The Collision of History

That time two future presidents and one current president met to honor the first president at the dawn of a movement influenced by a recently deceased president.

It was a hot July day when official Washington gathered in the nation’s capital for a groundbreaking ceremony. The President would speak and a member of the opposing party would speak. This member was a newly minted, trouble-making member of Congress from the opposite party.

The President was just coming off an increasingly unpopular war. The young Congressman had just successfully run against the President’s war.

The year was 1848. And the President was James K. Polk, dedicating the Washington Monument, now an iconic feature of the skyline and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. The officials used a trowel from Washington’s own set of farm tools from Mount Vernon to mark the laying of the concrete of the base, a base that would stay empty due to bureaucracy and cost overruns as the project languished for almost four decades and thru a Civil War.

Polk, a one-term Democratic President from Tennessee, hailed Washington as the father of the country and exulted from victory in the recently ended War with Mexico, which yielded the United States seven new states. When Polk was finished, the new Whig Congressman from the seventh district of Illinois, rose to speak and instead of giving a typical nonpartisan speech, railed against Polk’s war, a conflict he considered illegal. He accused the President of leading the United States away from George Washington’s vision of the country. Among those in the audience listening and disagreeing, was another Tennessee Democrat, a Congressman from the Volunteer State’s first district. The speech was not well-received, even by those who agreed with the speaker. It was, to many, a partisan speech out of place for such a moment.

The Illinois Congressman? Future President Abraham Lincoln. The Tennessee Congressman in the audience? Lincon’s future Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, himself a future President. Lincoln’s Whig views, in those days, were largely shaped by the recently deceased Congressman from Quincy, Massachusetts, the former President John Quincy Adams. Adams, who became a longtime voice for abolition in Congress after serving as the 6th President of the United States, had died a few months earlier in February.

So think of this scene: The 10th President, honoring the 1st President by dedicating a building that would inspire millions of visitors to the capital, being upstaged by the future 16th President, whose views were shaped by the 6th President, son of a Founding Father and in the audience, vigorously disagreeing was the future 17th President.

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