Washington DC – A Beautiful City

STANDING upon the lofty, green-clad hills of Virginia which constitute the historic Arlington estate, a magnificent panorama is unfolded as the eye sweeps northward and eastward over the picturesque region of the District of Columbia. Two hundred feet below, the beautiful Potomac River, released from the mountain ranges that have closely restrained its silvery stream for over a hundred miles, quickly expands into a broad sheet of placid water and glides onward to the main, bearing many a richly freighted craft. From the circling heights of the northern part of the District to the river banks on the south, as far as the eye can reach, are ponderous domes and majestic spires, countless turrets and roof-tops, emerald-tinted parks, massive monuments, and all the evidences of a great and prosperous city. Everywhere palatial edifices, embodying the highest architectural genius of the age, meet the gaze, and, grandly towering over all, Freedom’s effigy can be seen resplendent on the huge white dome of the Nation’s Capitol. This is the city of Washington as it appears to-day — a charming city of parks and palaces, and the grand seat of government of ” Time’s noblest offspring,” the United States of America.

It is predicted that Washington is to be ” the future Queen City of the world.” Its natural advantages give it a preeminence over most American cities in picturesqueness. Its site is bordered by a noble river and sheltered by a series of gradually sloping and thickly wooded hills. Constructed upon an ample plan, with capacity for a million people, the home of a liberal government whose resources are almost unlimited, a delightful, salubrious place of residence, both winter and summer, now thoroughly imbued with a strong desire for advancement, for rich adornment and luxurious surroundings, and fast gathering into its fold the excellent and desirable in science, art, and literature — the capital of the country, if it continues its Herculean strides on the path of progress for a few years longer, can boldly challenge comparison with any other city in attractiveness and brilliancy. The growth and development of Washington during the past ten years have been wonderful. Nearly all the old land-marks have disappeared, and out of a rude, unpaved, dilapidated town has risen a stately city, with most of the resources, the pleasures, the superiority of a metropolis. Once it was called in derision the only child of the Nation,” but now it has attained to a magnificent manhood, and is entirely worthy of the pride and admiration of its parents.

There is a tradition that George Washington, when a mere youth, surveying the Virginia lands of the opulent Lord Fairfax, and little dreaming of the remarkable career fate had in store for him, predicted that some day a great city would be located on the territory now known as the District of Columbia, as the site was so admirably adapted for the purpose. And in later years when, serving under the ill-fated General Braddock, he encamped with the British troops on the hill at present occupied by the National Observatory, it is related that he often sat at the door of his tent and gazed at the undulating plateau on which the city now rests, noted the broad river-front and the environing hills, and with the eye of a practical surveyor and sagacious man, traced out the future abode of thousands. It is not singular, therefore, that when he had reached the summit of human greatness, and had been proclaimed the Father of his Country, he should have exercised his authority to have the National Capital located on the spot he had been familiar with and admired from boyhood.

The District of Columbia, known as the Federal Territory, as originally laid out by the first commissioners under the direction of President Washington, embraced one hundred square miles, so located as to include the thrifty towns of Georgetown in Maryland, and Alexandria in Virginia, together with the confluence of the Potomac River and its Eastern Branch, and the adjacent heights. Maryland and Virginia ceded to the United States the territory required. In 1846, all that portion of the District lying on the west bank of the Potomac was retroceded by Congress to the State of Virginia, so that the Federal Territory at the present time comprises sixty-four square miles, and is bounded on three sides by the State of Mary-land, having Montgomery County on its north, Prince George County on its east and south, with the Potomac River on its west. The city of Washington occupies all the lower portion of the District. Georgetown, now known as West Washington, Tennallytown, and Uniontown are the only other places of any importance. Washington is situated on the eastern bank of the Potomac, 116 miles above the mouth of the river, and 184 miles from the sea. It is 14 miles in circumference, and covers a little less than 10 square miles. From the southern part of the city, where the Potomac expands to the width of a mile, extends backward an irregular plain having a mean altitude of 40 feet above the river. This plain carries the city up to the very borders of a chain of hills. The greatest length of Washington is 4 1/2 miles; the greatest breadth, 31 miles. It stretches along the Potomac a distance of 4 miles, and 3 1/4 miles along the Anacostia, or Eastern Branch of the Potomac. The romantic beauty of the location, the heights surrounding the city, from which extended views of the country and the windings of the river can be obtained, its attractive environs, all combine to render Washington one of the most picturesque cities in the country.

When Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac in 16o8, he found the country inhabited by numerous tribes of Indians, continually at war with each other, and savage and ferocious as wild beasts. The Manahoacs were known as a powerful tribe, and their favorite camping-ground was the region now occupied by the city of Washington. In the spring the tribe assembled at the Potomac to catch the luscious shad and herring as they ” run ” in the river, and to hold their yearly councils. Great feasts were made, and the return of the vernal season was celebrated with joyous ceremonies. The tribal councils were held very near the spot where, two centuries afterward, the people of the free United States established their council hall. The Manahoacs were constantly fighting with the Powhatans of Virginia, and their sanguinary conflicts, disease, and the introduction of spirituous liquors among them, rapidly diminished their numbers, until at last they were forced to migrate westward and ally themselves with the Tuscaroras. Where these Indians had their camping-grounds, archaeological treasures in great abundance have been recently found, such as pestles, clubs, stone axes and arrow-heads, clay and soapstone pottery, and numerous articles of utility and ornament. Many of the specimens of clay pottery and the ornamental work exhibit considerable skill and taste, and give evidence that the aboriginals of the District had attained some degree of civilization.

In 1623–5 Henry Fleet, the hardy and adventurous English fur trader, thoroughly explored the Potomac borders. He had many exciting adventures with the wild tribes, and was often in deadly peril. At one time he suffered a long captivity among the Indians, but he fortunately escaped harm and succeeded in obtaining a large amount of information concerning the new southern country. He wrote of the tract around Washington: ” This place is without question the most healthful and pleasant in all this country and most convenient for habitation; the air temperate in summer and not violent in winter. The river aboundeth in all manner of fish, and for deer, buffaloes, bears and turkeys the woods do swarm with them, and the soil is exceedingly fertile.” Fleet’s enthusiastic description of the country watered by the Potomac was published in England, and may have influenced many of the emigrants to America at that time to direct their steps toward Maryland and Virginia. A company of Scotch and Irish people from the mother-country made a settlement, about the close of the seventeenth century, within the limits of what is now the District of Columbia. They obtained patents for a large amount of land, divided it into a number of good plantations, and designated their adopted home New Scotland.” For nearly a century this colony lived in rural solitude, enjoying the fruits of their labor. Some of the descendants of these early settlers were among the original proprietors of the land on which the city of Washington was eventually built.

It is told of a member of this colony, by the name of Pope, that he set up his lares and penates on the top of the hill where the Capitol now stands. He called his plantation ” Rome,” and a little stream that meandered along the base of the hill, ” the Tiber,” believing that in the course of time a capital city greater than imperial Rome would arise on the spacious plateau where he cultivated his crops. To his friends and companions he was known as “Pope of Rome.” This simple farmer was endowed with prophetic vision. Busy streets now entirely cover the Tiber creek, and above its bank is the majestic legislative building of a vast continental nation, looking down upon a city that in the near future may be even greater than Rome in its proudest days.

The laying out of Georgetown was authorized by the Maryland Assembly in 1751, and some time later this attractive suburb of Washington began existence. It soon grew into a town of importance. During the Revolutionary War it was one of the places of deposit for military stores. The troops of both armies marched through its streets and encamped on its steep hills. A small ferry connected it with the Virginia shore. In Suter’s tavern, a favorite resort in those days, the wealthy land-holders of the neighborhood met on business and for merry-makings, and they made its rude walls ring with their jovial songs and stories. Whenever Washing-ton came up the river from his Mount Vernon estate he enjoyed the good cheer of this ancient hostelry, and in Suter’s he held many of his deliberations with the first commissioners engaged in the laying out of the Federal city. Small settlements were started on the Mary-land banks of the Potomac just below Georgetown, and several thriving plantations tilled by slaves dotted the site of the future capital.

In 1785 Washington made an extended and careful exploration of the upper Potomac, in order to ascertain if the river could be navigated above tide-water at Georgetown. A canoe or pirogue was expertly hollowed out of a large poplar tree, hauled to the river bank and launched, and Washington with several friends, among whom was Governor Johnson, of Maryland, a gallant soldier of the Revolution, started on the important survey. The party sailed for a number of days in their humble bark amid the sublime scenery of the upper Potomac, and made a complete exploration, the result of their work being that a company was finally organized for the improvement of the river, and nearly a million dollars expended in a series of years. During this unique voyage the distinguished party would seek quarters for the night at the houses of well-to-do planters who lived near the river, and everywhere they were received as highly honored guests, and a most generous hospitality was dispensed. One night they were compelled to lodge at the house of a planter whose accommodations were rather scanty, and Washington, Governor Johnson, and another gentleman were given a room with two small beds. The great chieftain with a smile turned to his companions and said, ” Come, gentle-men, who will be my bed-fellow?” They both declined the honor, however, and the Maryland governor, in relating the incident after-ward, said, ” Greatly as I should have felt honored by such distinction, yet the awe and reverence which I always felt in the presence of that admirable man prevented me from approaching him so nearly.”

There was a severe contest over the selection of the Federal Territory. In the Congress of the Confederation the question of a permanent seat of government was broached, and propositions to establish a ” Federal town, a Federal house for Congress and for the Executive officers,” on the banks of the Delaware River near the Lower Falls, and also at Georgetown on the Potomac, were entertained, but did not receive special sanction. The matter was somewhat discussed in the convention held in Philadelphia in 1787, to revise the Federal system of government, but it was not until the second session of the First Congress of the United States under the Constitution, held in New York in the summer of 1790, that it was finally decided. The discussion was long and earnest, and a strong sectional feeling was developed. New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Trenton, Harrisburg, and many other places urged their claims upon Congress to be made the capital city, and for a time it seemed as if it would be impossible to make any selection. Maryland and Virginia had offered the necessary territory for the Federal District, but the former state strongly favored its location at the thriving ” Baltimore town.” Many votes were taken, and finally an act was adopted by Congress which received executive sanction in July, 1790, giving the sole power to President Washington to select a Federal Territory ” not exceeding ten miles square on the river Potomac at some space between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and the Conogocheague for the permanent seat of the government of the United States.” The new territory was to be ready for the use of the government in 1800, and in the mean time the Federal town ” was to be Philadelphia.

The final adoption of the Potomac site for the national territory was brought about by a stroke of policy contrived by Jefferson and Hamilton. In an article upon Congress, Garfield speaks of the matter as follows: ” It dampens not a little our enthusiasm for the superior virtues of the fathers to learn that Hamilton’s monument of statesmanship, the funding bill, which gave life to the public credit and saved from dishonor the war debts of the states, was for a time hopelessly defeated by the votes of one section of the Union, and was carried at last by a legislative bargain which, in the mildest slang of our day, would be called a ‘ log-rolling job.’ The bill fixing the permanent seat of the government on the banks of the Potomac was the argument which turned the scale and carried the funding bill. The bargain carried them both through.”

Jefferson was appealed to by Hamilton to give his aid to the scheme for the assumption by the general government of the debts incurred by the states during the Revolutionary War, which amounted to $20,000,000. The bill had been defeated in the House after an obstinate struggle, and Hamilton was earnestly seeking to have it re-considered, believing that the Eastern or creditor states would secede from the Union if their claims were not allowed. Mr. Jefferson says in his Ana: ” I proposed to him (Hamilton) to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two and bring them into conference together, and I thought it impossible that reasonable men consulting together coolly could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the Union. The discussion took place. It was finally agreed that, whatever importance had been attached to the rejection of the proposition, the preservation of the Union and of concord among the states was more important, and that therefore it would be better that the vote of rejection should be rescinded, to effect which some members should change their votes. But it was observed that this pill would be peculiarly bitter to the Southern States, and that some concomitant measure should be adopted to sweeten it a little to them. There had been before, propositions to fix the seat of government either at Philadelphia or at Georgetown on the Potomac; and it was thought-by giving it to Philadelphia for ten years and to Georgetown permanently afterwards, this might act as an anodyne, and calm in some measure the ferment which might be excited by the other measure alone. So two of the Potomac members agreed to change their votes, and Hamilton undertook to carry the other point. In doing this the influence he had established over the Eastern members effected his side of the engagement, and so the Assumption was passed.”

Thus it was, that a good dinner and the sagacity of two able men healed a serious breach in the affairs of the Nation, and placed the capital city on the banks of the ” River of Swans,” as the Indians called the Potomac.

The selection of the permanent seat of the government of the United States, so bitterly opposed at the time, particularly by the members of Congress from New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and so ardently favored by the members from the Southern States, and by President Washington, has proved with the passage of years a most judicious one. Originally the boundaries of the Federal Territory were ” located, defined, and limited ” as follows: ” Be-ginning at Jones’ Point, being the upper cape of Hunting Creek, in Virginia, and at an angle in the outset of forty-five degrees west of the north, and running in a direct line ten miles for the first line; then beginning again at the same Jones’ Point, and running another direct line at a right angle with the first, across the Potomac, ten miles for the second line; then from the termination of the said first and second lines, running two other direct lines, of ten miles each, the one crossing the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, and the other the Potomac, and meeting each other in a point.” This territory was ten miles square, or one hundred square miles, and comprised sixty-four thou-sand acres of fertile lands situated between 38°, 48′ and 38° , 59′ north latitude.