Pio Nono, the Washington Monument and the Purloined Block of Marble
Well it took long enough. George Washington had been dead for more than three decades before a society was founded to build a monument to his honor in the city which bore his name. In 1832, the centenary of the birth of Washington, the Washington National Monument Society was founded. The Society began raising funds and in 1836 announced a competition for the design of the monument. The winning design by Robert Mills envisioned an obelisk arising from a circular colonnade. The price tag was an astronomical, for the time, one million dollars. Work on the obelisk finally began in 1848. Nations around the world were invited to contribute blocks of marble for the monument.
On December 24, 1851, the American Charge d’ Affairs in Rome, Lewis Cass, Jr., wrote to the Society, “I have the honor to inform you that I have been apprized by His Holiness the Pope. . . of his intention to contribute a block of marble toward the erection of the national monument to the memory of Washington. The block was taken from the ruins of the ancient Temple of Peace, adjoining the palace of the Caesars, and is to receive the inscription of ‘Rome to America.” No doubt Pope Pius IX recalled that George Washington had ever been a friend to Catholics.
On October 20, 1853, the marble block from the Pope arrived in Washington.
America in the 1850’s was going through a wave of anti-Catholicism. The aptly named Know-Nothing Party was seeking to ride anti-Catholicism to political power throughout the nation. Many non-Catholic politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis, fought valiantly against this attempt to incite hatred against American Catholics.
For local Know-Nothings, the notion that a marble block from the Pope would become part of the Washington monument was anathema. On March 6, 1854, a gang of these scoundrels broke into the shed where the Pope’s block of marble was being stored, smashed as much of it as they could and threw the remaining block into the Potomac. An investigation ensued, but the perpetrators were never caught. The Know-Nothings then engineered a coup within the Washington National Monument Society and took it over. This outraged a majority of the members of Congress, and Congress rescinded a $200,000.00 donation for the monument. This effectively killed progress on the monument, which was not completed until 1884, long after the Know-Nothing Party was merely a historical footnote.