On the Fourth of July, the Baltimore Washington Monument celebrated the bicentennial of the laying of its cornerstone 200 years ago. While the monument is an obvious point of pride for modern-day citizens of the city, during its day the erection of this colossal column was an unprecedented civic act in the newly-formed United States of America, giving rise to Baltimore's nickname "The Monumental City."
In 1971, Baltimore historian Wilber Harvey Hunter was apparently the first to suggest that Baltimore was given this moniker by former President John Quincy Adams on a visit to the city in October 1827. At the end of several days in town at a banquet at Barnum's Hotel, Adams concluded the festivities with a toast: "Baltimore — the monumental city — may the days of her safety be as prosperous and happy, as the days of her danger have been trying and triumphant."
While Adams did, indeed, toast "The Monumental City," he did not give Baltimore the name. Unknown to Hunter, and not readily knowable until the recent availability of thousands of scanned historic newspapers and books, is that the title was first used in 1823 by the editors of the Daily National Intellingencer, the main newspaper in nearby Washington, D.C., and most likely by its principal editor Joseph Gales Jr.
On Feb. 8, 1823, in the middle of a heated political debate over Maryland's support of the Potomac Canal (later called the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal), Gales' paper cast scorn on the city of Baltimore, which in his opinion was not supporting the canal in the Maryland legislature. He was flabbergasted that "the monumental city" was not supporting this grand civic work, which he believed would add "to her own aggrandizement," as he apparently thought the city's monument did.
While Gales' initial volley was a sarcastic one, within days other papers were picking up the phrase, and within months it was being used honorifically to celebrate the accomplishment of the city. As the phrase emerged in the newspapers, its origins were quickly lost, and by the early 1830s American and foreign publications and travel books routinely referred to Baltimore as "The Monumental City."
Baltimore's erection of the first monument to honor the founding father of the United States speaks volumes about the development of American culture. In 1809 a group of Baltimore citizens came together to form a private board to accomplish the task, requesting permission of the Maryland legislature to hold a private lottery to fund its construction (private lotteries funded many civic works at this time). Although they had trials and tribulations with the cost of the monument and funding streams, they accomplished their mission. With the masonry work completed by the mid 1820s, they raised the statue of Washington to the top in 1829. Other exterior and interior details were completed in the 1830s.
One would likely think that the first monument to honor Washington would be in our national capital — and Congress had authorized a memorial in 1783 and then again when he died in 1799. However, nothing came of these proposals. Like the Baltimore Washington Monument, a memorial to Washington in the national capital would not become a reality until it was backed by a private board of managers formed in 1833 to carry out the mission. Years later, in 1848, its cornerstone was laid. Unlike, the Baltimore project, however, this private board foundered and work halted before the Civil War. It would not have been completed had not the federal government taken over the project, leading to its dedication in 1885.
So, in 1823 when Gales called Baltimore "The Monumental City," Washington's envy of Baltimore's accomplishment was evident. L'Enfant's grandiose plan for the capital city would not be realized until the 20th century, and as late as the 1840s it was likened by visitors to a "village." In 1823, as well, Washington was still recovering from its recent sack by the British during the War of 1812, during which Baltimore had triumphed. When Baltimoreans laid the cornerstone of their Washington monument on July 4, 1815, the fall of the national capital (a national calamity) was referenced in their speeches as was their role in repelling the then unbeaten foe. Their victory in the recent war gave them the humble honor and "glory of being the first to erect a monument of gratitude to the Father and Benefactor of our Country."
By 1823 as well, Baltimoreans were putting the finishing touches on the Battle Monument, begun in 1815 to honor the fallen defenders during the Battle of Baltimore. While a handsome monument, it was largely local in nature, and less cause for regional and national envy. Nineteenth-century accounts make it clear that the Washington Monument was the principal reason for the city's appellation "The Monumental City."
Baltimore has had other nicknames, including "Charm City," which was coined in 1974 during a marketing and tourism campaign. What sets "The Monumental City" apart from modern slogans, is that unlike them it was not created by city "promoters" or branding campaigns. It was begun by others outside the city, and even though originally ironic, at its core, the appellation recognized that Baltimore had accomplished something vitally important to the new nation — the erection of the first heroic monument to honor the founder of our country and American national independence.
Lance Humphries, a historian, is chair of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy's restoration committee; his email is email@example.com. A more in-depth version of this article, "What's in a Name? Baltimore — 'The Monumental City,'" appears in the summer 2015 edition of the Maryland Historical Magazine.