Seat of Empire
A History of Washington
A History of Washington
Insecurity and Grandeur: 1841 to 1861
The Capitol in 1846 finally completed just as George Washington wanted it, but was that enough?
In a land dedicated to liberty, the capital had to brook some insecurity. But by 1841 lessons had been learned to minimize the cost of change. Despite the largest crowd yet flocking to see an inauguration, order reigned. At the Capitol there was a line of soldiers, "shoulder to shoulder" within the crowd, and having the hero of the day riding a white horse made it easier for many to sate their curiosity and leave without stampeding the White House.
Harrison's Inauguration at Capitol in 1841
Harrison had a long passage about the city in his two hour long address. He argued that after securing "a free and safe exercise" of federal government functions, Congress's laws for the citizens of Washington "should be adapted to their peculiar position and wants and be conformable with their deliberate opinions of their own interests."
Ergo, stop sending petitions to end the slave trade in Washington. Ardent local Whigs who supported Harrison hoped the passage promised much more. However, in his analysis Harrison missed the point of the capital which the insecurity of the next twenty years made quite clear. With no president serving two terms and Congress fractious to the point where the threat of physical violence became commonplace, the federal government needed a cover for its inadequacies and found it in a monstrous dome.
The wants of the City of Washington received scant Congressional attention, save when a crime spree threatened the purlieus of the boarding houses and hotels. Instead there was an eruption of symbols of national grandeur inspired, in part, by the growth of the nation through war at the expense of the Mexican Republic, whose public buildings in Mexico City dwarfed Washington's. With the Founders gone, a pygmy generation compensated. The two presidents most ridiculed today for their obscurity, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, made the crucial decisions in planning and building the Capitol as we know it today. The telling Congressional support for this grandest symbol of the Union came from politicians soon to secede from it.
Harrison bears no responsibility for this triumph of symbols over reality. He died of pneumonia after only a month in office. Vice President John Tyler, who like most vice presidents assumed he had nothing more to do but preside over meetings of the senate, came from his plantation in Virginia, and duly took office.
John Tyler: the first accidental president and first to be burnt in effigy
Harrison had ordered, at Clay's behest, a special session of Congress, and it convened in May. The Whigs abolished Van Buren's independent treasury system, and keeping the spirit of the presidential campaign alive, they paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate.
Then Tyler, a so-called states' rights Whig, vetoed the bill to create a new national bank. This was doubly cruel to local Whigs, because, to satisfy Constitutional scruples, the bank was to be in Washington where Congress had "exclusive jurisdiction." On the mid-August night after the veto, some Whigs engaged in "riotous and tumultuous behavior" outside the White House, burning the president in effigy. When the veto message was read, there was one hiss in the Senate gallery where a thousand sat.
There was no tradition of protest in Washington. The Founders made the federal district to get away from mobs. Yet in August 1842, deaf to cries that it was sowing seeds for a palace guard inimical to republican virtues, Congress created a 15 man auxiliary guard to enforce order and supplement the watchmen at the public buildings.
On September 11, after Tyler's second veto of a bank bill, all but one member of his cabinet resigned. The turmoil paralyzed the government, with only the necessity of making appropriations from the bare treasury forcing some cooperation. To raise revenues, the obstinate president swallowed his southern scruples and signed an upward revision of the tariff. But in the meantime all public building was put on hold.
Modest proposals for an insane asylum and repairs of Pennsylvania Avenue went nowhere. The macadam of Pennsylvania Avenue had been gouged away by water flooding down the gentle hill to its north, and banks of mud threatened it. But Congress ignored a proposal for a gravel center strip flanked by two parallel strips paved with small oval stones.
A western congressman wailed at money wasted on an ornamental mile of road when snags in the rivers "of the Mighty West - a national highway charged with the freight of an empire in extant," were not cleared.
Even the return of Zadock Pratt in 1843, fresh from supervising construction of a 224 foot single arch bridge to help serve his tanneries, couldn't ignite a building boom. The Speaker made him chairman of the House committee on public buildings, and Pratt set out to solve the acoustical problems of the House chamber with the help of the army topographical engineers. They came up with a $300,000 extension of the House wing to contain a new chamber, and room enough for the 57 standing committees of the House and Senate. The current configuration of the Capitol, for all its 60,000 square feet, could only accommodate 40. But for the moment Congress did nothing and Pratt left the standpat city, never to sit in Congress again.
However, even with government seemingly paralyzed, the city prospered. After the summer long 106 day special session, Congress sat for 269 days from December 6 to August 31, the longest session to date, besting the war sessions of 1798 and 1812. Of course, the short sessions still ended on March 3, but every other year congressmen and all who sought to influence them began to experience Washington's hot and humid summer, though not necessarily the whole ordeal. Most influence peddlers still adhered to republican niceties, and kept a distance.
In 1846 a senator described how that worked: "when a bill was introduced into Congress, Wall Street had notice of it, if necessary, in 15 hours, and in 15 hours more the cars brought a delegation from wall street to regulate the details of the bill." In 1846 the railroad station was at 2nd and Pennsylvania so lobbyist did have to get up Capitol Hill at its steepest point.
Drawing of view from train station with Capitol shimmering above
In 1851 the new train station was half way up the hill closer to the Capitol committee roomsl.
New train station at New Jersey and C NW
Lawyers were also on board the trains from New York. The Supreme Court, still meeting in the Capitol, decided in 1844 that while corporations were chartered by a state, by virtue of their having stockholders in other states, suits against them were federal cases. The court's case load tripled.
There were influence peddlers permanently on the scene. In offices near the hotels a growing tribe of resident agents learned how to work the system often by ignoring current controversial issues and milking old ones. Most of the bills passed by Congress were so-called private bills which rewarded claimants, often long after wars and other untoward events dealt them a cruel hand. Between 1834 and 1838 Congress paid out $1,581,776.88 in private claims.
Well connected Washington residents sought security in the insecurity of others. Deposed Postmaster General Amos Kendall became one of Washington's two dozen claims agents. Kendall learned about the business the hard way. One of his governmental decisions elicited a $120,000 claim by disgruntled contractors. To get Kendall's acquiescence they offered his wife a bribe, through Peggy Eaton, since back from Spain. Kendall, who had written John Eaton's defense of his wife, now decided she was guilty as charged. But she got a handsome commission when the contractors won their claim,
A Brady photo of Amos Kendall who came to city as a newspaperman and became very rich
This ethic of facilitating any cause for a fee even took the luster off idealism in the city. Mrs. Eaton tried to broker a $1,500 deal to buy a Florida slave's freedom. Even the underground railroad fueled the local economy. Thomas Smallwood, a local free black, claimed to have helped 400 slaves escape in 1842 and 1843. Northern idealists like Charles Torrey, editor of the Albany Patriot, funneled money to him to pay the sometimes exorbitant payments that men of both colors insisted on getting before they would help. That and the vigilance of the new auxiliary guard prompted Smallwood to move to Toronto, Canada, loath to return for "another contest with slaveholders, and treacherous colored persons, ...[in] that mock metropolis of freedom, and sink of iniquity."
Abolitionists were tolerated in the city since they paid their rent. When abolition activists came to help Adams battle the "gag rule," so many moved into Mrs. Sprigg's boarding house that it began to be called "Abolition House," and became the busiest on Capitol Hill. Mrs. Sprigg, a widow of a congressional clerk, got into the spirit of the name by replacing her hired slaves with free blacks, all this despite the owner of the house, Duff Green, being from South Carolina and a close associate of John C. Calhoun. One abolitionist preacher down to do research for congressional speeches found that while publicly accused of being a "fanatic," privately, slave holders were not unfriendly.
Also boosting the local economy was Tyler's decision to build his own political party. Not for nothing could visitors like Charles Dickens not get over the amount of tobacco juice spat onto White House carpets. More than the usual palaver took place between Tyler and his many visitors. Those left on the outside derided the process with the exaggeration characteristic of the time, "all the chips, shavings, and sweepings of office, down to the lowest clerkship, the posts of messengers and watchmen, were brought into market and bartered for support at the next election." That said, the administration newspaper lamented that even after Tyler's purge "out of six hundred clerks in the departments, scarcely fifty real Tyler men are to be found."
The dignity of the presidency did survive all this. More newspapers sent correspondents to Washington. Most learned the benefits of respecting the powers that be. Correspondent Benjamin Perley Poore wrote of this period in his 1886 memoir that he and his colleagues "were neither eavesdroppers nor interviewers, but gentlemen, who had a recognized position in society, which they never abused." As a young reporter Perley Poore learned the lesson of circumspection. In 1838 congressmen attacked him for rashly implicating some members in the theft of money from the House Sergeant-at-arms's office. Ever after he toed the line and as a reward, for a time, was a clerk for the Senate.
A few correspondents won higher offices. Fresh from theatrical failures in London, John Howard Payne wrote flattering articles about Tyler in the New York Herald. As a reward the lyricist of "Home, Sweet Home" was appointed consul to Tunis, where he died. (Such theatrical bachelors in the foreign service were prized for their ability to send back the latest fashions to politicians' wives.)
Tyler was also saved by Daniel Webster, Harrison's secretary of state, who was the one cabinet member not to resign. The unabashed Anglophile stayed on board long enough to negotiate a treaty with Lord Ashburton ending tensions along the border with Canada. Both gentlemen moved into houses on Lafayette Square just north of the White House. Married to a Philadelphia socialite, Ashburton knew how to entertain Americans, and the west side of town solidified its reputation as genteel, almost urbane.
Once a Philadelphia socialist, Lady Ashburton lit up the West side of town
The Frenchman Boulanger's restaurant just west of the War Department building on G Street, not the eateries at the foot of Capitol Hill, became the place to dine. However, Tyler, rather fond of light poetry, did not need these paragons of hospitality to compensate for any lack at his house. While his wife was terminally ill, his daughter-in-law, who had been a professional actress, hosted White House social functions. She honored the marriage of the Monroes' granddaughter by inviting the old Washington elite to dine, including Dolley Madison, now a 73 year old widow, who had moved to Washington. John Quincy Adams, who despised Tyler, enjoyed the "dancing in the now gorgeously furnished East Room, and an elegant supper."
Of course, the lesson of Van Buren's defeat was that high style in the White House could be bad politically. Tyler needed a new rallying cause for his new party and turned to the annexation of Texas, which the US, but not Mexico, recognized as an independent country. When Tyler began adding firepower to the navy, Adams whose family had been battling the anti-navy sentiments of Virginians for years, suspected Tyler wanted a stronger navy to ward off the British while extending slavery to California. And the navy was chomping at the bit. Captain Thomas Catesby ap Jones faced a court-martial for his premature invasion of Monterrey, California.
But it was action in Africa that alerted Tyler to the importance of the navy. He befriended Captain Robert Stockton, who had first gained fame by putting a pistol to the head of an African king and securing the independence of Liberia, the repository of the Colonization Society's free black colonists. He supported Adams in 1824, Jackson in 1828, and Harrison in 1840, and he got Tyler to let him develop a super cannon to protect American harbors. Another navy officer noted at the time that "a cruise of a few months in Washington tells more than a three year cruise at sea in an officer's favor."
In February 1844 Stockton dazzled Washington as he brought the Princeton, his new hybrid ship of sails and steam, up through the ice on the Potomac and then demonstrated the awesome might of the new "Peace Maker" that could hurl shot over two miles. To congressmen invited on board, Stockton capped the roar of the Peace Maker with his own histrionics, quoted by one of the newspaper correspondents on board: "It's nothing but honest gunpowder, gentlemen; It has the strong smell of the Declaration of Independence, but it's none the worse for that. That's the kind of music when negotiations fail." A few days later when he gave another demonstration, the gun exploded killing seven including the navy secretary and new secretary of state.
There was an immediate court of inquiry, but even the resident army ordinance experts absolved the navy of any blame. The other cannon on the Princeton, the "Oregon," a virtual twin but made in England, had proved reliable, and everyone knew that American iron was stronger than British iron.
The stunned city was reassured and soon horror gave way to gossip. After the explosion, Tyler, by that time a widower, comforted the daughter of one of the victims, twenty year old Julia Gardiner of New York, who proved to be the most successful practitioner of the Washington pastime of finding a powerful husband. She had rejected the proposals of a young navy officer, three congressmen and a 57 year old Supreme Court justice. Already interested in her, the tragedy cinched Tyler's decision and after a suitable interval of mourning he married her in New York and brought her to the White House, where in his last month in office, she strained to impress (with the help of a flattering New York Herald reporter) and her ball with 2,000 invited and 3,000 attending was said to be the greatest White House entertainment to date
Julia Gardiner Tyler.
Her eclat, Julia thought, helped a resolution acquiring Texas squeak through during the closing days of Congress, though the blessing of president-elect Polk who campaigned on the issue had much more to do with it. Stockton sailed in the Princeton to Galveston to notify the Texans.
The election of Polk sent shudders through the city's Whig elite. Though he had served in Congress off and on since 1825, and two terms as Speaker, he was the kind of Democrat who voted on principal against distributing wood to the city's poor during a brutally cold winter. And Clay, his opponent, was the darling of Washington. The newly invented telegraph, that Congress supported to the tune of $30,000 (Amos Kendall had invested in it), with a line running from the Capitol to Baltimore, kept the city in touch with the 1844 Democratic Party political convention held there. When word of Polk's nomination came to the crowd of almost a thousand mobbed around the marvel, someone yelled out "Three cheers for Clay!" The crowd roared. To the same call for Polk, a few boys cheered.
Morse's telegraph: an early form of Twitter
Well knowing all that had to be done in undeveloped parts of the union, like Washington, many Washingtonians opposed the annexation of Texas. In his first annual message Polk ended the almost annual tradition of the president recommending some improvement for the city, a national university was the most popular. He had no ideas and then the president who would go down in history as the Great Expansionist presided over the shrinking of the federal district.
In 1846, responding to the petitions of Alexandria merchants, Congress gave all of the District south of the Potomac back to Virginia. Virginian congressman Robert Hunter, a former Speaker who chaired the House District committee, muscled the retrocession bill through Congress. Not foreseeing the Pentagon, he argued that the Virginia portion of the District would never be needed to accommodate the federal government. Most congressmen, who were nagged every session with legislation for Alexandria - the legal code had still not been modernized, only saw it from Potomac steamers.
George Washington's step grandson, who reigned at the Custis Mansion in Arlington overlooking the city, dined with Polk, gave a long reminiscence of the Great Man, and probably could have stopped the desecration of Washington's vision, but he didn't.
Fearful of Virginia's more restrictive laws, leaders of Alexandria's 1,600 free blacks protested, but no one heeded them, nor the letter to the Intelligencer warning of guns on the heights Arlington trained on the White House.
In the midst of this urge to downsize and with a president content to ignore the city, Congress tried to figure out what to do with an Englishman's $515,169 estate willed to the United States government "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." John C. Calhoun thought the money should be returned since such an institution would enhance federal power. After six years of dickering, in 1846, a law was crafted by former president Adams to limit presidential involvement and congressional oversight. No money would be needed from Congress, since the law earmarked the $242,129 of accrued interest for a building for museum galleries, lecture halls and a laboratory, and a director and programs would be supported by the annual interest.
This allowed the politician appointed as regents, nine of the fifteen, to be paragons of culture and science. Four of the six public members came from four different states, and the two from Washington, who being permanent residents, were most important. Two graduates of the military academy were the local leaven for culture and science, and one of them, Gen. Joseph Totten, was the chief of army engineers. To visually separate the institution from suspicious western congressmen like Andrew Johnson who thought that the money better be dumped in the Potomac since only confusion was diffused from Washington, the regents had James Renwick of New York design a Gothic style "castle" that would not be mistaken for one of the government departments struggling behind neo-classical facades.
Smithsonian in 1863: neo-Gothic showing some towers to domes
Polk tolerated these developments though when Mayor Seaton convinced the regents to put the building at 10th Street along the Mall, instead of 14th Street where Polk wanted it, the president confided in his diary that the mayor wanted to benefit property owners near the central market on 7th Street. It was regrettable, Polk thought, "that any citizen of Washington" had anything to do with it.
Only one local embellishment excited Polk, an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845. Clark Mills, the man Jackson tapped to build the Treasury building, was given the commission. The city had learned to distrust the more famous American sculptors in Rome. In 1832 Congress had commissioned Horatio Greenough to immortalize Washington and ten year later he saddled them with a mass of stone depicting the hero in a toga.
Like the still unbuilt monument to Washington, the Jackson statue was to be financed by private donations but the organizers did not, as the Washington Monument Society did, limit donations to $1 raised by a nationwide army of canvassers who took a percentage. That society had collected enough money, $60,000, to begin then for two years Sen. Benton blocked the monument accusing the society of not accounting for all the money collected.
But to grow the city of magnificent distances needed more than two new monuments. Once again, it needed a war, and Polk would oblige. For many westerners like him the city was no more than the pivot upon which the wheel of expansion turned. Within six months of taking office, Polk explained to his cabinet his plans for the invasion of Mexico. A military expedition, for scientific exploration, headed for California in the late spring of 1845 under Col. John Freemont, the son-in-law of Sen Benton.
In October 1845, Stockton, who soon was as zealous for Polk as he had been for Tyler, set sail with orders to join the Pacific squadron and prepare for war, but not in the Princeton which went to the Gulf of Mexico. In May 1846 Polk was working on his war message when news came of a Mexican attack on Gen. Zachary Taylor's troops that Polk had ordered to control the disputed border with Texas. Polk got the news on Saturday evening, regretted having to work on the Sabbath, but had his message ready for Congress on Monday and the war resolution easily passed on Tuesday, May 11.
Here was a war in which congressmen did not inveigle to relieve their sons from glorious duty. They themselves wanted to be sent to the front, as officers, of course. Clay and Webster, who frowned on the war, both had sons among the 13,000 who didn't return. The only downside for Polk and the Democrats was that the leading American generals were Whigs. Commanding general Winfield Scott had a knack for entertaining key legislators in a gourmand fashion. Polk wanted Sen. Benton to conquer Mexico, but, entrenched in Washington since 1815, army officers knew how to win battles there. After securing his rear flank, Scott was soon "reveling in the Halls of the Montezumas."
The war profited the city more than just making it a hubbub for officer recruitment. Every twenty years the charter of the city came up for renewal in Congress, and in1840 many local residents organized meetings to press for wider suffrage in city elections. This struck a chord with Western congressmen, but then 550 current voters protested, asking that property qualifications be kept. Congress always used evidence of division in the District to postpone action.
Then came the war, and the democratic ideals that forever follow Americans to the front can resonate back home. In 1848 after victory in Mexico, the restricted franchise became less supportable and New England congressmen, including Horace Mann, even shamed Congress into providing free public schooling. The Whig elite did get Congress to tie school financing to a poll tax of one dollar, and they still lost office in the 1850 municipal election.
It was a somewhat hollow victory for democracy in the city because at the same time profits from the war created a class of wealthy men in Washington. They bought influence in Congress and became the real representatives of the city. The local banking house of Corcoran and Riggs handled the government war loans, and thanks to friends in the administration, Corcoran also got government money several months before it was actually needed to pay troops and contractors. He used the money for his private speculations.
Corcoran was the city's first genuinely wealthy man, on a par with those of Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Local bankers had grown accustomed to getting a rough reception when they needed help from congress. A Western congressman had mocked a president of one of the old chartered banks for "having a coach and four grey horses, with several liveried servants as outriders." Thanks to congressional investigations, he and his bank were known to be insolvent. The oldest bank in the area was still in Georgetown. Corcoran and Riggs had their bank in site of the White House. Corcoran bought the mansion Webster had used just off Lafayette Square. Corcoran hired James Renwick to change it from Federal style house to an Italian palazzo.
Corcoran Mansion: private wealth shows off a new style
Local wealth now settled on the west side of town. Kendall from the Jackson Era, over on the east side, was old fashion. By fronting one of the other broad avenues, Corcoran's house the elite to Connecticut Avenue heading gently up hill to the north and west pointing a way out from the modest houses spread on the slightly rising plane above Pennsylvania. Not that this was a crowded city neighborhood. The squares were huge and encompassed a shady garden-world, not the urban congestion of town house and tenements, but modest, definitely modest as the wealth of the nation increased generally to the benefit of those on the top.
The view from a roof at K and 12th NW
The tax base of the city expanded but the growing middle class never stirred the monumental soul of the city. Like Peter Van Ness before him, Corcoran knew that to build a great city, it wouldn't hurt to begin loaning money liberally to congressmen. In turned that loosened those often tight congressional pockets and federal largess boosted the city.
Benton relented, and on July 4, 1848, the cornerstone was laid for the Washington Monument, that quickly rose 100 of it projected 600 feet, and the Capitol suddenly seemed too small. When the Marines raised the flag over the Halls of Montezuma, Mexico's National Palace, they laid claim to a building with 675 frontage feet compared to the Capitol's 352. The huge cathedral across the square had a tower 204 feet high, almost 60 feet higher than the Capitol dome. A dispatch from an American correspondent described the situation: "The principal square is the pride of Mexicans and the admiration of travelers. It has an area of 12 acres - the whole paved with most beautiful marble.... But it's the public buildings after all, that form the distinguished characteristic of this majestic city. The Cathedral fills one whole side of the great square, the Palace another...."
Of course, the inadequacy of the capital wasn't the principal problem created by the war. The nation soon divided on the extension of slavery into the new territories and new state of California. And a daring exploit organized by abolitionists reminded the nation of slavery in Washington. In April 1848, during the night after a southern senator harangued a crowd in Lafayette Park, celebrating the another victory for Liberty, in Paris with the fall of King Louis Philippe, seventy-seven slaves almost escaped to freedom on a coasting sloop named the Pearl.
One of the black hackmen bringing slaves to the 7th Street wharf, a vacant mile away from the rest of the city, where the Pearl was the only ship tied up, told whites where to look when the slaves were reported missing in the morning.
Waterfront in 1839
A steamship from Georgetown caught up with the Pearl. The return of the slaves, and the three white men from Philadelphia who tried to sail them to freedom, led to rioting against local abolitionists. City leaders with the help of President Polk managed to prevent any lynch law, and save the offices of the city's only abolition newspaper, the National Era, from being leveled.
The abolitionists did score points in Congress. Sane people looked askance when Calhoun screamed that the whole South had been attacked. The nation saw that the true sufferers were the slaves on the Pearl who were sold to slave dealers to be retailed in the deeper south, not to mention the owner and captain of the Pearl who languished in prison despite an array of northern legal talent and a flamboyant slave owning local lawyer defending them.
So when Henry Clay came out of retirement to craft a compromise to end the debate over slavery and save the union, he added a halfway measure to calm concerns about slavery in Washington, a law to abolish the slave trade in the District. It was the least controversial compromise measure, and the last one passed. Even residents of the city cared little about it since under its provisions they could sell their own slaves.
The mayor assured Clay there was only one slave trader left in the city. Southern senators, with the support of many in the city, tried to tack on provisions strengthening the city's ability to exclude free blacks and better punish "slave stealers" like the owner and captain of the Pearl. They who were in jail only because they couldn't pay an archaic fine for transporting slaves, multiplied 77 times for each slave. If it wasn't for that provision in the old code still in force in the District, the prisoners would have to have been set free while waiting trial. Clay pleaded for the amendments to be put in another bill, and so impressive was the old man in his last compromise performance, that he got his way, and for the good of the future reputation of the city, the session ended before the bill further limiting the freedom of free blacks could be passed.
Democrats came and went but the city love Henry Clay
The compromise debate that riveted the city for nine months was the last dominated by the three great men of past, Calhoun, Clay and Webster, who easily stole the limelight with memorable speeches to crowded galleries. The living legends eclipsed the popular but politically naive new president, Zachary Taylor. However, out of their hearing, many lesser politicians wished the three Great Men gone.
Calhoun was considered a "madcap" even by some fellow southerners. Aging rapidly in his battle with tuberculosis, when not on the Senate floor he was nursed by one of his Southern colleagues at Hills boardinghouse.
Clay was widely feared as the Dictator in the Whig Party, and virtually every move he made from his rooms at the National Hotel was the stuff of gossip. Most important was his meeting with Webster, who agreed to work for a compromise.
Many in the north dismissed Webster as a voluptuary thoroughly corrupted by southerners and southern living that went beyond his legendary African cook Monica, with whom he often shopped at the central market on Pennsylvania Avenue near his Louisiana Avenue home. It was said he had a mulatto mistress that he kept in a house not far from his where she raised their eight children.
Webster the "voluptuary"
Before the summer ended Calhoun, as well as President Taylor, died. Webster became Millard Fillmore's secretary of state and Clay retired in exhaustion to Newport for three weeks to recuperate.
Young men like Sen. Stephen Douglas, Speaker Howell Cobb and banker Corcoran pushed the passage of the compromise measures that set off a day of celebration in Washington with all encouraged to get drunk. (Corcoran especially had cause to celebrate. His $400,000 payoff would be the largest buy out of Texas bonds, a crucial part of the compromise dealing.)
During the great debate all other business was on hold. After the compromise celebration bills passed in a confusion greater than the usual end-of-session rush. Without debate, and tucked into the general appropriations for running the government, Congress put up money to improve and beautify the city. Old shibboleths fell by the way side, as the government appropriated money to grade and pave two roads other than Pennsylvania Avenue, and improve the Mall.
Without debate, Jefferson Davis also sneaked in an appropriation of $100,000 to "extend" the Capitol under the direction of an architect appointed by the president. Back from the Mexican War Davis had more ideas to glorify the capital city, including a Spanish style paseo on the Mall where he could canter his horse.
Jefferson Davis in 1853 when he set out to remake the Capitol and Mall
He became a Smithsonian regent, making him the third West Point graduate on that board. And he brain-stormed with Corcoran, who proposed to build and give to the government stately houses for cabinet officers and their families to reside in. And not far from them a triumphal arch was to be the western gateway to an extensive and shady park on the Mall, designed by Andrew Jackson Downing whom Corcoran was patronizing.
A design for the Mall, not built
Downing died in a steamboat accident and the Mall project stalled, though shady walkways soon relieved the meadow near the Smithsonian. As for Corcoran's buildings, only a gallery to house his art collection, designed by Renwick was, in 1859, actually finished.
When Congress came back for the short session in December 1850, it sifted through the entries of a design competition for the new Capitol. Again there was no debate, though in a committee report Davis, who favored a design made by Mills, somewhat apologized for the huge new extension (that it would out distance the National Palace in Mexico City by almost a hundred feet remained unsaid,) since it eclipsed the "sacred" design that George Washington had approved.
When Congress adjourned in March 1851, Fillmore and his cabinet were left to pick a design, an architect and begin construction. They turned their back on Mills and chose Thomas Walter, a Whig. On July 4, 1851, the cornerstone was laid with much oratory about the new building as a symbol of Union. Walter was quick to make contracts for stone and recruit workers from all around the nation (no thought of using the pool of unemployed local free blacks). When the original $100,000 appropriation ran out, Congress finally got a chance to debate the expansion, but the project was unstoppable. Too many farflung district felt they had a stake in the game.
Still strong arguments were made that the present space could accommodate Congress's needs for another 50 years. (The House was loath to liberalize the ratio of population to representation, so the seats for 400 plus representatives planned for the new House chamber would not be filled until 1913.) It was "large enough for all Constitutional legislation, though [not] for the purpose of a grand consolidated empire." Referring to the proposed extension as an architectural atrocity akin to a Mexican hacienda, one senator amended a new $500,000 appropriation so that only $100,000 would be spent to restore the site, filling the huge hole that had been dug, and paying off the laborers recruited to come to the city.
Of course the government would never turn back A fire gutted the congressional library in the Capitol giving architect Walter the opportunity of setting the tone of the Capitol expansion by rebuilding the library with gilded iron, the Gold Rush was on. The stone outside of the new building housed seemingly endless rooms with golden ornaments.
Corridor in new Senate wing, done with fine Italian craftsmanship
Notice was served that much was to be made on this project and politics came in to play down to which $1.25 a day laborers were hired. Congressional investigations soon uncovered irregularities in contracts and reports reprimanded Walter, just when a new president, Franklin Pierce, moved into at White House mouthing the usual Democratic calls for frugality.
But to the chagrin of congressional economizers, Pierce made Jefferson Davis his secretary of war, and he promptly got Pierce to put the public buildings under his control. Then Davis put a man who could take and give orders, Col. Montgomery Meigs, over the architect Walter. In addition, Meigs supervised construction of an aqueduct to bring water from the Great Falls area along the Potomac, and expansion of the Treasury and Patent Office buildings which now also housed some offices of the new Department of Interior. With the discovery of gold in California, the "interior" was becoming more interesting to Americans.
An armory on the Mall for the militia where Mexican War trophies could be displayed was another Davis pet project. The old southern republicanism of John Randolph was long gone. It was Henry Wise of Virginia who justified expenditures on the Capitol because it was the "people's house." Perhaps this was in the minds of these southerners: to the degree that the grandeur of the federal city eclipsed the booming cities of the North, the South, by virtue of its dominance of Washington institutions, gained a measure of extra-Constitutional leverage over the North.
Col. Meigs was a model of efficiency as he handled millions and hired and fired hundreds of men while pulling down his military salary of $1500 and a few perks. Complaints about the military control of a civilian project gained no traction because the work progressed so rapidly thanks in no small measure to steam powered machinery. For the same reason the complaints of the new anti-immigration, Know-Nothing Party that too many foreigners were working as stone cutters got nowhere, though eventually Congress required a committee of American artists to advise on all decorations.
Less hired slaves were needed because machines did the heavy lifting
For a moment it seemed that Meigs suddenly fancying himself an architect would precipitate a work paralyzing crisis. He changed Walter's design so the new legislative chambers had no windows. Ventilation and lighting would depend entirely on new pumps and gas. The resident experts at the Smithsonian lectured unhappy congressmen about the advanced technologies. (Technology was promoted with a bit of showmanship as when the inventor Ericsson demonstrated his experimental new engine for navy ships by having both President Fillmore and President-elect Pierce riding up and down on the pistons.)
President Pierce was the final arbiter of all and Davis convinced him that Meigs's changes made a more glorious Capitol which would be a lasting legacy of his presidency. Walter still had congressional friends to raise a stink, but instead he trumped Meigs by designing a new dome, commensurate in size the expanded building, which Congress and President Pierce approved with little debate at the end of the short session of 1855.
The dome would be finished in eight years, when the Civil War raged. Because of his leadership of the rebellious states, Davis role in the creation of the new Capitol has been understated by recent historians even though his finger prints are all over it. Thanks to his urging, the new House chamber was occupied within nine months after he left the cabinet, December 1857. (He was one of the senators who moved into the new Senate chamber in 1859.) His ultimate touch as secretary of war has not been forgotten. He approved the sculptor Thomas Crawford's goddess-like capstone for the Capitol, but objected to his giving her the classical cap of a freed slave. She dons a helmet instead.
Then after seven years of working relatively well with each other, Meigs and Walter fell to quarreling. The exceptionally gaudy interior decorations approved by the former, plus senators regrets at not having a chamber with windows diminished Meigs's standing. Davis was replaced in the war department by a thoroughly corrupt Virginia politician, who saw Meigs as an obstacle to awarding contracts to cronies, and allowed Walter to reassert his control over the project.
As the Capitol grandly grew to the heavens, there were facts on the ground around it that molded its character more than all the vaunted stone. In 1855, to the surprise of congressmen when they returned for the long session, iron tracks crossed Pennsylvania at the foot of Capitol Hill to connect, with horse drawn cars, the northern and southern railroads, four trains a day. While state governments succumbed to the power of the new railroad corporations, congressmen seemed to take pleasure in being wooed and yet never deciding essential things like the route of the transcontinental railroad. And don't forget who would get the government contract to carry the mail from New York to San Francisco across the Isthmus of Panama or Nicaragua. Thanks to the exploits of a Southern favorite, William Walker who took over the latter county and made slavery legal there, it sounded almost like home. The battle over the mail contract to Europe brought rival yachts up the Potomac to entertain congressmen just off Greenleaf Point, including the "Vanderbilt." To no avail, the Commodore didn't get the contract. His son-in-law soon won a seat in congress.
In regards to iron rails in the District, they were required to act like a state legislature and when they didn't, the railroad lawyers treated them to a lesson on how to find loopholes. In the last days of the previous short session, Congress defeated a move to have tracks run along Pennsylvania Avenue. But these tracks crossed it and congressmen could only lamely protest that they were unsafe since new horse drawn omnibuses plying Pennsylvania Avenue, "every two minutes and a half," might have to cross the tracks. However, while the iron rails remained, the company that laid them failed anyway.
drawing of a DC omnibus
It took the city a while to fashion business leaders to take advantage of the city's unprecedented growth. Between 1840 and 1850 the population of the country increased by about 35%. The population of the City of Washington increased by 71% to 40,001, for the first time growing faster than nearby Baltimore which had a 69% increase to169,000 people. By 1860 Washington would add another 20,000 people. This was not enough growth to essentially change what most northerners perceived as the backward southern character of the city.
But an enterprising newcomer Gilbert Venderwerken started the omnibuses, and some sons of residents correctly gauged the future. Alexander Shepherd, destined to briefly rule the city as no other man had ever done, didn't go into his father's lumber business on the Island. He became one of the men laying pipes for lines of the Washington Gas Company founded by an ex-mayor, an Indiana congressman, a House clerk and a few Yankee transplants who could see the future.
Not that the city's infrastructure finally was properly addressed. The grandeur on the hill did not pull the rest of the city out of the growing swamps. Improving the Capitol grounds and a portion of the Mall was an afterthought, and the surrounding terrain struck many as increasingly unhealthy. Some even faulted the wide avenues and large sparsely built squares, which Jefferson had thought would assure a healthy city, for creating dust storms and such commodious receptacles of filth and garbage that no one thought of cleaning them up. The silting of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers also caused many to blame the emerging mud flats as the source of diseases.
However, in a city where drunkenness and end of session overwork were commonplace, it was hard to pin any death on nearby vapors. President Taylor's fatal stomach ailment was blamed on his eating too many cherries after overexposure in the hot sun during ceremonies at the Washington Monument, despite published warnings about overeating during a heat wave.
Society abandoned the dinner party for the lighter tea party. An outbreak of a stomach ailment at a pre-Inaugural meeting of Buchanan's cabinet at the National Hotel, where the drains were stopped up by a severe cold spell, almost dispatched the future administration. Proponents of the aqueduct from the Potomac at Great Falls 18 miles away, originally supported it as a better source of water to fight fires in the city, now they pointed to the mini-epidemic when they lobbied for funds, but the city still had most of its sewage draining into the under-utilized canal which served primarily to block easy access to the Mall.
The weakened and elderly Buchanan often took advantage of the Soldier's Home in the shady northeastern edge of city that had been financed by reparations extracted from the defeated Mexicans, spending evenings there when the heat and still air around the White House were unbearable.
Cottage at the Soldiers Home where President Buchanan escaped the unhealthy White House
However, the uncongested city escaped any major epidemics, save for a crime wave that was sweeping across much of the northeast. In 1857 Congress had to reorganize the city police since shootings seemed to occur nightly and burglaries with impunity. The mayor argued that not only did he not have enough men to patrol the vast distances of the city, but there were now alleys in many squares where the poor lived.
For the first time, crime in the city was not blamed on free blacks. Indeed, the growth in the free black population almost stabilized after 1850. With crime having a white face, some Republican congressmen wondered if the example set by some Democrats caused it. At the new Willard Hotel, an Alabama born, California congressmen, shot and killed the Irish headwaiter (the Willard only used white labor) for his insulting behavior. The congressman, Philemon Herbert, was acquitted. Herbert wiggled out of the charge of his being a bad example, by citing a notorious street fight between the editor of the new Washington Star newspaper and the Washington correspondent of the New York Times, both men were Republicans who had written attacks on Herbert.
The new Know-Nothing Party, a secret society of white vigilantes that had a couple dozen members in Congress, was blamed for an election day riot which required the mayor to ask President Buchanan to send Marines from the Navy Yard to stop the intimidation of supposed foreign and Catholic voters at a working class precinct north of city hall by "plug uglies" from Baltimore. The "raw recruits" were provoked into firing into a crowd gathered around an old cannon dragged to the polling place killing fourteen. The Marines clearly overreacted. Both officers on the scene denied giving the order to fire.
Know Nothing Party flag
But the city had a tradition of overreacting. Earlier when a notorious rabble rouser, who had effected his magic in cities across the north, came to address the grievances of Washington's dispossessed, he was greeted by the authorities and run out of town. The National Intelligencer absolved the administration of any blame for the deaths in the Know Nothing riot. As in all southern cities, to protect slavery authorities kept a lid on agitation, save, as the Pearl incident showed, when the mob was pro-slavery.
Southerners insisted that they dominated the city. "There was, on the part of the North," Mrs. Clay, an Alabama senator's wife wrote years later, "a palpable envy of the hold the South had retained so long upon the Federal City, whether in politics or society...." (W. W. Corcoran was pro-southern; Amos Kendall had been a Louisville newspaperman.) Though northern industry generated far more wealth than southern cotton, and northern congressmen were dismissed as venal men in the pay of northern industries finagling for protective tariffs.
Mrs. Clement Clay
"People [were] mad with rivalry and vanity," Mrs. Clay recalled ante-bellum entertaining. California's Sen. Gwin, who once represented Mississippi, spent money at the rate of $75,000 a year. Sen. Brown and Rep. Thompson, both from Mississippi, spent almost as much. Georgia Sen. Toombs's daughter bragged that her family spent $1,800 a month, or $21,000 for the session. The President's salary was still only $25,000 a year, which didn't prevent President Buchanan from presiding over glittering social occasions at the White House with his niece serving as hostess.
The new Republican Party had its own society with dinners and receptions hosted by wealthy politicians, including William Seward and another Adams, Charles Francis, who made money as a lawyer for the new railroads, but southerners ridiculed their gatherings as too serious about politics. To southerners the symbol of northern boorishness was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts whose speech on the battle between slave owners and free-soilers in Kansas sunk, in the eyes of his colleagues, to new lows in vituperation and invective.
One of its principal targets, Stephen Douglas, used the rumors of the town to ridicule the speech. Sumner "practiced every night before the glass with a Negro boy to hold a candle, and watch the gestures and annoying the boarders in the adjoining room until they were forced to quit the house." Passages of the speech had been previewed "in all the [Republican] saloons and places of amusement in the city." Although he represented Illinois, Douglas' wife had a large slave plantation in Mississippi. He had enough money to buy a house large enough for entertaining, the tried and true Washington way of starting a campaign for the presidency.
Rancor in debate heretofore had arisen from the heat of debate, not long rehearsed in a speech. The southern manners that attracted a westerner like Douglas had a violent side. A few days after the speech a South Carolina congressman caned Sumner as he sat in his Senate chair disabling him for over two years. Many in the city sympathized with his attacker.
Southern dominance did nothing for morality in the city, which, though never high, hit some new lows. Inspired by a coterie of southern congressmen who cashed in with some notorious claims arising from Georgia's and Texas's storied past, in 1851 a local dentist concocted a fraudulent claim for losses in Mexico, only to put a bullet through his head after he was tried and convicted. The more humdrum claims on the government were pressed in ways that now seem exotic. Edward Pendleton, the Virginia born gentleman who ran the city's premiere gambling casino, the Palace of Fortune, on Pennsylvania Avenue, became, until his death in 1858, the city's premiere claims agent.
There was also class of women above street walkers, who while fulfilling congressmen's needs would press the claims of others, for a fee. Not that congressmen were all conquering. In an 1848 letter to his wife, Rep. Abraham Lincoln wrote about the amusement to be had watching a colleague try to manage his mulatto mistress in public after a band concert on the Capitol grounds.
Julia Tyler was shocked at the number of men from New York that she saw on Pennsylvania Avenue in arm with women who were not their wives. The affairs of the outsiders could be laughed at, but scandals touching local church goers provided the highest degree of titillation. In 1859 Rep. Sickles of New York murdered Philip Key, a local attorney, for his affair with his wife. The lurid admissions of Mrs. Sickle's on the stand shocked the community. "Filth filth" Mrs. Jefferson Davis reported to her husband, and also that her neighbor, a widow, joked that she could have easily done the same but would have never told. A jury acquitted Sickles, to the cheers of the community.
Politics conspired to make the local community beholding to those in power. The pay of bureaucrats was kept low. In 1853 Congress gave the thousand or so government clerks in Washington a slight raise to $900 for trainees, and three grades of clerks at $1200, $1500 and $1800 with six head clerks getting $2,200. Along with this pittance came a requirement for all clerks to be examined for their competence. Not that passing the exam conferred security. Rotation in all offices, including Washington clerks, became the norm even when the Democrat Buchanan succeeded the Democrat Pierce. It became the custom to send clerks back to their home states when their votes were needed for close elections, and in 1860 a House committee uncovered the extent to which clerks' pay was dunned for party purposes.
There were still a number of professional men in the city who could have developed an independent voice, but those in the city not directly dependent on the political parties neutered themselves in what they considered their complete neutrality. "As in all places where many strangers congregate," one proud local lectured, "there is a peculiar degree of independence of feelings and habits. The citizens unconnected with Government become so accustomed to see the scenes of political strife acted over during each succeeding administration, that they have mostly acquired the habit of regarding them with comparative indifference; they are consequently peculiarly free from sectional prejudices."
But slavery remained. In 1859 at the climax of Meigs's battle with Walter for control of the Capitol expansion, Meigs's clerk confessed to a $2,400 deficiency in his account. To save his clerk's reputation and his own from attacks in newspapers allied with Walter, Meigs rushed home to Pennsylvania to borrow money from his father to cover the short fall. Then the clerk came up with another expedient placing Meigs in a moral dilemma that he didn't relish. The clerk, from an old Georgetown family, sold his house slaves, separating a family, to raise the money. Monuments trumped morality.
Meigs was careful to have his name stamped on much of the stone used for the new aqueduct, and pressed on though there were no provision yet to distribute the water. Just as the grandeur of Mexico City in part inspired the Capitol expansion, so other great works that actually built a city became the inspiration for projects in Washington to build a reputation. Meigs toured Central Park in New York, where 3,000 men worked creating a 700 acre park. He soon began thinking of a capital city of parks even before the war that would provide a legion of generals whose statues could fill them, and well before there would be people to use them.
Facing a bottom line local businessmen tried to profitably fill current needs. Even a scion of two old southern families, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, used capital raised from his being part owner of the Willard Hotel to start the Metropolitan Railroad. That revived the issue of rails in the city. Metropolitan asked Congress for the exclusive right to lay iron for horse drawn cars on Pennsylvania Avenue and other streets. They would be quieter than Vanderwerken's omnibuses clattering over the macadam.
But thanks to Congress, business in the city was not easy. A group tied to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that held exclusive rights to run a railroad to the city objected and rallied its many friends in Congress. Even so humdrum affair as grading the streets could wind up in the court of congressional opinion as when Captain Wilkes of the navy objected to a street suddenly being 25 feet below the door of his house.
Corcoran remained the local model for the rise to wealth and influence. Only after cashing in on national connections did he become rich enough to be the local philanthropist supporting schools, charities, cemeteries, the arts and congressmen. And the art of creating national connections was on the verge of becoming a much bigger business. The Jackson days of fighting monopoly were over and while industry and commerce flourished outside the capital, setbacks like the Panic of 1857 aside, the imprimatur, if not the reality, of national market power could be won in Washington.The American Pharmaceutical Association, formed to market safe and effective drugs, asked for a charter.
By 1859 the ex-bureaucrat claims agents, lady lobbyists and gamblers who let congressmen win only to extract a favor later were eclipsed by men like "Uncle Sam" Ward, a New York banker's son soon to be known as the King of the Lobby, who began his round of constant, discreet entertaining, supported by the businesses and foreign governments that paid his bills and then some.
Meanwhile the division of the Democratic party on sectional lines assured the election of a Republican president with just 39% of the popular vote. The representatives of the six "cotton" states left the city, convinced that all the good people in Washington knew they were right to secede and regretted their going. As he ordered 650 troops to the city, the commanding general of the army, Winfield Scott, principally feared that southern sympathizers would drift into the city and that half of the Washington militia might support them.
Others thought the attack would be home grown, made by a newly formed "National Volunteers" organized by Democrats to counterattack a feared Republican assault on private property. Instead the volunteers burned down the Republican party headquarters in the city.
Columns began going up at Capitol expansion just as Jeff Davis left town
Like most of his predecessors Lincoln moved into a Washington hotel, the Willard in this case, to organize his administration. Tensions in the city eased when politicians tried to effect the old compromise magic for which the city was famous. When Congress remained stalemated hopes were placed on a national "Peace Conference" of 132 delegates from 21 of the 33 states who convened at the Willard Hotel. Unfortunately there was no Washington to chair the conference. It fell to John Tyler.
Clay's successor, Sen. John Crittenden, set himself up as peace maker and proposed amendments to the Constitution which made explicit the right of southerners to own slaves and travel with them even into lands acquired in the future. The Buchanan administration was then conniving to purchase Cuba as a future slave state. The conference endorsed Crittenden's amendments, and sent them to Congress with the fanfare of a one hundred gun salute arranged by General Scott. There was a flood of petitions from the north urging compromises to save the union, but Republicans in Congress refused to tie the hands of the incoming administration. The short session ended when Lincoln was sworn in.
In France, a revolution in 1848 could be played out in the streets of Paris. But Paris represented France. The streets of America's capital remained peaceful as the union divided. The country had a representative government operating in a city that represented nothing but subservience to the whims of its governors. A city, that in sixty years had only become a pale reflection of the country for which it served as the capital, momentarily lost the very union it was meant to symbolize and cement.
Then the capital's empty expanses filled up again as twenty thousand people thronged the city for Lincoln's Inaugural. As it had more or less done with every new president since 1801, the National Intelligencer marveled that the Inauguration was "in some respects the most brilliant and imposing pageant ever witnessed in this Capital."