Think of the Washington, D.C., skyline without the Washington Monument. Or the nation’s capital without memorials to its namesake’s successors. It’s admittedly difficult to envision. But it’s a picture that would have greatly pleased one early American statesman, and one that we might ponder today as we celebrate George Washington’s actual birthday.
Today, Nathaniel Macon would strike his countrymen, depending on their politics, as either crazy or courageous. Or both. This fixture of American politics for four decades was an early-19th-century version of Dr. No — Ron Paul in a frock coat.
Macon, whose career began in the North Carolina legislature, was originally opposed to any form of national government. When asked by his state to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he refused. He then fought against the ratification of the document that the convention produced. When that effort failed, he dedicated himself in the new House of Representatives, where he served from 1791 to 1815 (and as Speaker from 1801 to 1807), and then later in the Senate to the strictest possible interpretation of it.
Macon, a staunch Jeffersonian Republican, opposed a standing national army and navy, voted against the institution of the First Bank of the United States, and ridiculed the idea of the United States Mint. His fear of debt, personal as well as public, was so great that hours before his death he summoned an undertaker to pay any future bills lest he owe a single cent from the grave. Unsurprisingly, he opposed most forms of government spending — including a grand monument to George Washington.
Plans for such a project actually stretched back into Washington’s lifetime, and just days after the death of our first president in December 1799, Congress resolved to construct a suitable “marble monument” to serve as his resting place. A year later, Virginia Representative Henry Lee III, who had eulogized Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” suggested that the House approve the design by English architect George Dance, which carried an estimated price tag of $200,000. The finished product, according to Lee (the father of Robert E. Lee), would “impress a sublime awe on all who behold it.”
Macon was unimpressed.
First, he did not think the federal government should or could foot the bill. “I well know how hardly earned is the money from which this enormous sum must proceed,” he declared, before adding, with considerable foresight on federal projects, “this is only a beginning; the final cost might be many times more.”
Of course, when he implored that “now is the time to make a stand against this monument mania,” Macon was also making a political argument. George Washington, his administration, and its policies were largely associated with the Federalist Party. The construction of a grand monument to his memory would be a symbolic victory for that political faction. Macon and his fellow Jeffersonians resisted making such a concession.
But Macon’s motives were also philosophical. Though he admired Washington and had fought in the Revolution, Macon believed that spending “millions in acts of useless and pernicious ostentation” to honor any man, even Washington, was contrary to the spirit of the young republic. Raising great shrines to leaders, dead or alive, transformed mortals into deities. In America, where power was derived from the people, no man, however much he was revered, deserved such treatment. And besides, a monument to Washington would set a risky precedent. “If we decline raising a mausoleum to Washington, no man who succeeds him can ever expect one reared to his memory,” Macon reasoned. “On the other hand, if we now raise one to Washington, every pretender to greatness will aim at the same distinction.”
The debate over the mausoleum raised important questions about how democracies venerate the memories of their heroes. Lee, who knew and revered Washington, passionately argued that a monument would set the great man’s deeds and virtues in stone, leaving them for later generations to ponder and imitate. Macon, on the other hand, believed that if the country wished to inculcate Washington’s virtues in coming generations, it would be far better to produce a schoolbook narrating his life than to treat him as a god.
In the end, Lee and the Federalists carried the day in the House, which approved the creation of the mausoleum on a nearly party-line vote, with the Republicans voting 34 to 0 against, and the Federalists 45 to 3 in favor. The Senate, however, never passed corresponding legislation, and, after many false starts, construction of a different Washington Monument — the one that stands proudly on the National Mall — began in 1848. Macon’s worries about opulent displays of public gratitude to our leaders were mostly ignored. But his antipathy to enshrining public servants is not without utility, and his worry that other leaders would chase after the glory granted Washington was not unfounded. Interestingly, years later Macon, who was amenable to a less grand statue of Washington, helped recruit Italian sculptor Antonio Canova to carve a costly and much-acclaimed statue of Washington for North Carolina’s statehouse.
Just as the obelisk that towers over Washington, D.C., fittingly honors our first president, Macon too, at least for a time, had an appropriate memorial: Prior to his death in 1837, the old legislator had arranged for his remains to be deposited on a knoll overlooking his plantation, which was called Buck Spring. They were then covered by nothing more than a heap of flint rock. Nearly a century later the North Carolina Historical Commission placed a bronze plaque and a large granite headstone nearby — additions that would surely have irritated Macon.
— Ryan L. Cole, a former adviser to Governor Mitch Daniels, writes from Indiana.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.