John Sherman and the Washington Monument

Since monument day was this week (April 18th), we thought it only appropriate to discuss one of the most well-known monuments in our nation: the Washington Monument in Washington, D. C.

Photo by Mary McKinley.

The construction of the Washington Monument began in 1848, but was halted in 1854 as the private organization that had been funding the construction ran out of funds. The monument stood incomplete at about 156 feet tall for many years, far short of its intended 555 feet.

On 5 July 1876, Senator John Sherman brought a concurrent resolution before the Senate, proposing that Congress “at this the beginning of the second century of national existence, do assume and direct the completion of the Washington Monument in the city of Washington, and instruct the committees on appropriations of the respective Houses to propose suitable provisions of law to carry this resolution into effect” [1]. Concurrent resolutions are not enforceable as law, but proposing the resolution apparently had enough impact to get Congress to move on the idea. After some debate, Congress passed an act to fund the monument later in July, and it was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on 2 August 1876.

With funds once again available, construction on the monument resumed. However, the original marble was no longer available, which is why the color of the monument at the base is different than at the top, and repairs had to be made to the foundation of the monument. With these challenges and delays, the construction of the monument was not completed until late in 1884, and the ceremonies to dedicate the monument did not happen until 1885 [2].

John Sherman in the 1880s. Sherman Room Archives.

John Sherman was first elected to the federal legislature in 1854 as member of the House of Representatives from Ohio, and was subsequently elected to the United States Senate in 1861. He would be a senator for more than thirty years, but he also served as Secretary of the Treasury for Rutherford B. Hayes, from 1877 to 1881, returning to the Senate after his term was up [3].

So in 1885, John Sherman was a senator representing Ohio, and had recently been Secretary of the Treasury. The Washington monument was being completed, and Congress decided that since the completion of the monument had been funded by the people, it would be fitting for there to be a dedication ceremony for the completed monument. As the man who had originally proposed that Congress provide funding to complete the monument, Sherman was chosen to chair the commission of House members and senators who planned the dedication. As such, when the day of the dedication ceremony dawned, in the freezing cold mid-December weather, Sherman was the first to give a speech.

A Senators Ticket for the Dedication of the Washington Monument on 21 February 1885, with John Sherman’s signature as the Chairman of Commission. Stamped with the number 13. Sherman Room Archives.
A ticket for the Dedication of the Washington Monument on 21 February 1885, with John Sherman’s signature as the Chairman of Commission. Stamped with the number 1142. Sherman Room Archives.

Sherman’s Speech

“The Commission authorized by the two Houses of Congress to provide for suitable ceremonies for the dedication of the Washington Monument direct me to preside and to announce the order of ceremonies deemed proper on this occasion. I need not say anything to impress upon you the dignity of the event you have met to celebrate. The monument speaks for itself–simple in form, admirable in proportions, composed of enduring marble and granite, resting upon foundations broad and deep, it rises into the skies higher than any work of human art. It is the most imposing, costly and appropriate monument ever erected in honor of one man. It had its origin in the profound conviction of the people, irrespective of party, creed or race, not only in this country, but in all civilized countries, that the name and fame of Washington should be perpetuated by the most imposing testimonial of a Nation’s gratitude to its hero, statesman and father. This universal sentiment took form in this movement. Private citizens were associated under the name of the Washington National Monument Association who secured from Congress an act authorizing them to erect the proposed monument on this ground, selected as the most appropriate site by the President of the United States. Its corner stone was laid on the 4th of July 1848, by the Masonic fraternity with imposing ceremonies in the presence of the chief officers of the Government and a multitude of citizens. It was partially erected by the National Monument Association with means furnished by the voluntary contributions of the people of the United States. On the 5th of July, 1876, one hundred years after the Declaration of American Independence, Congress, in the name of the people of the United States, formally assumed and directed the completion of the monument. Since then the foundation has been strengthened and the shaft has been steadily advanced, and now the completed structure stands before you. It is a fit memorial of the greatest character in human memory. It looks down upon the scenes most loved by him on earth, the most conspicuous object in landscape, full of objects deeply interesting to the American people, and all eyes turn to it and all hearts feel the inspiration of its beauty, symmetry and grandeur.

Strong as it is it will not endure so long as the memory of him in whose honor it was built, but while it stands it will be evidence to many succeeding generations of the love and reverence this generation cherished for the name and fame of George Washington, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen; more than even this, [he is] the prototype of purity, manhood and patriotism for all lands and all time.”

John Sherman, Speech at the Dedication Ceremonies of the Washington Monument, 21 February 1885. Printed in the Belville Star, 26 February 1885, page 3. Read it here.

John Sherman used in his speech the phrase “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” This phrase was not of Sherman’s creation, but rather a quotation from Henry Lee’s eulogy at Washington’s memorial service in the chambers of Congress on 26 December 1799.

Sherman’s speech was published and paraphrased in newspapers around the country, along with the other speeches given at the event. Sherman’s speech was generally remarked upon to have been short but well-done; it even garnered this rather reluctant praise in the Farmer and Mechanic newspaper of Raleigh, North Carolina: “We hate to compliment the old South-Hater, but must say that John Sherman’s speech at the Washington monument ceremonies reads the best of the lot.” [4]

Despite his critics, Sherman would continue on in his career as a senator after the dedication ceremonies, and would serve as the Secretary of State under President William McKinley before retiring to his long-time home in Mansfield in 1898. While Sherman’s most notable contribution to the United States is usually considered to be the Anti-Trust act in his name, it is also worth remembering his contributions to the effort to complete the United States’ monument to its first president, the Washington Monument.


  1. Frederick Loviad Harvey, History of the Washington National Monument and Washington National Monument Society, .p. 90-91.
  2. US National Park Service, “History & Culture [of the Washington Monument].”
  3. “John Sherman: A Featured Biography.”
  4. Farmer and Mechanic [Raleigh, North Carolina], 25 Feb 1885, page 2. Chronicling America.

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