Washington DC – The City Of George Washington

The city of George the Great! And why should he not be known as George the Great! Familiarly to all Americans come such names as Napoleon the Great, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Louis the Great, and Peter the Great.

The leader in a republic is under a marked disadvantage, for his time is limited, his rule is for a few years only, where as, a monarch may have many years of rule and opportunity. Louis the Fourteenth had over seventy years of kingship in which to win in history the undisputed title of “great,” but the great Washington was head of the army for only eight years and gladly gave up the post; he was President for another eight years and, again, gladly retired. His con-temporary, Frederick the Great, became king when Washington was but a boy of eight and continued to rule until three years after the completion of our Revolutionary War.

Another contemporary of Washington was Peter the Great, and he ruled arbitrarily for a quarter of a century and was formally given by what was known as the Russian Senate the title of “the Great” and remarkably, the Washington-like title of “Father of his Country.”

Both Peter the Great and George Washington founded a city, a capital city, and in each case the city was named after its founder—the City of Washington and the City of St. Petersburg. Peter laid the foundation stone of his St. Petersburg and Washington the foundation stone that marked the beginning of the city of Washington, in the course of the same century! Each was an event of the seventeen hundreds. It is one of those facts on which the imagination loves to linger.

While winning his right to be classed among the great ones of the world, Washington won also loving admiration : he won distinction, honor, even veneration, in measure quite unapproached by any other of the great or the near-great or the little.

The very nation that he had fought, and from which he had wrested the Thirteen Colonies, led in doing him honor. Every Englishman of character and standing grieved when the news arrived of his death. And for example, a fleet of sixty anchored ships of war, at once set its flags at half-mast. When, a quarter of a century later, England was again at war with us, and a British fleet, under orders to attack and burn the cities of Washington and Baltimore, sailed past Mount Vernon, every ship put its flag at half-mast and the flagship solemnly tolled its bell.

Washington, at the time of his death, was holding himself in readiness, at the desire of President Adams and the Senate, to assume active command of our forces as soon as the then fully expected war with France should begin : but when the news of his death reached the French, their leader, Napoleon, then First Consul, ordered that for ten days all the standards of the troops should be draped with crepe, and in issuing this order the mighty Frenchman told his armies of the greatness of Washington and of his leadership for freedom.

When “Tom” Moore was in America, in 1804, his vanity was touched by not receiving more adulation than he did, and his foreign prejudices made him incapable of recognizing possibilities in the new city. He even searched for wasp-like phrases to use in belittling the mighty leader, and then gave up the effort as he burst into unwilling enthusiasm :

“Nor yet the patriot of one land alone For thine’s a name all nations claim their own. And every shore, where breathed the good and brave, Echoed the plaudits thy own country gave.”

Before settling down to build the City of Washington, for its home, our Government had been peregrinative, perambulatory, peripatetic. It had exercised its functions not only at New York and Philadelphia, but at York, Baltimore, Annapolis, and Lancaster.

A settled home was required for the national housekeeping; and after a great deal of discussion, representative of a great deal of rivalry, a balancing of conflicting prejudices and interests, it was decided, carrying into effect Constitutional pro-vision, that the seat of Government should be a piece of territory, not more than ten miles square, situated somewhere on the Potomac River, taken part from Maryland and part from Virginia, between certain defined points—namely, between the mouth of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac and that of the Conocheague (now what an unknown name!)—and George Washington was given the power to decide upon the precise locality. Literally, three men, of whom he was the chief, were to be the deciders, but in practice it resolved itself into a matter for Washington alone, for the other two promptly slipped out of sight. And he declared in favor of a territory which included the present site of the city, with also the already existent towns of Georgetown (now within the city limits) and Alexandria. Half a century afterwards, the portion which included Alexandria was given back to Virginia, leaving a territory of something over sixty square miles of land and ten of water instead of the original one hundred. Or, if one would be particular to the point of absolute correctness, he may take it that the total area, of land and water, is now sixty-nine and one-quarter square miles.

Washington fixed upon the location of the capital city. The choice was made out of a wide local knowledge, with such promptitude that the decision was announced within three days after the passage of the enabling act. The new city, the ‘Federal City he termed it, was at once laid out and its construction begun.

And in one particular the city was most curiously planned, for it was in a sense planned as two cities : one, with ancient houses, some of them still standing, leading to the southeast and to the ferrying point across the Potomac, that connected with Alexandria : the other town beginning with the White House, and connecting at once, past old-looking houses, with ancient Georgetown.

So it came about that the oldest homes in Washington are in two widely separated groups. The two separate communities, one dominated by the Capitol, the other by the White House, were to be connected by boulevards and gardens, which were to be lined by public buildings.

And it is keenly to be regretted that, until the present day, the nobly picturesque planning was but slightly carried into effect.

But it should not be forgotten that Washington had to decide according to the standards of commerce, of shipping possibilities, of problems of municipal growth, of communication with the interior of the States, and the north and south communication; and, always, that he was held to the best that he could do between the Potomac Branch, more frequently known as the Anacostia, and the long-forgotten Conocheague. And it may be that in the last four letters of this stream’s name there were many who recognized something ominous for the new city.

With Georgetown and Alexandria both of them flourishing towns within the limits of the District, it assuredly seemed as if no better locality could be chosen for the new capital city.

Busy as Washington was with the multifarious duties of his position as President; the Constitution having but newly gone into effect, with its entirely new form of government; and with a myriad of problems confronting him as to home affairs and our disturbed relations with Europe; he still found time to devote close attention to the new city; knowing that the formation of the capital, its actual beginning, its holding a place on the map and in the public eye, would have a great effect in stabilizing public opinion. He did not attempt to plan the new city unassisted. Always ready to assume complete responsibility, and always ready to make decisions, he at the same time had none of the vanity which would prevent his seeking advice. He knew intimately New York, Philadelphia and Boston, but not the cities of Europe. He talked the matter over with Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson, remarkable man that he was, discussed fully and freely the plans and the buildings of numerous cities abroad. For Jefferson had not only closely observed what he saw on the other side of the ocean but had made voluminous notes.

An assistant was necessary and Washington chose a Frenchman, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Trained as an engineer, in France, he had come over with Lafayette. He had soon attracted the attention of Washington, had ably designed the construction of fortifications, and had been made chief of engineers. After the war he had remained in this country, designing and altering various buildings, principally for the Government.

L’Enfant threw himself into the new work with intense absorption. He saw in it, opportunity. And he promptly produced a plan for the city.

On the main street of Georgetown there still stands a little stone building which was used as an office, for the work of planning, by Washington, Jefferson, L’Enfant and others. There the matured plan of Jefferson, that of a checker-board city, was discussed and there it was rejected in favor of the plan of L ‘Enf ant. His plan is still the plan of the city.

The criss-crossing of numerous avenues at unexpected tangents, with numberless odd junctions and breaks and unexpectednesses, just as the streets and avenues are still seen, were all in the plan of L ‘Enfant: and even the combination of numbered streets in one direction and lettered streets in the other, with the State-named avenues running at the queerest of angles, was his. But of course there were then only thirteen of them. A witty compatriot said of L’Enfant, that he was well named; that he was in-deed an “Enfant,” for he was “practising his A, B, C and his 1, 2, 3.”

L’Enfant visualized a fine city. His map, showing what he planned, has been preserved and is in the Congressional Library. The mile-long stretch between the two city centers, was to be a mile of beauty. A curious feature was to be a series of large mansions for foreign ministers, and another curious part of the general plan was to have a great national religious temple, to represent all sects, stand where the Patent Office was afterwards built. The pro-posed grouping of public buildings along the mile of planned beauty, was to be added to by artistic memorials, and bordered by beautiful mansions with gar-dens and sloping lawns. This at first empty space explains the woods so often ignorantly jeered at by early writers and travelers : for there was no haste in clearing away the woods even if they could at once have been made to disappear. A monument to President Washington was planned, to be set at right angles to a line drawn southward from the center of the White House, and to stand precisely on the axis. By all this vision splendid Washington and L’Enfant were on their way attended. They dreamt of the most beautiful city in the world. An odd feature suggested by the Frenchman, was rows of shops, facing upon arcaded sidewalks : an effect attained in some of the old European cities.

America was a young nation and far from rich. With amazing bravery, considering her indebtedness and her lack of resources, her newness in handling large sums, the Capitol was begun and also the White House; and the street plan was carried into effect; but it was impossible to go on instantly with other public buildings : and before the matter could again be taken in hand, the region between White House and Capitol had largely been occupied by unbeautiful and undesirable structures. Private speculation had been allowed too free a hand.

It was unfortunate, too, that Washington and L’Enfant could not work long together. L’Enfant saw his plan beginning to fail of complete con-summation. A perverse man, he took a high hand with such men as opposed him. When a house was placed by a private builder where it would interfere with the general plan, L’Enfant ordered it torn down. Finding his stand opposed he withdrew with-in himself, and refused to let his plans be shown or known. Unfortunately, his irritation extended to Washington himself. And Washington, immensely busy as he was, had no time to spend on artistic travail. To him, Major L’Enfant was an officer who was insubordinate. And the Frenchman’s connection with the city planning ceased after a year of enthusiastic work.

The blow crushed L ‘Enfant. He could not advantageously return to France, for France was in the fierce stress of her own Revolutionary changes. He stayed on in America, from time to time making claims on Congress, and lived more than a quarter of a century beyond the death of Washington. And he lived in proud and lonely wretchedness. Corcoran, he of the Art Gallery—so closely connected are the first days of the city of Washington and the practically present time—has told of how he used to see L’Enfant, wearing “a long green coat buttoned up to his throat, a bell-crowned hat: moody and lonely.”

He always bore in his hands a roll of papers, ready to appear, if summoned before a Congressional committee: and he carried a silver-headed hickory cane. That keen-sighted English architect, Latrobe, wrote of him in 1806, with one phrase in particular, of tremendous vividity : “Daily through the city stalks the picture of famine, L’Enfant and his dog.” How the dog adds to the grimness of the picture ! And how one thinks of man and dog creeping off into the darkness! And how curiously is this story of the bitter closing years of L’Enfant like the story of the bitter closing years of that other Frenchman also condemned by Washington, Pierre Landais, who stalked in poverty about the streets of New York, carrying the roll of papers which represented his claim against the American Government.

The body of L’Enfant long lay in obscurity, where, in obscurity, it was buried, but it was taken up a few years ago, and placed in an honorable position in honored Arlington.

Had it been possible for Washington and L’Enfant to keep constantly within personal touch, the situation would probably have developed differently. But Washington, with the tremendous demands of the new Presidency, was most of the time in New York and Philadelphia in the early nineties: it will be remembered that the Government did not take possession of the Federal City until the administration of Adams.

We find L’Enfant writing to Washington: “From this height, every tower and building would rear with a majestic aspect over all the country round, and might advantageously be seen from twenty miles off, and facing on the grandest prospect to the Potowmack.”

L’Enfant could not understand needful economy. He it was who drew such expensive plans for the Philadelphia home of Robert Morris that the mighty financier was ruined. And similar unchecked lavishness would have ruined the finances of the United States.

In spite of his genius L’Enfant was impracticable. Washington was a genius who aimed at practical results. It was no time for nursing grievances but to do the best one could. Washington put in another engineer and the work went on. For the building of the Federal City could not be stopped. The name of the city was changed to Washington as soon as it began to be used as the Capital.

Rigid as Washington was in exacting results from others, he was equally rigid with himself. Ile never relaxed from standards of duty. Yet, with this, he possessed wealth of sympathy and affection. From the time of his marriage until his death he wore upon his breast, suspended, out of sight, by a gold chain, a miniature of his wife. And John Quincy Adams left on record that at a dinner when his mother, Mrs. John Adams, was present, Washington took out all the sugar-plums from a cake and gave them to Mrs. Adams to take home to her son, little John. Yet Washington was capable, on rare occasions, of fierce and blazing anger.

George Washington was indifferent .to his ancestry. He liked to say that he was an American, of English descent; to him, that represented the best of combinations. Doubtless he knew, for he knew his Clarendon, that the most famous of the English Washingtons had particularly distinguished himself on the side of the King against Parliament in the preceding century, and he deemed it not necessary, in the face of American conditions, to bring up comparisons.

First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen : then none more fitting to map and plan and decide upon the outlines of the capital city.

One thinks of him, riding about this city in the making; leaving that little stone house over in Georgetown and going slowly, on horseback, toward the site of the White House and the Capitol: perhaps, sometimes, in the sporting costume whose description has come down to us: blue coat, scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, top boots, velvet cap, whip with one thong. Or he may have ridden about sedately, in plain drab clothes, a broad-brimmed white hat, and with a long-handled umbrella attached to his saddle-bow to keep off the heat of the sun.

In the center of one of the many circles of the city, on Pennsylvania Avenue at the junction of New Hampshine, is an equestrian statue of Washington: and in relation to it there came to Bret Harte a grim conception. For Bret Harte, describing in swinging lines the Grand Review that marked the close of the Civil War, wrote:

“Two hundred thousand men in blue, I think they said was the number, Till I seemed to hear their trampling feet, The bugle blast and the drum’s quick beat, The clatter of hoofs in the stony street, The cheers of people who came to greet.”

Whereupon he goes on to a dream vision of the night hours following the review. He imagines him-self standing at the front of the Capitol.

“Then I held my breath with fear and dread; For into the square, with a brazen tread, There rode a figure whose stately head, O’erlooked the review that morning, That never bowed from its firm-set seat When the living column passed its feet, Yet now rode steadily up the street To the phantom bugle’s warning:

“Till it reached the Capitol square, and wheeled, And there in the moonlight stood revealed A well-known form that in State and field Had led our patriot sires.” Whereupon

“And I saw a phantom army come, With never a sound of fife or drum, But keeping time to a throbbing hum, Of wailing and lamentation.”

And Washington reviews, for hour after hour, the dead soldiers of the Civil War: a strange weird fancy.

Washington made a point of not buying in the new city for speculation, but he bought two “squares,” very difficult now to pick out, a little to the west of the Capitol, between North Capitol Street and New Jersey Avenue. Square 634 cost nine hundred and sixty-three dollars, and with the buildings, three stories high of brick, fifteen thousand dollars. He also bought lots five, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, on the “Eastern Branch,” and his own estimate of their value was twelve cents the square foot. He also bought three so-called water-lots on the “East-ern Branch,” in square 667, containing 34,438 square feet.

It would have been bad form to speculate in lots of a city which he himself laid out, so he bought only enough, for a rich man like himself, for a small, but encouraging investment. To have done otherwise would have been bad form, and Washington was never guilty of that.

That he was a surveyor of skill from the time that he was merely a youth, was the factor which more than any other made him capable of superintending the laying out of a city. He had, recently, at Mount Vernon, laid out approaches and grounds that are still recognized as models of the art of landscaping.

His beginning as a surveyor was for Lord Fair-fax: not the Fairfax who was his pleasant neighbor down the Potomac, but the head of the house, an older man, the Lord Fairfax who banished himself, long before the Revolution, to the Shenandoah region, where he owned and laid out many thousands of acres.

When the Revolutionary War came old Lord Fair-fax was immensely disturbed, so tradition locally tells, and he could not get over the fact that George Washington was the American leader. One day there came to him sounds of great excitement, and it was with reluctance that his body-servant told him, in answer to imperative demands, that Cornwallis was taken.

“And it is my George Washington!” he murmured; he turned his face to the wall; “It’s time for me to die.”