Prior to the construction of Robert Mills’ Washington Monument in 1833, proposals to erect a memorial in honor of George Washington began as early as 1783. The defeat of the British under his command and his consecutive time as the first President of the United States had thrust Washington into the public’s mind as an inspiration for future generations. As such, many people felt the General deserved a monument in the nation’s new capital city. After Washington’s death in 1799, congress formally proposed to move forward with a plan. The monument was not only to serve as a memorial for Washington, but also be his tomb. Despite his final request to be buried at Mt. Vernon, congress proposed that his remains be brought to Washington D.C. where he would be laid to rest.
The call for proposals was answered by a number of artists and architects, including a design from the great Benjamin West. West resided in England for most of his career, serving as the official historical painter of the court and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures under George III. However, having been born to a Quaker family in Pennsylvania, West felt a connection to his American kinsmen and had been sympathetic to the American cause. In a letter to Rufus King, Minister to the Court of St. James between 1797 and 1803, West laid out the details for one of his rare architectural plans.
That the raising of a monument to the memory of General Washington, I believe is the wish of all the civilized world,” West wrote to Rufus King in 1800. “I do therefore recommend, that the most durable form for such a monument, be adopted; which is that of the Triangle, or Pyramid.” The Pyramid was set to stand at 150 feet and be surrounded by shade trees to create an inviting space to encourage the public to take their time visiting the memorial. “This will give the Parent, or Tutor, an opportunity to inculcate the virtues of that great man in the juvenile mind of their rising offspring.”
While the library doesn’t hold the architectural drawings that accompanied West’s letter to King, the letter does provide the reader with extensive details of his monument.
The inside of the Pyramid has a conical cavity to save the expense in building, and at the same time, to give as much strength as the solid. Within that is built a Rotunda lighted from the top, on which is placed the Presidential statue of the General in Bronze, to be in height not less than seven feet and round the Rotunda eight Bassorilievos in the same metal, four to contain military and four civil subjects. In place of the Frize, and Dado round the Rotunda, a Groove to be cut to a considerable depth and in same manner round the Eight Bassorilievos: this will give a monumental simplicity which belongs to its character. The whole of the apartment to be the natural color of the stone with which it is built. One of the four entrances into the Rotunda, to be closed, for the place where the remains of the great man should be deposited in a stone coffin; it should be elevated, and under it a proper inscription. The three entrances which lead into the Rotunda to have front gates, to be opened on fixed days for seeing the sculpture etc.”
West took great pride in the monument, feeling it would be “an appropriate one to the exalted character of George Washington, and worthy that United States of America to raise to his memory.” Rufus King, although admitting he was little acquainted with the arts and felt he wasn’t one to judge West’s design, agreed that it was worth submitting to Congress. “[. . .] I cannot avoid saying that the simplicity and grandeur of the plan give to it my eyes a merit that makes me hope it may be approved by the President to whom I shall seek the earliest opportunity of sending it.”
While King admired the design and the sentimentality behind West’s desire to memorialize Washington, it was evident that he didn’t want to make any promises regarding the final decision made by Congress. “If motives of economy, or any others to which I am a stranger, shall prevent its adaption, I cannot be mistaken in assuring you that it will notwithstanding be received as a precious Memorial of the affectionate attachment of a Citizen whose Talents and reputation reflect so much honour upon his Native Country.”
His warnings were not in vain. With the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1801, a political shift took place in congress leading to Democratic-Republican control. The Federalist Party was quickly dispersing and their political enemies had no intention of pursuing a Washington memorial. After all, why build a memorial to a man who was a Federalist? The plan to build a monumental tomb for General Washington in the city was soon reversed and all proposals were no longer considered. It would be another thirty years before Robert Mills’ design was finally accepted by Congress and money was raised to build a memorial to Washington. West’s design continues to be an interesting aspect of the monument’s history and the art career of Benjamin West.
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.