[This post is in response to a commenter’s observation of the quasi-pharonic majesty of the ostensibly democratic monuments in our nation’s capital. On 10/8/13 I tweeked the sequencing of the paragraphs and, on further reflection, drew a parallel between the antics of the Know-Nothings and the current shutdown/default rumpus. PL]
Tourists cannot visit the Washington Monument—or even its National Park Service websites–at present, thanks to the suspension of non-essential services on the occasion of the government shutdown. As an alternative, China Matters offers a virtual tour of the Washington Monument highlighting lesser known aspects of its construction, such as the possible role of slave labor, and the remarkable participation of the Ryukyu Kingdom a.k.a. Okinawa in providing commemorative stonework for the edifice.
At the time of President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, the use of slave labor to build the Capitol and the White House was extensively reported in an ironic “look how far we’ve come” vein. Here’s a link to a piece on PBS interviewing historian Jesse Holland about his book Black Men Built the Capitol.*
It is likely that slaves worked on many Washington D.C. construction projects before 1862, either directly in the capital district or at the Maryland quarries which provided the sandstone, limestone, and granite that went into government buildings and monuments. However, because of incomplete records, slave participation in the creation of antebellum edifices like the Washington Monument can often only be inferred, not proven.
In Maryland and Washington D.C., the pure, labor-intensive plantation economy—and the year-round need for slave labor–was less pervasive than in the Deep South. Therefore, to maximize income, owners sometimes rented out slaves as contract laborers by their owners for the harder and dirtier jobs such as quarry work or temporary projects like capital construction during the slow season.
Use of slave labor in the quarrying of the red sandstone for the Smithsonian Institute has been documented.
It appears likely that slave labor was also involved in the quarrying of the marble used in the first stage of the construction of the Washington Monument. Construction began in 1848 during the antebellum era and utilized marble from Cockeysville, Maryland. The owner of the quarry held slaves, but apparently leased out actual exploitation of the quarry to outside contractors, so there is no “smoking gun”. However, given the labor patterns prevailing in northern Maryland at the time, slave participation in the quarry workforce appears likely.
A similar slave labor situation probably prevailed with the pre-civil war construction phase of the Washington Monument, whose cornerstone was laid in 1848.
Embarrassingly, construction of the Washington Monument proceeded in fits and starts since the Washington National Monument Association–the private foundation in charge of building the edifice–proved incapable of raising the requisite funds from the public, despite the offer of a 15% bounty offered to agents soliciting funds.
Embarrassment turned to humiliation in 1854, as the monument became the focus and ambitions of the Native American Party, the virulently anti-foreign and anti-Catholic movement known to an unforgiving posterity as the “Know Nothing Party” for the stock reply “I know nothing” that members were supposed to give in response to queries concerning the semi-secret group’s activities.
The Know Nothing’s most spectacular clandestine coup involved its shenanigans relating to the Washington Monument.
Over its history, the W.N.M.A. had solicited or accepted a number of memorial stones to be mounted on the stairwells of the monument. The monument—commemorating America’s foremost Mason and also a pile of cut stone (rather than monolith structure characteristic of obelisks of antiquity)—was obviously a Freemason’s wet dream. A Mason presided at the laying of the cornerstone, and dozens of memorial stones from various masonic organizations line the monument’s interior walls. Many more stones came from state governments and various municipal organizations. But a handful of stones were contributed by foreign governments or jurisdictions like Bremen, Siam, Brazil, etc.
Fatefully, in 1854, Pope Pius IX donated a stone from the Roman Temple of Concord for inclusion in the Washington Monument. Agitation against the “Stone from Rome” and the dark shadow of papal domination it allegedly represented became a high profile media crusade for the Know Nothings. After an escalating barrage of petitions and letters to the editor, the stone was stolen from the construction site in an elaborately choreographed operation seemingly meant to obscure the fact that the seizure was accomplished with inside assistance; the offending stone was carted off, then probably smashed and pitched into the Potomac.
The grievous offense of the papist stone provided justification for a further Know Nothing coup to “protect the monument.” With the connivance of a sympathetic clerk of the monument association, an illegal election of directors was called, and a packed meeting of recently registered members of the association elected a slate of Know Nothing directors. The new group seized physical control of the construction site, announced it was saving the monument from construction and management at the hands of Catholics and foreigners, and embarked on a fund-raising appeal limited to members of the American Party.
There was more at work than lumpen goonery. The Know Nothings benefited from the sub rosa assistance of people of position in the Washington elite, some of whom had hitched their political wagon to the American Party and its political platform of combating the alien/Catholic menace. Ex-President Millard Fillmore ran on a Know Nothing ticket two years later, in 1856, in an unsuccessful effort to win a second, non-consecutive term.
The Know-Nothings Washington Monument operation looks a lot like one of those hot-button right-wing fundraising scams: hyping the threat to some high profile cherished traditional value—guns, right to life, freedom from Kenyan socialist healthcare, The Washington Monument!—in order to wring money out of the frantic faithful and mobilize the base for the upcoming election.
In 1858, after four years of Know Nothing management, the faction surrendered control of the monument association. No construction of significance had taken place and the directors passed on only a few hundred dollars its successors. Maybe the funds raised had been diverted to the uses of the American Party, which performed adequately as a third party in the presidential election with Millard Fillmore as its standard-bearer, but evaporated in the furnace of the Civil War.
With the monument about one-third completed, construction was halted for several decades and the monument took the form of a short, squat stump that Mark Twain likened to the chimney of a sugar mill.
Only in 1885, with a significant assist from a $200,000 Congressional appropriation (and the injection of several hundred cubic feet of Portland cement by the Army Corps of Engineers to overcome some alarming foundational flaws), was the monument completed and dedicated. The bottom of the monument—the part that quite possibly was quarried and constructed using slave labor—is of a distinctly different color than the remainder, providing an inadvertent mulatto flavor to the proceedings.
There is also an interesting Asian backstory to the Washington Monument and its commemorative stones. As noted above, in addition to native, probably slave-hewn marble, the interior of the Washington Monument also includes 190-odd memorial stones along its staircases, primarily from domestic donors, but also a smattering of foreign gifts.
China is represented by two stones, one from “Americans Residing in Foo-Chow-Foo China 1857”, the other arranged by a group of Chinese Christians in Zhejiang. The Chinese inscription on the stone provided by the Christians is a masterpiece of polite hyperbole, and is by far the most verbose inscription associated with the Washington Monument.
A guidebook provides the circa 1902 translation (footnote from the original):
“Su-Ki-Yu, by imperial appointment, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Fuh Kun, in his Universal Geography, says : “‘It is evident that Washington was a remarkable man. In devising plans he was more decided than Chin-Sing, or Wu-Kang,* in winning a country, he was braver than Tsau-Tsau or Lin Pi. Wielding his four-footed falchion, he extended the frontiers thousands of miles, and then refused to usurp the regal dignity or transmit it to his posterity, but first established rules for an elective administration. Where in the world can be found such a public spirit ? Truly, the sentiments of three dynasties have all at once unexpectedly appeared in our day ! In ruling the State he promoted and fostered good customs, and did not depend on military merit. In this he differed from all other nations. I have seen his portrait; his air and form are grand and imposing in a remarkable degree. Ah! who would not call him a hero ? The United States of America regard it promotive of national virtue generally and extensively neither to establish titles of nobility and royalty nor to conform to the age, as respects customs and public influence, but instead deliver over their own public deliberations and inventions, so that the like of such a nation — one so remarkable — does not exist in ancient or modern times. Among the people of the Great West, can any man, in ancient or modern times, fail to pronounce Washington peerless? ‘ “This stone is presented by a company of Christians and engraved at Ningpo, in the Province of Che Heang, China, this third year of the reign of the Emperor He-en Fung, sixth month and seventh day.” [July 12, 1853.] * Chin Shing and Wu-Kwang, two Chinese patriots, who com menced the overthrow of the Tsin dynasty (B. C. 209), remarkable for their vigor of character. Tsau-Tsau destroyed the Han dynasty A. D. 220, and Ling Ti, having survived all his own efforts to uphold it, founded the Shuh State, which had a short duration.
From Frederick Harvey’s History ofthe Washington National Monument and the Washington National Monument Society, 1902
To further gloss this passage, a falchion is a dagger. The original Chinese text seems to use 劎 the character usually mundanely translated as “sword”. I guess a “four-footed falchion” is what an 18th century European sword would be if it was transmuted into some sort of quasi-miraculous signature weapon, like the ones wielded by the various heroes of On the Water Margin and Journey to the West.
“Su Ku-yi” was the distinguished Qing reformer Xu Jishe 徐繼畬(Wikipedia apparently misreads the final character in his name and calls him Xu Jiyu) and the book in question was the highly influential 19th century geography text A Short Account of the Maritime Circuit (Yinghuan zhilüe, 瀛環志略 ), which represented a step away from the traditional Sinocentric worldview. Xu was not infallible; he came in for some condescending chaffing in a British periodical, Allen’s Indian Mail, for correctly describing the state of Rhode Island, but incorrectly stating that the Colossus of Rhodes was located there.
The most interesting Asian stones, however, hail from Okinawa and Japan.
In 1989, a ceremony was held at the Washington Monument to commemorate the installation of a stone from the people of Okinawa, meant to replace a stone provided in 1854 that had gotten waylaid in the hiatus occasioned by the Know Nothing caper and the Civil War.
In the words of the Ryukyu America Research Society, which orchestrated the event, the donation and installation of the replacement stone was meant to ” symbolize the historical ties of friendship and goodwill between our people.”
Whatever was going on in the friendship and goodwill department between the people of Okinawa and the United States, it had nothing to do with the supply of the original stone, which was extracted from Okinawa by Commodore Matthew Perry during his gunboat diplomacy expedition to the Japanese islands in 1853-54.
Perry used the port of Naha on the island of Okinawa as his base as he conducted his campaign of intimidation against the Tokogawa Shogunate.
At the time, Okinawa was the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom—actually the Lew Chew a.k.a. Liuqiu Kingdom, since the elite outlook and training on the island was largely Sinitic. Okinawa’s best and brightest were sent to China for education, the Kingdom maintained a liaison mission in Fujian, and sent an annual tribute mission to the Qing emperior; the lingua franca of international diplomacy was largely Chinese. However, the Kingdom had been subdued to vassalage by the daimyo of Satsuma in the 17thcentury; Chinese links were distant and aspirational, while the daimyo maintained an oppressive and watchful presence on the island. The Satsuma daimyo may also have exploited Okinawa as an entrepot for illegal foreign trade, thereby accumulating the wealth and power that enabled it to challenge the Tokogawa Shogunate and effect the Meiji Restoration.
Long story short, Perry bullied his way on to the island, used the intimidating influence of his sailors and weapons to good effect to force the royal house to do business with him.
Beyond the immediate objectives of exploiting Okinawa’s harbor as a safe base for his fleet during his Japan campaign and twisting the kingdom’s arm to set up a coaling station on the island, Perry proposed that the United States seize Okinawa as a bargaining chip in its discussions with Japan, and maybe even keep it (as quoted in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People):
“The department [of the navy] will be surprised to learn that this royal dependency of Japan … is in such a state of political vassalage and thralldom, that it would be a merit to extend over it the vivifying influence and protection of a government like our own. It is self-evident that the course of coming events will ere long make it necessary for the United States to extend its territorial jurisdiction beyond the limits of the western continent, and I assume the responsibility of urging the expediency of establishing a foothold in this quarter of the globe, as a measure of positive necessity to the sustainment of our maritime rights in the east.
The US government showed no interest in committing the US to protecting so distant a claim. Even so, Perry declared Okinawa an American protectorate on his own authority and left a skeleton force of sailors on the island as he sailed his fleet to Edo. While he was gone, the sailors established an unhappy precedent on Okinawa, apparently getting involved in a melee involving assault, rape, and the murder or death by misadventure of an American sailor chased by an enraged mob.
After Perry concluded the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, laying the foundations for the opening of Japan, his interest in Okinawa largely evaporated. He strongarmed a “Compact between the United States and the Kingdom of Lew Chew” (originals in English and Chinese), taking advantage of Edo’s stated disinterest in involving itself in the kingdom’s affairs, to assert US rights to a coaling station and favorable treatment of its vessels and sailors.
His farewell to the islands was marked by the gift to the kingdom of a useless butter churn, cotton gin, lorgnettes, and revolvers (presumably Perry was clearing his hold of the various proofs of American technical superiority that he brought to Asia to overawe the Japanese), the presentation of some cotton cloth to appease the woman who had been raped, and Perry’s tantrum over the Okinawans’ inability to provide him with a collection of souvenir coinage. The Commodore apparently could not accept the Okinawans’ protestations that they traded in barter, and the only coinage on the island belonged to the Japanese.
Perry was also intensely interested in acquiring trophies for the Washington Monument. In exchange for his gifts, he demanded a bell for the top of the monument.
A bell was sent down from Shuri to the ship, but upon examination it was found to be imperfect and was rejected. In its stead a second bell was sent out. This was the great Gokoku-ji bell which had been cast for King Sho Taikyu in a.d. 1456. …Williams [Perry’s Chinese-language interpreter] wondered if Perry’s plan to hang this bell at the top of the Washington Monument meant that it would be used “to bring tired statesmen together or to ring assembly for Fourth of July orations,” and noted that Perry was so delighted to have it that he seemed to forget the irksome subject of the coins.
By the time Perry returned to the United States, the Washington Monument construction was on hiatus. Perry and, after his death, his widow hung onto the bell (illegally, apparently, since he had acquired it in his status as a representative of the United States).
In his book Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853, George Feifer described the ignominious fate of the bell:
“[Perry’s] widow would donate the unappreciated antiquity to the Naval Academy in 1859, after which it would be rung when Navy won the annual Army-Navy football game and occasionally hammered by midshipmen with bowling pins…”
As part of his effort to reconcile Okinawa to the unpopular presence of US naval bases on the island, then Secretary of the Navy James Webb arranged the return of the bell to Okinawa, where it is displayed in the prefectural museum. A replica was commissioned for the continued abuse by the midshipmen at Annapolis.
Perry also demanded stones for the Washington Monument. One of the specimens, like the bell, also fell victim to naval necessity, as Kerr relates:
Perry asked for stones to be placed in the fabric of the Washington Monument, then under construction. Two were provided, but one of them was not to his liking and was broken up
aboard ship to be used for scrubbing decks.
It seems these stones were not regarded as symbols of friendship. Rather, they were souvenirs of subjugation to be incorporated into the Washington Monument as a commemoration of imperial success.
Perry apparently collected stones from three locales during his Japan sojourn; from Naha in Okinawa, from Shimoda in southern Japan, and from Hakodate in Hokkaido. These were three ports in which Perry had extorted coaling privileges, and were strategically positioned to give the United States a foothold and listening post to counter Russian (at Hakodate) and European (at Shimoda and Naha) attempts to muscle in on the Japanese action.
The Shimoda stone made it into the monument, at the 220-foot level on the stairwell. It is inscribed with the terse inscription, per the guidebook translation: “Exported from the harbor in Simoda, in the province of Isu, the fifth month of the year Ansey Toru [April 1853].”
Reading between the chiseled lines, one can speculate that the Japanese were not keen to inscribe anything on the rock that might be construed as a tributary submission to the United States.
The fate of the Hakodate and Naha rocks are not known. I read somewhere that the Naha stone was deposited at the Smithsonian and subsequently discarded. In any case, it didn’t make it into the Washington Monument, and the Ryukyu America Research Society was allowed to remedy the omission—with the endorsement of the Japanese ambassador, presumably on orders to conciliate the Okinawans for the sake of the bases—in 1989.
Ironically, although Washington was disinclined toward slavery and imperialism, construction of his monument somehow contains involuntary contributions from slaves and subjugated people. Funny ‘bout that.
*Holland also tells the interesting story of how the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol was stripped of its liberty cap in the 1850s at the insistence of Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War at the time. The liberty cap, a floppy pointed beanie, symbolized “gotta be free” militancy in the United States even before the French revolution got under way. Although the emblem of his own department, the War Office seal, had depicted the liberty cap ever since 1775, Davis found the headgear—originally bestowed in the Roman empire on freed slaves as part of the manumission process and adopted during the Enlightenment as a symbol of aspirations toward liberation—appalling for its emancipatory implications, stating, “American liberty is original and not the liberty of the freed slave.” The liberty cap was thereupon replaced with a militaristic rampant eagle helm instead.
Davis’s rather unapologetic downvote for liberty for all has created some awkwardness for revisionist
attempts to present him as a simple, idealistic advocate of state’s rights forced by to assume the presidency of the Confederate States of America by the federal threat to liberty.
George Washington himself was ambivalent about slavery. He apparently disapproved of it in a vague way, and his disapproval was perhaps intensified by the fact that, in the pre-cotton-gin days and before the explosion of the cotton business, in many economic contexts—such as Mount Vernon–slaves were an excessively expensive source of labor power.
As is well known, Washington left instructions for all his slaves to be manumitted at his death. However, that was not the end of the Washington slave business and only one slave was formally freed when he died, his valet/huntsman Bill Lee (shown with Washington in this 1780 portrait).
As a young man, Washington had married a rich widow, Martha Custis, who brought with her a great deal of property and over 200 slaves. She did not have the right to sell or manumit the slaves, as she was holding them in trust during her lifetime for the benefit of the heirs of her first husband. Washington was extremely sedulous of his duty to the Custis estate and careful not be accused of negligence in managing the assets held in trust, including the slaves.
Since his slaves had intermarried with Custis slaves, Washington’s will made provision to delay their manumission until the death of Martha Washington, so that the families would not be broken up until the disposition of the Custis estate made it unavoidable. (I assume that the entanglement of the Washington and Custis dower slaves also rendered moot any thoughts that Washington might have entertained about freeing the slaves during his lifetime.) However, Martha Washington freed her husband’s slaves shortly after his demise and allowed them to continue to stay at Mt. Vernon if they had family members from the Custis-slave side there.
When Martha Washington died and title to the slaves passed to the heirs of the Custis family, they promptly sold them all. Some of them ended up working in the sandstone quarries that provided stone for the Smithsonian Institute in the 1840s.
The image near the top of the post is from a website specializing in prints of historical photographs, shorpy.com. The caption states: Washington, D.C., circa 1916. “Slaves reunion. Lewis Martin, age 100; Martha Elizabeth Banks, age 104; Amy Ware, age 103; Rev. Simon P. Drew, born free.” Cosmopolitan Baptist Church, 921 N Street N.W.