Washington DC – A Capital Made To Order

WITH the possible exception of Petrograd, Washington is the only one of the world’s great capitals that was deliberately created for its purpose. Look for the origin of London, Paris, Berlin, or Rome, and you find it enveloped in a cloud of myth and fable, from which, it appears, the city emerged and took its place in history because certain evolutionary forces had made it the nucleus of a nation and hence the natural seat of government. Not so the capital of the United States. Here the Government was already established and seeking a habitation ; and, since no existing city offered one that seemed generally satisfactory, a new city was made to order, so that from the outset it could be shaped as its tenant-master deemed best.

The creative force at work in this instance found its outlet through a dinner. Of the ready-made cities which had competed for the honor of housing the Government, New York and Philadelphia were regarded by the Southern members of Congress as too far north both geographically and in sentiment, while the Northern members were equally unwilling to go far south in view of the difficulties of travel. Another sectional controversy broke out over the question whether the Federal Government, since it owed its birth to the War for Independence, were not in honor bound to assume the debts incurred by the several States in prosecuting that war. The North, as the more serious sufferer, demanded that it should, but the South insisted that every State should bear its own burden. In the midst of the discussion, Thomas Jefferson, who happened to be in a position to act as mediator, invited a few leaders of both factions to meet at his table ; there, under the influence of savory viands and a bottle of port apiece, they arranged a compromise, whereby the Southern members were to vote for the assumption of the debts, in exchange for Northern votes for a southern site. The program went through Congress by a small majority, and the site chosen was a tract about ten miles square on both banks of the Potomac River, the land on the upper shore being ceded by Maryland and that on the lower by Virginia. The Virginia part was given back in 1846.

As far as we know, the first map of this region was drawn by Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame and published in 1620 in his “Sixth Voyage to that Part of Virginia now Planted by English Colonies, whom God increase and preserve” ; and the picturesque river which runs through it was described by him as the “Patawomeke, navigable 140 miles, and fed with many sweet rivers and springs which fall from the bordering hills. The river exceedth with aboundance of fish.”

When the Commissioners appointed by President Washington took it over as a federal district, they changed its Indian name, Connogochegue, to the Territory of Columbia ; and the city which they laid out in it was by universal acclaim called Washington, regardless of the modest protests of the statesman thus honored. Georgetown, which is now a part of Washington, was then a pretty, well-to-do, little Maryland town about a hundred years old, and Alexandria, Virginia, included in the southern end of the District as then bounded, was a shipping port of some consequence. All the rest of the tract was forest and farm land. The President felt a lively personal interest in the whole neighborhood. His estate, Mount Vernon, lay only a short boat-ride down the Potomac ; and he had been instrumental in starting a project for the canal now known as the Chesapeake and Ohio,connecting Georgetown with a bit of farming country west of it, and had planned one from Alexandria which should form part of the same system. During his activities on the Maryland side of the river, he made his headquarters in a little stone house in Georgetown which is still standing.

It took time and diplomacy to induce some of the local landholders to part with their acres to the Commissioners. There is an old story, good enough to be true, of one David Burns, a canny Scot, who held out so long that President Washington personally undertook his conversion. After pointing out to the farmer what advantages he would reap from having the Government for a neighbor, the great man concluded :

“But for this opportunity, Mr. Burns, you might have died a poor tobacco-planter.”

“Aye, mon,” snapped Burns, “an’ had ye no married the widder Custis, wi’ all her nagurs, ye’d ha’ been a land surveyor the noo, an’ a mighty poor ane at that !”

However, when he learned that, unless he accepted the liberal terms offered him, his land would be condemned and seized at an appraisal probably much lower, Burns met the President in quite another mood, and to the final question, “Well, sir, what have you concluded to do ?” astonished every one by his prompt response : “Whate’er your excellency wad ha’ me.” On one of his fields now stands the White House, and an adjacent lot became Lafayette Square. By the sale of property adjoining that which the Government bought, he amassed what for those days was an enormous fortune. It is within our generation that his cottage was torn down for the improvement of the neighborhood from which we enter Potomac Park. Although a poor building in its old age, in its prime it had sheltered many eminent men. Among them was Tom Moore, the Irish poet, who was under its roof when he wrote his diatribe against —

” This fam’d metropolis where Fancy sees Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees; Which second-sighted seers, ev’n now, adorn With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn.”

Little as we may relish such satire, we are bound to admit its modicum of truthfulness, for the brave souls who founded Washington were given to the grandiloquent habit of their day. They had called to their aid Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French military engineer who had served in the patriot army of the Revolution, and who cherished brilliant dreams of the future of his adopted country. To him they had committed the preparation of a plan for the federal city, and he had laid it out on the lines, not of an administrative center for a handful of newly enfranchised colonies, but of a capital for a republic of fifty States with five hundred million population. As he had lived in Versailles, he is supposed to have taken that town as a general model in his arrangement of streets and avenues, which some one has likened to “a wheel laid on a gridiron.”

Of course, it was the business of the Commissioners to advertise the attractions of the federal city as effectively as possible, to promote its early settlement ; so perhaps we may forgive their taking a good deal for granted, and permitting real estate speculation to go practically unchecked. Congress for several years ignored their appeals for an appropriation for the development of the city, and in the interval their chief dependence for the funds necessary to spend for high-ways and buildings was on the sale of lots, and on grants or loans obtained from neighboring States. The most sightly hill was set apart for the Capitol, and a beautiful bit of rising ground, overlooking a bend in the river, for the President’s House. The two buildings had their corner-stones laid with much ceremony, but progress on them was slow. Nevertheless, their sites, as well as the spaces reserved in L’Enfant’s plan for parks, fountains, and statuary, were always treated by the speculators, in correspondence with prospective customers, as if the improvements designed eventually to crown them were already installed. The outside public manifested no undue eagerness to buy, and the auction sales of lots proved very disappointing. Then a lottery was organized, with tickets at seven dollars apiece, and for a first prize “a superb hotel” with baths and other comforts, worth fifty thousand dollars ; but that, too, fell short of expectations, all the desirable prizes going to persons who felt no concern for the city’s future, and the hotel, though started, never being finished. It was a pretty discouraging prospect, therefore, which confronted the officers of the Government when, on May 16, 1800, President John Adams issued his order for their removal from their cozy quarters in old Philadelphia to what seemed to them, by contrast, like a camp in the wilderness.

The six Cabinet members, with their one hundred and thirty-two subordinates, made the journey over-land at various dates during the summer, and in October the archives followed. These filled about a dozen large boxes, which, with the office furniture, were brought down by sea in a packet-boat and landed on a wharf at the mouth of Tiber Creek, a tributary of the Potomac which then ran through the city but was later converted into a sewer. All Washington, numbering perhaps three thousand persons, turned out to greet the vessel; and amid cheers, ringing of bells, and blasts from an antique cannon brought forth for the occasion, its precious contents were carried ashore. “The Department buildings” to which they were consigned were a wonderful assortment. The Treasury was a two-story brick house at the southeast corner of the President’s grounds, the War Office a still unfinished replica of it at the southwest corner. The Post-office Department found shelter in a private house in which only half the floors were laid and four rooms plastered ; while the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Attorney-general had to direct their affairs from their lodgings. All these temporary accommodations were sought as near as possible to the President’s House. Congress had striven, for its greater ease of access, to have the Departments quartered near the Capitol ; but Washington had set his face resolutely against every such proposal, citing the experience of his own secretaries, who had been so pestered with needless visits from Senators and Representatives that some of them “had been obliged to go home and deny themselves, in order to transact current business.” Which shows that one modern nuisance has a fairly ancient precedent.

Members of both houses of Congress came straggling in all through the first three weeks of November, to find most of the best rooms in the two or three hotels and the little cluster of boarding-houses already occupied by the executive functionaries and their families. President Adams, who had preceded them by a few weeks, was not much better off even in the official abode reserved for him, if we may call his wife as a witness.

“The house is on a grand and superb scale,” she wrote to her daughter, “requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house, and stables. The lighting the apartments, from the kitchen to the parlor and chambers, is a tax indeed ; and the fires we are obliged to keep, to secure us from daily agues, is another very cheering comfort. Bells are wholly wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. I could content myself almost anywhere three months ; but surrounded by forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to cut and cart it ! There is not a single apartment finished. We have not the least fence or yard, or other convenience without ; and the great unfinished audience-room I make a drying-room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter. The ladies are impatient for a drawing-room; I have no looking-glasses but dwarfs for this house, not a twentieth part lamps enough to light it.”

Mrs. Adams’s consolatory reflection that she would have to endure these conditions only three months, was probably shared by many of the thirty-two Senators and one hundred and five Representatives who, on the high hill to the east, shivered and shook and passed unflattering criticisms on everybody who had had a hand in the construction of the Capitol. Only the old north wing was in condition for use, and not all of that. The Senate met in what is now the Supreme Court chamber ; the House took its chances wherever there was room, ending its travels in an uncomfortable box of a hall commonly styled “the oven.” Most of the members had made some study of the L’Enfant chart before coming to Washington. One of them put into writing his impressions as he looked about and tried to identify the public improvements he had been led to expect. None of the streets was recognizable, ‘he said, with the possible exception of a road having two buildings on each side of it, which was called New Jersey Avenue. The “magnificent Pennsylvania Avenue,” connecting the Capitol with the President’s House, was for nearly the entire distance a deep morass covered with wild bushes, through which a passage had been hewn. The roads in every direction were muddy and unimproved. The only attempt at a sidewalk had been made with chips of stone left from building the Capitol, and this was little used because the sharp edges cut the walker’s shoes in dry weather, and in wet weather covered them with white mortar. Another member declared that there was nothing in sight in Washington but scrub oak, and that, since there was “only one good tavern within a day’s march,” many members had to live in Georgetown and drive to and from the daily sessions of Congress in a rickety coach. And a particularly disgusted critic, not content with recording that “there are but few houses in any place, and most of them are small, miserable huts,” added : “The people are poor, and, as far as I can judge, live like fishes, by eating each other.”

Newspapers in all parts of the country echoed these depressing reports, accompanying them with demands that the Government move again, this time to some already well-populated and civilized region. Indeed, of several resolutions to that end introduced in Congress, one was actually carried to a vote and barely escaped passage. It may have been this accumulation of discouraging elements which caused the delay in the arrival of the Supreme Court from Philadelphia ; or it may have been the paucity of business before that tribunal, whose first Chief Justice, John jay, had resigned his commission to become Governor of New York, because he had come to the conclusion that the Court could not command sufficient support in the country at large to enforce its decisions ! Whatever the reason, the Justices did not find their way to Washington till well on in the winter, or open their work there till February. They were assigned the room in the basement of the Capitol now occupied by the Supreme Court library.

Even when the first acute discomforts incident to removal had passed away, the general depression was little relieved. Most of the earlier citizens of Washington had entertained hopes of its becoming a commercial as well as a political center of importance. They reasoned that since Alexandria and Georgetown had already built up some trade with the outside world, Washington, much more eligibly situated than either, ought to attract a correspondingly larger measure of profitable business. But all these bright anticipations were doomed to disappointment : the progress of the city was as inconsiderable as if its feet had become mired in one of its own marshes. The Mall, which on L’Enfant’s map appeared as a boulevard fringed with fine public buildings, soon degenerated into a common for pasturing cows. There was good fishing above the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue from Sixth Street to Thirteenth. Wild ducks found a favorite haunt where the Center Market now stands. The whole place wore an air of suspended vitality in striking contrast with the generous face of nature. “I am,” wrote a visiting New Yorker to his wife, “almost enchanted with it I mean the situation for a city, for there is nothing here yet constituting one. As to houses, there are very few, and those very scattering ; and as to streets, there are none, except you would call common roads streets. The site, however, for a city, is the most delightful that can be imagined far beyond my expectation.

“I took a hack after dinner to visit Nath’l Maxwell, and although he lives near the center of the great city, yet such was the state of the roads that I considered my life in danger. The distance on straight lines does not exceed half a mile, but I had to ride up and down very steep hills, with frightful gullies on almost every side.” And the simplicity of life at the capital then is reflected in his statement that after finishing his letters one night he was afraid to go out to post them lest he lose his way in the dark, though he knew that the mail would close at five in the morning. “After I had got comfortably into bed,” he continued, “a watchman came past my window bawling out, `Past one o’clock, and a very stormy night,’ on which I sprang out of bed and called to him to take my letters to the post-office, which he consented to do. I accordingly wrapped them in a sheet of paper to protect them from the wet, and threw them out of the chamber window to him.”

The declaration of war against Great Britain in June, 1812, for which the country at large held President Madison chiefly responsible, and which reduced considerably such measure of popularity as he still retained, did not produce much effect on the pulses of the stagnant city. The first hostilities occurred in the north and on the sea ; and, although the enemy threatened Washington for more than a year, Madison and most of his advisers regarded an attack as highly improbable. When, however, it became known in 1814 that a large body of Wellington’s veterans were setting sail from England, under convoy of a powerful fleet, for the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, every one suddenly awoke to the impending peril. It was then too late. Thanks to the misjudgment of General Arm-strong, Secretary of War, or General Winder, who was in charge of military affairs in the District, midsummer found the enemy in Maryland, but the city still without an efficient defensive force, or ammunition or provisions to equip one properly. Hurried efforts brought together a first line of thirty-one hundred men, all raw recruits except six hundred sailors and a couple of hundred soldiers. A second line, almost equal in number, was formed, mostly of militia, and disposed for use as a home guard. At Bladensburg, Maryland, five miles north of Washington, the decisive battle occurred on the twenty-fourth of August, from which the seamen led by Captain Joshua Barney were the only contingent that emerged with extraordinary credit ; but they did so well that a grateful community has not yet raised a monument to them or their leader. The battlefield was close enough to the old George Washington tavern, of which Mr. Hornby gives us an intimate glimpse, for the occupants to hear the rattle of musketry and see the cannon-smoke from the upper windows.

The outcome of the fight was that the British commanders, General Ross and Admiral Cockburn, with six thousand men, drove the Americans back and swept down upon the city, spreading ruin in their track. Ross had his horse killed under him by a shot from a private house he was passing and kept more in the background thereafter, but Cockburn was active in the work of devastation. Tradition describes him as mounting the Speaker’s dais in the Hall of Representatives, calling a burlesque session of Congress to order, and putting the question “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned ? All in favor will say, `Aye’ !” There was a roar of “Ayes” from the men, who at once set going a mammoth bonfire of written records and volumes from the library of Congress, and soon the whole Capitol was wrapped in flames. Thence the party proceeded to the other public buildings, burning whatever was recognizable as the property of the Government. Their progress was nearly everywhere unopposed, the clerks in charge having gathered Up such books and papers as they could carry away, and transported them to the most convenient hiding-places.

The first break in this program occurred at the Patent Office, which was under the superintendency of Doctor William Thornton, himself of English birth. A neighbor having warned him at his home that his office was in danger, he mounted his horse and galloped to the spot, where he arrived just in time to see a squad of soldiers training a field-piece upon the building. Leaping from the saddle and dramatically covering the muzzle of the gun with his body, he re-minded the artillerists that the inventions they purposed destroying were monuments of human progress which belonged to the whole civilized world, and denounced such vandalism as a disgrace to the British uniform. His boldness had its effect, and the Patent Office was spared. Another check came, in the form of an accident of poetic justice, at Greenleaf’s Point, the present site of the Army War College. This place had been used as an arsenal by the defenders of the city, who, before deserting it, had secreted all their surplus gunpowder in a dry well in the midst of the grounds. A body of British troops undertook to destroy the American cannon they found there by firing one gun directly into another, when a fragment of burning wadding was blown into the well, causing an explosion that killed twelve and wounded more than thirty of the party.

President Madison, who had been at Bladensburg personally superintending the placing of our troops, hastened southward when the rout began, and took refuge among the hills of northern Virginia. There he was presently joined by his wife, and both remained in seclusion till they received word that the British had marched away. This message was preceded by the news that the President’s House had been burned, with all its contents except a few portable articles which could be gathered and put out of harm’s reach at an hour’s notice. The property destroyed with absolute wantonness in various parts of the city aggregated in value between two and three million dollars a heavy loss for a government which was just managing to stagger along with its legitimate burdens, and in a capital that could barely be kept from collapse under the most favoring conditions. It is not wonderful that the British press was almost a unit in condemning Cockburn’s vandalism, the London Statesman saying : “Willingly would we throw a veil of oblivion over the transactions at Washington ; the Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the capital of America !” And the Annual Register: “The extent of the devastation practised by the victors brought a heavy censure upon the British character, not only in America, but on the Continent of Europe.” The restoration of the President’s House alone, including the repainting of its outside surface to remove the scars of the fire, consumed four years, in the course of which President Madison made way for his successor, Monroe, and the building had fastened to it,. from its freshened color, the title it has worn in popular speech from that day to this.

It was a sorry-looking Washington to which the Madisons came back. Blackened ruins were everywhere ; placards posted here and there denounced the President as the author of the city’s misfortunes ; mournful streams of women, children, old men, and shamefaced stragglers from the defensive force, trickled in from the woods in the suburban country where they had been hiding since the battle ; the streets were strewn with the wreckage of a cyclone which had swept the valley almost simultaneously with the hostile troops, unroofing houses, uprooting trees, demolishing chimneys, and generally supplementing the disasters of warfare. Indeed, almost the only potentiality of evil that had not come to pass was an uprising of the slaves, which had been widely feared, as some of the restless spirits among them had been overheard counseling their fellows to join the British in looting the city and then make a break for freedom. The Madisons, after a brief visit with friends, rented the Octagon house at the corner of New York Avenue and Eighteenth Street, now the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects. It was here that President Madison signed the treaty of Ghent, binding Great Britain and the United States to a peace which has remained for a whole century unbroken. Here, too, Dolly Madison held her republican court, the most famous since Martha Washington’s in New York, and far eclipsing that in splendor.

To provide a meeting place for Congress till the Capitol could be occupied once more, a building which stood at the corner of F and Seventh Streets was made over for the purpose. It proved so uncomfortable, however, as to revive with increased zest the discussion whether, in view of the spread of population through the newly opened West, it would not be wiser to remove the seat of government to some fairly accessible point in that part of the country. The agitation alarmed the more important property owners in Washington, who, in order to head it off before it had gone too far, hastily organized a company to put up a temporary but better equipped substitute for the Capitol. They chose a site a few hundred yards to the eastward of the burned edifice, and there built a long house which is still standing, though now divided into dwellings. The stratagem accomplished its aim, and Congress stayed in its improvised domicile till 1819. This occupancy gave the building the title, “the Old Capitol,” that clings to it today in spite of the changes it has undergone in the interval.

Washington was early supplied with a good general newspaper in the National Intelligencer, and the social side of life presently found a weekly interpreter in The Huntress, edited by Mrs. Ann Royall, whose personality was so aggressive that John Quincy Adams described her as going about “like a viragoerrant in enchanted armor.” She said so much, also, in disparagement of some of her neighbors, that she was indicted by the grand jury as a common scold and threatened with a ducking in accordance with an old English law in force in the District. But the disseminators of information to whose coming the citizens looked forward more eagerly than to any printed sheet, were two men who made their rounds daily on horseback among the homes of the well-to-do. One was the postman, delivering the mails that came in by stagecoach from the outer world; the other was the barber, who, like an endless-chain letter, picked up the latest gossip at every house he visited, and left in exchange all the items he had picked up at previous stopping-places.

During the next generation Washington saw, it is safe to say, more of the ups and downs of fortune than any other American city. The reasons were manifold. For one thing, the larger part of its population consisted of persons whose permanent ties were elsewhere. As federal officeholders they were residents of Washington, but they retained their citizenship in the places from which they had been drawn. Under the Constitution, moreover, Congress exercised supreme authority in the District of Columbia, and every member of Congress had the interests of his home constituency more at heart than those of the people who were his neighbors for only a few months at a time. Nevertheless, the population of the capital, which, when it rose from its ashes, numbered between eight and nine thousand, more than doubled within the next twenty years. Then came ten years of great uncertainty, during which occurred the overwhelming business panic of 1837, that set awry nearly everything in America, and for this period the increase averaged only about five hundred souls annually. But another twenty years of forward movement brought the total up to a little more than sixty thousand.

In the meantime many things had happened, calculated to attract public attention generally to Washington. President Monroe had proclaimed his famous doctrine, warning Europe to keep its hands off this hemisphere. President Jackson had made his fight upon the United States Bank and won it, changing the whole financial outlook of the country. The Capitol had been enlarged, and several new Government buildings started ; the Smithsonian Institution had begun to make its mark in the scientific world, and the Washington Monument had risen nearly two hundred feet into the air. The long-threatened war with Mexico had come and gone, adding a rich area to our public domain. Steamships had crowded sailing vessels off the highways of commerce and become the main dependence of the Yankee navy. The Baltimore and Ohio Railway, the first successful experiment in its field, had brought what we now call the Middle West, with its grain and minerals, to within a day’s journey of the capital, and this pioneer enterprise had been followed by the opening of other rail facilities. The Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act had been passed, slavery had been abolished in the District of Columbia, the Underground Railroad had begun to haul its daily consignment of runaway negroes across the Canada border, the Supreme Court had rendered the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown had led his raid in the mountain country scarcely fifty miles from where the Court was sitting. Letter postage, anywhere east of the Mississippi River, had come down to a three-cent unit. The first telegraph message had been transmitted over a wire connecting Baltimore with Washington, and out of this small beginning had presently been developed a network of electric communication covering all our more thickly populated territory; while experimenters with a submarine line had effected an exchange of messages between England and the United States which proved the practicability of their enterprise. Last but not least, royalty had smiled upon us in the person of the Prince of Wales, who had passed some days as the guest of President Buchanan at the White House.

Had Washington been situated elsewhere than on the border line between two sections, neither of which felt any pride in its success, or had it been governed by executives whose records were to be made or marred by the faithfulness with which they turned every opportunity to account for its welfare and reputation, we should probably have seen the capital beginning then its career as the model city of the new world. Instead, the dependence of its people, at every stage, on the favor of what was practically an alien governing body, bore natural fruit in a feeble community spirit.

By 1860 Washington had reached the middle of its Slough of Despond. Not a street was paved except for a patch here and there, and Pennsylvania Avenue was the only one lighted after nightfall. Pigs roamed through the less pretentious highways as freely as dogs. There was not a sewer anywhere, a shallow, uncovered stream carrying off the common refuse to the Potomac, which was held in its channel only by raw earthen bluffs. Wells and springs furnished aft the water, and the police and fire departments were those of a village. The open squares, intended for beauty spots, were densely overgrown with weeds. Except for an omnibus line to Georgetown, not a public conveyance was running. Such permanent Department buildings as had been started, though ambitious in design and suggesting by their outlines a desire for something better than had yet been accomplished, had not reached a habitable state. The Capitol was in disorder, and still overrun with workmen who had been employed in constructing the new wings and were preparing to raise the dome ; the White House had scarcely a fitter look, with its environment of stables and shambling fences and its unkempt grounds.

Nor was there any prospect of speedy improvement in municipal conditions. Every considerable stride in that direction would mean largely increased taxation, and the bulk of the taxable property had drifted into the hands of unprogressive whites and ignorant negroes, who were equally unwilling to pay the price. Upon this seemingly hopeless chaos descended the cloud of civil war.

It was a black cloud, but it had a sunlit lining.