Washington's Tomb

“Within this enclosure,” says the sign on the top of the tomb, “Rest the remains of Genl GEORGE WASHINGTON.”

That enclosure, and those remains, are five feet from where I’m standing, on the grounds of Virginia’s Mount Vernon. I have been fascinated by the presidents of the United States for pretty much my entire life, so being this close to the first president, the one by which every president is measured, I should probably be in a state of rapturous, patriotic awe; in truth, I’m probably closer to the breathless hyper-giddiness of a tween at a Justin Bieber concert. “OMG GEORGE” my brain thinks, over and over.

I probably should have dressed better. Most of the twenty of so people gathered around the tomb are on the nice side of casual. I am on the border between “casual” and “derelict” – my shorts are in good shape, but my hat is a size too small and in between the holes in my t-shirt there are splotches of paint from a long ago home improvement project. I have allegedly shaved. My face is bright red from sunburn. They should have stopped me at the entrance and pretended that there was a dress code. But I’m much too excited about being here to care.

For fifteen dollars a head, visitors to Mount Vernon (or, technically, “George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens”) can spend the day any number of ways – the big draw is the house tour, where one can see Washington’s study, the dining room where Charles Thomson informed the general he had been elected president, and the bed where he died. There are historical reenactors in the greenhouse talking about life on the plantation, a wharf, livestock, and more. I keep coming back to the tomb – at least for this project, though it’s good to know that I can always return if I feel like writing a book about “World Leaders and Their Cows” sometime in the future.

Wreath ceremony

There’s a docent outside the tomb answering questions from tourists. (Her catchphrase: “General Washington is in the sarcophagus on the right; Mrs. Washington is on the left.”) Her shift ends at 2, and another staffer comes on to start the wreath laying ceremony. As she unlocks the tomb’s large iron gate, she points out that the ceremony in which we’re about to take part has been host to presidents and queens and dignitaries. She gives a sort of eulogy, explaining that we lay the wreath because Washington spent much of his adult life leaving home to answer the call to public service, from the Revolutionary War to the constitutional convention to the presidency. “In total,” she says, “twenty one years.” She says this last phrase very slowly so it sinks in, cause that’s a long time. “Twenty. One. Years.” I have not been anything for twenty-one years, except a poor dresser.

She points to a thin green tripod stand, which holds a smallish, unadorned wreath. She asks for volunteers to place the wreath next to the Washingtons. “Do we have any veterans or active members of the military with us today?” she asks. I briefly consider answering yes but give the idea up immediately, figuring that if George Washington has eerie afterlife powers I don’t want to be caught lying in front of his tomb. Two veterans raise their hands, a fortysomething guy with greying hair and a blue polo shirt, and a woman maybe a few years younger than me, wearing a long sleeved khaki top, a red headband atop her short hair and bright pink nail polish on her fingers.

The docent turns back to the crowd to ask for one more volunteer, to read George Washington’s prayer. The docent looks way past my outstretched hand and chooses a long-haired girl in her early teens, who reads from the prayer as the veterans walk the wreath into the tomb:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

We wrap up with the Pledge of Allegiance, and the docent invites us to take pictures of the tomb before she closes the gate back up. I walk back toward the main entrance next to the woman who helped lay the wreath. She’s got three kids with her. The oldest, at maybe 8 or 9 years, is unimpressed that his mom laid a wreath at the tomb of George Washington. “Can we get lunch now?” he asks.

This ceremony plays out at Mount Vernon twice a day, every day of the year (the wreath ceremony, I mean – hopefully most kids get lunch beforehand). And it’s just one of about a zillion honors paid to the man for whom our capital city is named – I’d planned on seeing plenty of statues, memorials and monuments in Washington, but there were easily as many that I didn’t know about and just happened upon while walking around. Washington is everywhere in Washington. One can’t help but be impressed at how the country has honored the guy. Well, at least until one hears how the country stumbled its way toward those memorials and monuments. Then one will find it hard to believe any of these monuments are there at all.

Washington Circle

Keep in mind that as the first president under the US Constitution, everything George Washington did set a precedent, from when to use powers like vetoes and executive orders, to how many four-year terms to serve, to the appropriateness of “all you can eat ribs night” for a state dinner. Washington’s death was no exception; it set a standard for how the country would treat its late chiefs of state. The president knew this, of course, partly because he was so fully aware of the gravity of his situation, but also because the country had already tried to start up the memorializing while Washington was still alive. The Continental Congress was unable to agree on virtually anything – that’s why it was abolished in favor of the current system – but on August 7, 1783, they did manage to agree that George Washington, hero of the Revolution, was the man and deserved some props. “An equestrian statue of General Washington [shall] be erected at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established…. the General to be represented in Roman dress, holding a truncheon in his right hand, and his head encircled with a laurel wreath.” There was a Revolutionary War parallel here: patriots in New York had pulled down an equestrian statue of King George III after the passage of the Declaration of Independence, so the symbolism of this idea wasn’t lost on anyone.

Washington kept pushing these memorial ideas away, trying to make sure there was enough of a country in which to build all these statues everyone was proposing. While alive, he usually succeeded, though not always –  the country decided in 1791 to name its capital city after him, before his first term as president was even done – and when he died in late 1799, that was the end of any reasonable effort to keep the memorials in proportion. This despite Washington stating in his will that “it is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration.” The House and Senate immediately adjourned out of respect; Senate President pro tempore Samuel Livermore wrote to President Adams, “Permit us, sir, to mingle our tears with yours. On this occasion it is manly to weep.” Manly tears flowed across the country, in mock funerals and speeches and church services. It’s said there were shortages of black cloth in some parts of the country for months afterwards. Good thing Johnny Cash hadn’t been born yet.

The apotheosis of George Washington

America quickly went beyond mourning a man and began creating a legend. “Washington,” Ron Chernow writes in his epic biography Washington, A Life, “was converted into an exemplar of moral values, the person chosen to tutor posterity in patriotism, even a civic deity.” Stand in the Capitol Rotunda and look up at the center of the dome; you’ll see The Apotheosis of Washington, in which angels welcome the general into heaven and elevate him to godlike status. This print was a huge hit shortly after Washington’s death, as was The Life of Washington, in which author Parson Weems invents the story of honest young George chopping down the cherry tree and confessing the deed to his father. It sold tons of copies, even when reprinted under the less flattering title Washington: America’s First Eco-Terrorist. (Just kidding.)

Chernow suggests the over-the-top memorializing helped Americans cope with their fears that national unity, and maybe the country itself, might start to crumble without Washington there. It’s like that close friend you had in high school that turns weird as an adult, so your entire present-day relationship amounts to remembering high school. I am clearly reaching for a metaphor. My point is, America was determined to honor the crap out of George Washington. But as I am often reminded every time I attempt a simple recipe and end up with thick black smoke and broken appliances, determination does not equal skill. It took a lot of time, money and mistakes before America got its memorials to Washington together.

Heck, they couldn’t even get the tomb together at first. George Washington had left specific instructions about this in his will:

The family Vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of Brick, and upon a larger Scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out. In which my remains, with those of my deceased relatives (now in the old Vault) and such others of my family as may chuse to be entombed there, may be deposited.

The man wasn’t kidding. The old tomb, which has a sweet view of the Potomac, is arguably in a superior location than the “Vineyard Inclosure,”but it definitely looks a bit cramped for 30 or so coffins. The real meaning of “improperly situated,” though, is that it was very prone to flooding.

Old Tomb

Given all this urgency about floods, you can see why… nothing happened. The new tomb became Mount Vernon’s version of that rec room every homeowner vows to add to the basement and never does. “I swear I’m gonna build it when the weather cools off!” said Mount Vernon’s new owner, Bushrod Washington.

Ok, the real story is slightly more complicated. Bushrod had a lot on his plate, from executing uncle George’s painfully detailed will, to his day job as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, to the large amounts of time it takes simply having a name like Bushrod. Add in that Mount Vernon was expensive to maintain and not very profitable, and it becomes a bit less surprising why there was still no tomb when Bushrod died in 1829. The property then passed to his nephew John, who had fewer name-related encumbrances on his time, as well as a very good reason to build the tomb: a disgruntled former worker broke into the old tomb intending to steal George Washington skull. The worker was apprehended, having taken Bushrod’s skull by mistake, but the point was made. John Washington built the tomb, and the disgruntled ex-worker was unable to star in the jailhouse production of Hamlet: “Alas, poor Bushrod.”

Washington's Tomb

The tomb was ready in 1831, more than three decades after Washington died – but by then, George’s coffin was showing signs of wear, possibly from the general turning over in his grave because it took so long to build the damn tomb. Friends realized he would need a more permanent home, and so architect William Strickland designed a new sarcophagus, which artisan John Struthers carved out of marble. It was strong, sturdy and beautiful. It was also too too big to fit through the doorway to the crypt. Masons had to add on a whole new front section to house it. And when they did, Strickland, Struthers and some relatives had to get Washington’s body in there:

When the new sarcophagus arrived the coffin of the chief was brought forth. When the vault was opened Mr. Strickland was accompanied by Major Lewis… Washington’s decayed wooden case was removed and the leaden lid was perceived to be sunken and fractured, In the bottom of the wooden case was found the silver shield that had been on the top of the leaden coffin when Washington was first entombed. At the request of Major Lewis the fractured part of the lid was turned over on the lower part, exposing to view a head and breast of large dimensions, which appeared by the dim light of the candles to have suffered but little from the effects of time.

This time the head and breast of large dimensions was not Bushrod. They were staring at George Washington.

The eye-sockets were large and deep, and the breadth across the temples, together with the forehead, appeared of unusual size. There was no appearance of grave-clothes; the chest was broad, the color was dark and had the appearance of dried flesh and skin adhering closely to the bones. We saw no hair, nor was there any offensive odor from the body; but we observed, when the coffin had been removed to the outside of the vault the dripping down of a yellow liquid, which stained the marble of the sarcophagus. A hand was laid upon the head and instantly removed; the leaden lid was restored to its place; the body was carried by six men, was carried and laid in the marble coffin, and the ponderous cover being put on and set in cement, it was sealed on the 7th day of October 1837.

I love the phrasing here: “a hand was laid upon the head.” Whose hand? Certainly not any of our hands, just a hand that was hanging around! And while Strickland says he “saw no hair,” somebody sure as heck did, because somebody paid seventeen thousand bucks for a lock of George Washington’s hair that was taken in 1837. Nonetheless, the crew, having sealed the sarcophagus for all times, went back to the Mount Vernon mansion to have cake. George Washington had become the first president to be exhumed, patted on the head by a random guy, then reinterred.

George Washington's toga party

While all this coffin-shuffling was going on, Congress decided it was high time for a stirring tribute to the hero of Valley Forge, one that recognized him as a giant among the early men of the republic. In 1832, marking 100 years since Washington’s birth, lawmakers commissioned a statue of Washington from sculptor Horatio Greenough, offering twenty thousand dollars for the work.

Greenough knew he’d just gotten the job of a lifetime, and “determined to spare neither time nor expense to make his work worthy of the country and himself.” Early America saw itself as the heir to Greek democracy and the Roman republic; Greenough, working and living in Italy, was happy to run with that comparison, and used the statue of Zeus at Olympia as the basis for his Washington at, uh, Washington. Zeus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, so what better model to use?

Just as Zeus sat on a throne, Washington is seated; his chair features Native Americans and Columbus – meant to place the general between the New World and the old. He wears Roman-style clothes, shirtless and in sandals. In his left hand he holds a sheathed sword; the handle points away from him, because he handed back the reins of power to civilian authority at the end of the Revolutionary War, as Cincinnatus did in ancient times. His raised right hand points toward heaven. He is literally larger than life – and if that wasn’t symbolism enough, the work also includes depictions of Apollo, god of the sun, and Hercules (in infant form, but still). The artist’s inscription is in Latin.

Greenough must have been pretty excited when Washington was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1842… at least until people started seeing Washington at the Capitol Rotunda. Suffice to say the classical imagery did not go over as intended – instead of seeing a timeless Washington as heir to the ancients, visitors saw the beloved Father of their Country in a toga, trying to stab himself. “It is a ridiculous affair, and instead of demanding admiration, excites only laughter,” said one visitor.
Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Capitol, wrote “I fear that this statue will give the idea of Washington’s entering or leaving a bath.” Yet another visitor laughed “you can see his nipples!” Ok, I made that last one up. A hipster friend of Greenough’s clicked his tongue at the unappreciative DC rabble: “This magnificent production of genius does not seem to be appreciated at its full value in this metropolis.”

Hearing this, Congress decided the Rotunda was too good for a “marble absurdity” and moved the statue outside to the Capitol Grounds, where visitors in off-peak months joked the shirtless president was reaching for his clothes. It was moved again to the Patent Office and then was finally donated in 1908 to the Smithsonian. No statue has dared to show presidential nipple since.

A monumental color shift

Say what you want about George Washington’s toga party, at least Horatio Greenough got his work done. Toga George had come, been mocked, and moved outside before the people in charge of the Washington Monument even got started. By this point, the old Washington on horseback statue idea had taken a back seat; instead, then-Congressman and future Supreme Court legend John Marshall pushed for George’s remains to be buried in the US Capitol. Marshall even managed to get Martha Washington’s approval, though as yeses go, it was a pretty passive-aggressive one:

“Taught by that great example which I have so long had before me never to oppose my private wishes to the public will, I must consent to the will of Congress… in doing this, I need not, I cannot say what a sacrifice of individual feeling I make to a sense of public duty.”

Go ahead, take my husband’s body away from me, she said, and the Congress was like, sure! The Capitol Crypt was to be built just under the Rotunda, with a hole in the ceiling so people could peer down and see the general. The usual political and funding delays slowed construction down, as did the British invading Washington DC and burning everything and forcing the builders to start over. Priority went to rebuilding the legislative chambers, so it wasn’t until 1827 that the Rotunda and Crypt were finished. By then, Martha Washington had died; when officials dropped by Mount Vernon a few years later to pick up the body, John Washington essentially asked them “did any of you ever bother to look at the will?” By then, the country was having reservations about the Crypt idea anyway; at the time there was no guarantee that the Federal City would always be the seat of government, and with slavery becoming an increasingly nasty national debate, there was a concern that if the capital should move North or South, and if eventually there should be civil war, Washington might someday lie outside the country he founded. With no body and no enthusiasm left, the dejected builders plugged the rather drafty hole between the Rotunda and the increasingly inaccurately named Crypt, which is today used by Capitol tour guides to corral their groups.

The Crypt

John Marshall quickly regrouped, though; he and members of the new Washington National Monument Society (which also included former president James Madison) returned to the idea of a public monument. Here’s how quickly they moved, though: the society formed in 1833. It wasn’t until three years later that they put out requests for designs – they waited to open up the contest until they had about $28,000 on hand, and they set a maximum contribution of a dollar, so yeah, three years. They chose a design by architect Robert Mills, calling for an Egyptian-style obelisk surrounded by an oversize statue of Washington on a chariot leading a team of Arabian horses. The base of the proposed Washington Monument would be a circular Greek temple, not too different from today’s Jefferson Memorial. The team of horses would be “driven by Winged Victory.” (If you thought Toga George went over badly, imagine how the public would have reacted to Ben Hur George.)

Disputes between Congress and the Society went on for several more years, which meant the cornerstone wasn’t laid until Independence Day 1848. By the way, the cart carrying the six-ton-plus cornerstone got stuck in a mud patch near the National Mall – forty workers at the Navy Yard had to pull the stone out to get it to the site. It set a maddening pattern for the rest of the project: even when it moved forward, it still got stuck.

Architect Mills had designed what was then the tallest structure in the world; he needed more marble
than the railroad could feasibly deliver. And the project frequently ran out of money. The society staged a fundraiser on July 4th, 1850, with a guest of honor: President Zachary Taylor… who was worn down by the extreme heat and died less than a week later. In honoring one dead president, the monument helped to create another.

And by 1854 funding had completely dried up; the builders simply stopped where they were, about 152 feet up. The long “stump era” of the Washington Monument had begun, and man, did it suck. Architect Robert Mills died in 1855, around the time that an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic group nicknamed the Know-Nothings (named so because they refused to answer questions, but seriously not a wise name choice for a group trying to win votes) managed to muscle their way into the leadership of the monument society. They were cheesed off because the pope had sent a stone for the monument, which they probably smashed to bits and dumped in the river. Also destroyed: most of the society’s documents. They did add about 21 feet of stone to the tower, but the work was shoddy and had to be removed. By the time the Know-Nothings relinquished power, the Civil War was about to begin. Yes, the country fell apart before the Washington Monument could come together.

Onward to the Mall

You’re starting to think this story is never going to end, aren’t you? There was, at last, light at the end of the tunnel on Independence Day 1876 – the American centennial. Lawmakers started to realize that almost everyone who was alive at the start of this project was now dead, and they finally put forward long-awaited funds and put the US Army Corps of Engineers in charge of construction. Sure, cost concerns meant all the adornments were scrapped – no Washington on a chariot, no team of horses – and the color difference between old and new marble was (and still is) highly visible, but by God it was done. The Washington Monument was finished in 1885, dedicated by the muttonchops of Chester Arthur that year, and opened to the public in 1888.

At which point it started suffering periodic damage, requiring closings, repairs, delays and yet more money. As of this writing the monument is closed to the public and awaiting at least a year of repairs thanks to the earthquake of 2011. The public is using this downtime to take pictures of themselves near the monument that eighth grade boys would find funny (but not anyone’s boss, so don’t click on the link at work).

All of this memorializing is, as far as I’m concerned, a metaphor for the start of the country itself. It took a lot of false starts, a lot of mistakes, a lot of time and money and effort and arguing to build the memorials, but eventually we got to a point that, barring any further earthquakes, we can look with pride at what’s been built. I like to think that’s generally the same arc we’re on as a country. The ride has been nothing but bumpy, and every so often we require repairs, but we mostly figure it out in the end.

That said, you will note that while George Washington died just a few years after his presidency ended, his successor, John Adams, managed to live on for more than two decades after leaving the office. He was undoubtedly trying to spare Americans the agony of trying to build more memorials.



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