Guest Post: George Washington’s Mausoleum: Congressional Debates Over the Work of Monuments

Jamie L. Brummitt is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Religion at Duke University and an online instructor for the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). Her dissertation “Protestant Relics: The Politics of Religion & the Art of Mourning” examines the lively relic culture that thrived in political and religious life of the United States from the 1770s to 1870s. 

Benjamin H. Latrobe, Watercolor, ink, and pencil of the proposed Washington mausoleum, c. 1800, Library of Congress.

If the recent acts of iconoclasm in Durham and Charlottesville have taught us anything, it may be this: monuments matter. They matter not just in an ideological sense, but in a material sense. Monuments work as material objects because they embody people, memory, and ideas for better or worse. This post examines the proposed construction of a mausoleum for George Washington’s remains by Congress. The proposed mausoleum was entangled in debates about politics, finances, and the material nature of monuments. Many congressmen argued that a monument to Washington should work with his remains to transfer his virtues to Americans.

On Saturday December 14, 1799, Washington died unexpectedly from a throat inflammation. The following Wednesday, Mrs. Washington saw his remains deposited in the family burial vault at their Mount Vernon estate. Soon after, President John Adams wrote to Mrs. Washington to express his condolences. He also notified her that Congress unanimously voted to reinter Washington’s remains under a marble monument to be erected in the new Capitol building. These acts, Adams wrote, would “commemorate the great events of his military and political life.” The most important site of the new republic would literally stand on Washington’s remains. Mrs. Washington assented to the request.[1]

Congress dithered on its plans to reinter Washington’s remains. In May 1800, a select committee from the House of Representatives reported its progress. It planned to move ahead with the reinterment and construction of the monument. It tentatively set aside $100,000 for the project. When the resolution passed to the whole committee of the House, Robert Harper proposed amendments. He recommended erecting a mausoleum for the remains instead of depositing them in the Capitol. The proposal was carried and a bill ordered.[2]

The select committee introduced a bill to build a mausoleum per Benjamin Latrobe’s designs. The structure would be “that of a pyramid of one hundred feet at the bottom, with nineteen steps, having a chamber thirty feet square, made of granite, to be taken from the Potomac, with a marble sarcophagus in the center, and four marble pillars on the outside” (Figure 1). Washington’s remains would be placed in the sarcophagus. Latrobe estimated the mausoleum would cost close to $70,000. Disputes erupted over the cost, but members disagreed on reducing the size. The bill passed the select committee.[3]

In December 1800, the bill passed to a committee of the whole House. Discussions quickly devolved into disputes over the work of remains and monuments. John Nicholas thought it was a “useless expense” to erect “a huge, ugly mass of stones heaped on one another.” He questioned how the mausoleum would preserve Washington’s memory. “Was the memory of that great man,” he asked, “to be perpetuated by a heap of large inanimate objects?” Nicholas suggested the best method for preserving Washington’s memory was by covering his remains with a simple flat monument that reflected republican values. This and moving the remains would only cost $20,000. Nicholas called for an amendment to the bill.[4]

Roger Griswold urged the House not to amend the bill. He supported the construction of the mausoleum because its enormity reflected the character of Washington’s remains. “National sentiment,” he argued, “called for the erection of a structure correspondent in size to the character of the man to whom it was raised.” The mausoleum’s size mattered because some congressmen understood it would exhibit the moral influence of the remains it contained. Another congressman asked:

Is there…any other mode for perpetuating the memory of such transcendent virtues so strong, so impressive, as that which we propose? The grandeur of the pile we wish to raise will impress a sublime awe in all who behold it…It will receive the homage of our children’s children; and they will learn that the truest way to gain honor amidst a free people is to be useful, to be virtuous.

The mausoleum’s size coupled with the remains would impress children’s minds and bodies with the virtues of Washington for generations.[5]

Others preferred the erection of a statute to the mausoleum. William Claiborne preferred a statue because “representing [Washington’s] form and the features, would inspire the beholder with more lively emotions than a mass of stones formed into a pyramid.” The pyramids erected by the Egyptians, he argued, did not perpetuate the virtues of the pharaohs. A likeness of Washington would stimulate the proper virtues in viewers. Finally, John Randolph considered the present “a tedious and useless debate.” He asked to whom they were pledged in this debate and for what. He said they were pledged “to the relics of the deceased; to have them placed within [the Capitol’s] walls.” They should uphold their pledge to Washington’s remains. The debates were going nowhere fast.[6]

On January 1, 1801, the House voted on the mausoleum bill and divided along party lines. Democratic-Republicans voted 34 to 3 against the bill and Federalists voted 45 to 3 for it. The bill passed. Congress determined to move forward with plans to construct a mausoleum for Washington’s remains. It set aside $200,000 for projected costs associated with a design by George Dance. These plans, however, evaporated within the year as Congress disagreed on the mausoleum’s final design. In the end, Congress did not erect the mausoleum and Washington’s corpse remained in the family tomb at Mount Vernon.[7]

Historians usually interpret these debates as early expressions of party divisions.[8] These debates also reveal different notions of the work of memorials and remains in the early republic. Both parties unanimously agreed that Washington’s remains should be deposited in the new capital city with a monument. Washington’s remains and a monument were essential to preserving his memory and perpetuating his virtues to the new nation. Congress, however, could not agree on the physical form a monument should take. The form of the monument mattered because different forms reflected degrees of sentiment and virtue associated with the remains.

The American public, however, did not require a congressionally approved stone monument. It was already producing monuments in other ways. Children, women, and men purchased, copied, painted, and embroidered likenesses of Washington and monuments for his remains. They displayed these images on their bodies and in their homes.[9] They expected these monuments to preserve the memory and remains of Washington, and to transmit his virtues to them. Many Americans also made pilgrimages to Washington’s tomb to experience the virtues of his remains. Early visitors expressed disappointment on discovering that his remains lay in an ordinary family vault, not under a monument like the ones depicted in their treasured images.

_________________

[1] “Letter from John Adams to Martha Washington,” December 27, 1799 in Joseph E. Fields, ed., Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994), 328.

[2] “Congress of the United States,” Columbian Centinel and Massachusetts Federalist, May 17, 1800; United States Congress, Annals of the Congress of the United States (Gales and Seaton, 1851), 708, 711–12; United States Congress, House, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, vol. 3 (Washington: Printed by Gales & Seaton, 1826), 703, 704–5.

[3] Congress, Annals of the Congress of the United States, 711–12; United States Congress, House, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 3:705–6, 709; “Congress of the United States,” May 17, 1800.

[4] “Congress of the United States,” The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, December 8, 1800; Congress, Annals of the Congress of the United States, 800–803, 819–20.

[5] “Congress of the United States,” December 8, 1800; “Congress of the United States,” The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, December 31, 1800.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Congress, Annals of the Congress of the United States, 874–75, 858; Savage, “The Self-Made Monument: George Washington and the Fight to Erect a National Memorial,” 231, 14n; Dorothy Stroud, George Dance, Architect, 1741-1825 (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1971), pl. 76a.

[8] G. Kurt Piehler, Remembering War the American Way (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2014), 20–23; Savage, “The Self-Made Monument: George Washington and the Fight to Erect a National Memorial,” 228–31; Matthew Dennis, “Patriotic Remains: Bones of Contention in the Early Republic,” Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, Mortal Remains: Death in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 142–44.

[9] “Congress of the United States,” December 31, 1800.

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