the anti-immigrant movement’s scar on mid-19th Century immigrants lasted for generations as well.

Over the next three installments of The Immigrants’ Civil War, we’ll look at the phenomenal growth of the Know Nothing party before the war and its impact on the way immigrants looked at their new country. But first we’ll look Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing.

More articles on Immigrant History from the Civil War Era

Notes

1.  The Pope’s Stone by August Imholtz, Jr. (2010)

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

Cultural

Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

The Real Story Behind The Immigrants’ Civil War Photo

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

The Five Meanings of “The Immigrants’ Civil War”

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

Books for Learning More About The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War

New Immigrants Try to Come to Terms with America’s Civil War

Important Citizenship Site to be Preserved-Fortress Monroe

Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Civil War Blogs I Read Every Week

First Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award Goes to Joe Reinhart

Damian Shiels Wins Second Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award

Mother Jones: Civil War Era Immigrant and Labor Leader

Juneteenth for Immigrants

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler-Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

Books for Learning More About The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War


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2 COMMENTS

  1. Your emphasis on anti-immigrants is a political sham to bolster your opinion on the larger issue of immigration. The central issue that you discuss and yet ignore is anti-Catholicism. As you say, there are plenty of stones from organizations and foreign governments. The rejection of the expressly Catholic stone and Catholics on the whole is the real crime. Your unwillingness or inability to see this point that anti-Catholicism is very much alive and well and is the last acceptable prejudice is only furtherance of the same. As illustration, if a stone had been donated by the state of Israel and had been destroyed, you would rightly call it anti-Semitic, not simply as anti-immigrant. Do you see the difference. Moreover, the stone was donated by the Holy See, not the Papal States, or the people of Rome. The Holy See is the Pope himself as the visible head of Christ’s Church on earth. The rejection of the popes stone has special significance as the rejection of Catholicism and all Catholics who believe in the Majesterial authority of the pope. I understand you work in immigration, but please don’t cheapen the sufferings or color the failings of others to align with your work or political beliefs. The facts are correct but your analysis is deeply flawed.

  2. Mathew Bagioli:

    Do you realize how silly your argument is? You say that I “ignore anti-Catholicism.” Yet after even a cursory reading of the article would reveal that I focused much of the article on anti-Catholicism. For example, I wrote:

    “More than a year before the stone ever arrived in the United States it had been the focus of anti-immigrant hatred. Protestant minister John F. Weishampel published a pamphlet attacking the stone entitled Rome to America: the Pope’s Stratagem!An address to the Protestants of the United States against placing the Pope’s block of marble in the Washington Monument. Anti-immigrant activists warned that Irish and German Catholic immigration threatened to swamp native (white) American culture and that immigration was part of a larger plot by the Pope to take over the United States. The placement of the Pope’s Stone would signal to immigrants that the day of their triumph had come at last, possibly leading to a violent Catholic uprising.”

    In two other paragraphs I also mention this as an action against the Pope and Catholic immigrants. How that translates into me ignoring anti-Catholicism is beyond me. I have read extensively in the mostly forgotten literature of anti-Catholicism and have brought the mid-19th Century history of that bigotry to thousands of readers.

    I have also written on other aspects of the Know Nothings in what has become a 250 article series about immigrants during the Civil War Era. At least a dozen of those articles look at nativist fears of a “foreign” religion being planted in America. Here are a few samples:

    This article looks at Know Nothing thinking through the writings of a Know Nothing (later Republican) Congressman:
    https://longislandwins.com/news/national/inside-the-mind-of-a-know-nothing-2/

    This one looks at the evolution of Know Nothing prejudices from the Colonial Era through the violent attacks on convents and churches in the 1830s and 1840s:
    https://longislandwins.com/news/national/the-evolution-of-the-know-nothings-2/

    Here is another about the formation of Know Nothing lodges in the 1850s in response to rising Catholic immigration from Ireland and Germany:
    https://longislandwins.com/news/national/the-know-nothings-launch-a-civil-war-against-immigrant-america-2/

    In writing about immigrant experiences during the Civil War Era, I have written extensively about the interplay of religious and ethnic bigotry in the treatment of immigrants. Xenophobia is rarely only about immigration status, it often involves racial, ethnic, political and religious factors. For example, I have written a series on General Grant’s troubling order expelling Jews from areas under his control in 1862.

    In other articles I have written about prejudices against blacks that some immigrants seemed to have learned only after they came to America.

    Finally, you wrote that:

    “Your unwillingness or inability to see this point that anti-Catholicism is very much alive and well and is the last acceptable prejudice is only furtherance of the same.”

    First, if you think anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice, you have not been hearing what is said every day now in Washington. Second, this article is part of a series on mid-19th Century history. I have a decently wide readership among people interested in history. I try to respect this readership by keeping these articles focused on what happened 150 years ago. I write extensively on contemporary issues in other articles, but I try to avoid that in the history pieces. For these, I go where the primary sources lead.

    I appreciate you reading the article, though I disagree with your comment. I realize that you were reading one article in a long series and were not aware of the considerable amount of space that I devote to the interplay of religious prejudice and anti-immigrantism.

    You should also be aware that while the Know Nothings did focus on anti-Catholicism, they were sincerely anti-immigrant as well. German Free Thinkers and Jews were also sources of fear, as were immigrants generally.

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