Accessibility links

Breaking News

Washington Monument Honors America’s First President

The Washington Monument as seen from the west front of the U.S. Capitol. The Lincoln Memorial is just beyond the Monument.
The Washington Monument as seen from the west front of the U.S. Capitol. The Lincoln Memorial is just beyond the Monument.
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:14:02 0:00
Direct link

From VOA Learning English, welcome to This is America. I’m Steve Ember.

The tallest structure in America’s capital city is the Washington Monument. It is named for George Washington, the first president of the United States. Come along with us, as we tell about the Washington Monument and the man it honors.

The Washington Monument is a big building named for an important American. George Washington led the American colonies in the war of independence against England from 1775 to 1783. Later he headed the group that wrote the United States Constitution. As president, he helped the new United States of America through its difficult first years.

Over the years, millions of people from around the world have visited the Washington Monument. It stands almost 170 meters high, close by the Potomac River. The four sides of this tall obelisk, or tower, end in a point at the top.

The Washington Monument is one of the most photographed places in the world. Lights shine on it at night. It can be seen from far away. Fireworks are launched near the monument on America’s Independence Day -- the 4th of July -- and during other special celebrations.

George Washington was born in 1732. His family lived in Westmoreland County, Virginia. George attended school for only about seven or eight years. He wanted to become a sailor. However, his mother would not permit this. So George became an explorer. At age 20 he became an officer in the colonial army.

In 1753, the colonies still belonged to Britain. Major George Washington carried a message from British colonial officials to French forces. At the time, French forces occupied the Ohio River Valley. The message ordered them to withdraw. It was a dangerous duty, and George Washington completed it successfully.
A portrait of George Washington
A portrait of George Washington

George Washington continued to gain responsibility in the army. However, as time passed, he became angry with the way England governed the American colonies. Taxes were high. And the colonies had no representation in the British Parliament.

The war against Britain began in 1775. The Americans named George Washington commander of the Revolutionary armies.

Many of his soldiers were untrained. They were poorly equipped. During one winter of the Revolutionary War, his troops almost froze to death. But General Washington led them to victory. The last British troops left the former colonies in 1783.

After the war, George Washington strongly influenced the writing of the new Constitution. Then, in 1789, the first American Electoral College met. It named him the first president of the United States. Three years later, he wanted to retire. He planned to live with his wife Martha at Mount Vernon, their home in Virginia, along the Potomac. But others appealed to him to run for president again. The ballots were counted in 1793, and he was re-elected.

George Washington was not perfect. He kept slaves at Mount Vernon. However, he freed all his slaves during his lifetime. He also urged the nation to end slavery in the future.

Washington gave the nation a good start. He helped prevent the country from becoming a dictatorship. He prevented it from being ruled by a king. He helped establish freedom of religion.

And now, let’s look at the Washington Monument. It took many years to build the Washington Monument. America almost got a very different memorial to George Washington instead of the present one.

Congress decided to pay for a statue of Washington on a horse. The lawmakers did this even before the signing of the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War. The statue was to show how General Washington led American troops to victory against England. However, he said he did not want the nation to spend money for the statue.
An early photograph of the Washinton Monument under construction
An early photograph of the Washinton Monument under construction
A group called the Washington National Monument Society started raising money for a memorial in 1833. Officials placed the first stone of the monument on July 4th, 1848.

The Roman Catholic Church leader, Pope Pius the Ninth, gave a piece of marble from Rome for the monument. But the stone was stolen a few years later. People suspected that an American group called the Know Nothings took the stone. Among other things, the group opposed the Roman Catholic Church.

After that, the public almost stopped giving money for the building project. Many believed it never would be finished. Then Congress started to help pay for the monument. But, again, the Know Nothings intervened. They raided the Washington National Monument Society office. They claimed the monument was their property.

Finally, in 1876, Congress voted to pay for building the Washington Monument. On December Sixth, 1884, the monument was finished. It opened to the public four years later.

A visit to the Washington Monument begins by getting a ticket. Long lines often form at the ticket office. For that reason, it is a good idea to buy tickets on the Internet.

Once people have their tickets, they stand in a line near the monument. Depending on the time of day – and the time of year – that line can be very long.

The monument is surrounded by 50 flagpoles. The flags represent the 50 states.

National Park Service guides supervise the Washington Monument. They lead visitors to a big elevator for the ride up to the observation area at the top.
The view from the top of the Washington Monument. Below, the Tidal Basin (AP Photo).
The view from the top of the Washington Monument. Below, the Tidal Basin (AP Photo).

The observation area is more than 150 meters above the ground. You’ll hear lots os “oohs” and “aahs” as they stand at the windows. Looking north, you can see famous buildings like the White House. You can also see the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and a hotel where America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, once stayed. To the east, you can see the U.S. Capitol building, where Congress makes laws. You can also see the Smithsonian Institution museum buildings along the Mall. And to the west, the view includes the World War Two Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Potomac River.

The elevator trip back down is equally interesting. Through the windows you can see some of the almost 200 carved memorial stones on the inside walls of the monument.
Every state gave a stone to the monument. Stones also came from other countries. For example, one stone came from the library of Alexandria in Egypt. The Free Swiss Federation in Switzerland gave a stone that says, “To the Memory of Washington.” Japan gave a stone made from volcanic rock.
Surrounded by metal scaffolding and plastic sheets, the Washington Monument became a magical sight at night. (Photo: Steve Ember)
Surrounded by metal scaffolding and plastic sheets, the Washington Monument became a magical sight at night. (Photo: Steve Ember)

The Washington Monument was forced to close in August of 2011 after an earthquake damaged the structure. The 5.8 force earthquake shook communities up and down the East Coast. People said they could see the monument moving during the quake, which caused cracks and fallen stone.

The monument stayed closed for nearly three years while workers completed $15-million in repairs. During that time, metal scaffolding – or supports – covered different parts of the monument as work progressed. Lighting on the monument shone on the metal and its plastic coverings, making beautiful sights, especially at twilight.

In May of 2014, thousands of people attended a ceremony for the official re-opening of the monument. Officials spoke, performers entertained and everyone celebrated the reopening.

The Washington Monument is just one of many ways Americans have honored their first president. The northwest state of Washington is named for him. So are many cities, schools and streets in the United States. We should also mention the Washington Monument that rises in Mount Vernon Square in nearby Baltimore.

A sentence written on a wall in the Washington Monument expresses the way many Americans feel about George Washington. It says he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for another This is America program from VOA Learning English.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Start the Quiz to find out