Thursday, January 19, 2017

Seat of Empire: Insecurity and Grandeur 1841 to 1861


Seat of Empire
A History of Washington
chapter four 

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.

1853 plan for Pennsylvania Avenue

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 being hired as 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.

"Madcap" Calhoun


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.

 Col. Meigs

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 around the Northern Liberty Market 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

Mayor Barrett immediately hired a 100 man police force to save the city from any more invasions from Baltimore. 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. Congress picked up half the tab for the new police. 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 antebellum 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, Senator 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, just north of the Capitol, 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."

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Seat of Empire: Rises, Burns, Rises Again 1801-1820

The Seat of Empire
chapter two
The City Rises, Burns, and Rises Again: 1801-1820

 
An 1802 map of the hugely vacant city and the Mall was far from a reality

Thomas Jefferson had been privy to planning the city from the beginning, even encouraging L'Enfant to take as much land as possible from the proprietors for the government's use. He promised to send him prints of the fronts of elegant buildings he had seen in Europe. But when he resigned as Washington's secretary of state at the end of 1793, relieving himself of any official responsibility for the capital, he distanced himself from the grandiose projects on the Potomac. He became the head of the Republican party (which became the Democratic party by Jackson's time) and became the best friend of small farmers, not urban designers and land speculators.

As President, Jefferson dedicated himself to counteracting the monarchical tendencies of the so-called Friends of Government, the Federalists. He disliked their treating Washington as a king. He made sure there would be no celebration of "Jefferson's Birthday." He kept the date of his birthday secret.

Just before leaving the capital, President John Adams informed Jefferson that he was leaving behind "in the stables of the United States seven Horses and two Carriages with Harness the Property of the United States. These may not be suitable for you: but they will certainly save you a considerable Expence as they belong to the studd of the Presidents Household." Jefferson saw no need for a Presidential Studd. He sold it and his trappings. He disposed of courtiers too. He told Secretary of State Madison not to deliver commissions to the justices of the peace that Adams appointed in his final days in office. 

In Jefferson's Inaugural address the new federal city went without mention, save for those "fellow citizens... here assembled." He had no interest in assembling them again. He had no Inaugural ball nor, for the next eight years, any weekly public levees as they were called, to which the tone flocked to be "received" by the president. 

He confined his regular entertaining to small stag dinners of congressmen and showed off his plain manners and French chef (you can't give up everything just to be closer to the people!) He did receive all visitors to what, to his chagrin, too many people called "the Palace." And he suffered with good humor when a Baptist preacher came all the way from Vermont and presented him with a 1,600 pound "Mammoth cheese," a symbol of American bounty and religious freedom. Jefferson put the cheese in a room next to his office and invited all comers to take a bite. In 1805 Jefferson wrote to his daughter that there were "fewer ladies than I have ever known" in the city for the season. He had only himself to blame.

What passed for style with Jefferson worked. With the death of George Washington, Jefferson was the most famous man in America and he proved that to be regarded as a Sage wore as well as being hailed as the Hero. His Republican party ruled Washington virtually uncontested for over 20 years. But when his successors entered office without Jefferson's stature, they perceived the need for at least a pecking order. In 1815, a wit wrote: "Did you ever see a basket of crabs, lifted up body and soul, by taking hold of the top one? Just so it is here - take hold of the President, and you raise the whole city, one hanging at the tail of the other in a regular gradation of dependence." So much for Jefferson's efforts to defeat the creation of a capital of courtiers.

As for the city around the "Palace," Jefferson tried to foster a capital that was decidedly low key -- the home of an economical, pay-off-the-debt government but without the direct taxes Federalist's passed to build up the military. To be sure, if the revenue from tariffs was large enough the government should finish the Capitol, which in 1801 had  only one of three planned sections completed. And Jefferson, a bit of an architect himself, had ideas. Plus that's where the people's representatives met. But after perfecting the Capitol as an embodiment of Classical ideals matching the glories of, shall we say, Republican Rome, little more should be done for the city.

But the same political principles that dictated that federal government do little for the city, could require that the city do much for the federal government. To save money Jefferson decided to mothball the nation's small fleet of warships in the capital city. He asked the nation's foremost architect, Benjamin Latrobe, to come down from Philadelphia and design a system of canals and dry docks under open pavilions just northeast of the Capitol. The navy would do nothing and captains could go on half-pay. Captain Tingey at the Navy Yard, who commanded there for 29 years, and Lt. Col. Burrow at the Marine barracks were enough. (He died in 1805.)

Jefferson gave the highest priority to the dry dock project. He wrote to Latrobe on November 2, 1802: "...we have little more than 4 weeks to the meeting of the legislature, and there will then be but 2 weeks for them to consider and decide before the day arrives (Jan. 1) at which alone any number of laborers can be hired here." (Masters preferred to hire out their slaves by the year in January.) Two things thwarted his plans: a naval war with Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean Sea and congress did not take the proposal at all seriously.

Jefferson was the first president to understand that the District of Columbia exists solely for the convenience of the federal government. Jefferson saw to it that the Navy Yard still grew, as he made it the place where frigates returning from the Barbary War would be repaired and re-outfitted far from blue water but under the nose of the cost conscious government, a very modest foreshadowing of the military-industrial complex.But it couldn't get out of hand. Jefferson's Navy secretary Robert Smith lived on nearby Capitol Hill, but so did his frugal Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin. (The latter chaffed a marines being barracked on Capitol Hill especially one of them bayoneted "a mechanic" during an 1802 Fourth of July celebration.)
 
 Navy Yard in 1862, no one thought of making a view of the most dynamic area in the city prior to 1862, but it began growing in 1800


After Jefferson's March 4 Inauguration almost all the congressmen who had gathered just four months before left as the bi-annual short-session ended. The city had until the first week of December to improve living conditions for them, and, thanks to the census of 1800, there would be forty more congressmen to accommodate. 

Eleven more boarding house materialized in Washington City, six more in Georgetown. Jefferson's supporters made much of Adams's long absences from the seat of government, and local boosters hoped that meant Jefferson would linger in the capital after Congress left. He did better than Adams who only stayed in the capital when congress was in session, but declaring that it was unsafe to be on tidewater during the months of July and August (a lesson brought home to him during the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic,) Jefferson went home to Virginia for July, August and a bit of September. His Secretary of State James Madison went home, too, not convinced by his landlord William Thornton that his F Street home near the President's house was always healthy. (Thornton had a farm out in Chevy Chase where he raised racehorses so he, his wife and mother-in-law did get a breath of fresher air.)

With the President and Secretary of State gone, foreign diplomats moved temporarily to Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York. A tradition was born: when congress was not in session, the city was extremely dull, despite Marine band concerts on the lawn of the President's house. But the bureaucrats and the Carroll family remained in town. The bureaucrats had work to do. The prominent slave holding Carrolls were simply inured to the heat. Bishop John Carroll, head of the Catholic church in America, left Baltimore (which also had yellow fever now and then) to spend August with his sister Mrs. Notley Young who had big house on the hill in southwest Washington overlooking the tidal back and forth of the Potomac.

The editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, William Duane, veteran of many political battles and a civic minded, Irish bred (but Protestant), prod of some repute, opened a book store and printing shop on Pennsylvania Avenue. He had survived the 1798 epidemic in Philadelphia. He was not about to let the weather keep him from doing what had to be done. He waited for a go ahead to move his pro-Republican Aurora newspaper from the old capital to the new. Meanwhile he tried to shape the new administration in other ways. Duane had the goods on every bureaucrat who moved down from Philadelphia, e.g. the clerk Stephen Pleasanton is a "nothingarian." Such gossip fell on deaf ears in the new capital. Pleasanton remained in bureaucracy for years. His wife was very pleasant.

Jefferson didn't want the Aurora to move to the new capital. Instead he had the young and untested Samuel Harrison Smith move down from Philadelphia to edit a new newspaper, the National Intelligencer. he put the presses in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue next to what was to be the Central Market midway between the two great public buildings. His wife Margaret looked askance at the unhealthy low ground. Smith assured her that his office on the second floor was high, dry and healthy. They rented a house on Capitol Hill to live in, and soon bought a farm house, Turkey Thicket, in the hills northeast of the city.They renamed the farm Sydney. Margaret would become Washington's first novelist.

The first page of every early 19th century newspaper had box after box of advertisements. The most unforgettable ad in the Intelligencer was for the "Central Intelligence Agency" near the Capitol where a chap would advise newcomers on finding housing. To be sure, new shops opened, but as furnishing a new house, for another decade people went to Alexandria or Baltimore. Because of all the bankruptcies arising from Federal city investments, Georgetown was getting a bit rundown.

The Intelligencer survived on paid federal government announcements. In return, it boosted the Jeffersonian agenda,except on local issues. Put yourself in the Smiths' bed.  Thomas Law, the English gadabout who gained Mogul status in India, had been the only man in town with money and acted like he still was. He barged in on the Smiths while they were still in bed: poems for the wife, and new civic improvements for the editor to push.

When congressmen returned in December, the city finally showed some life. Don't worry about the year. It happened every December. In 1801, Jefferson had an idea to put a damper on that. He calculated that since congressmen were paid by the day, a shorter session saved money. He even told Republicans not to prolong debate by answering every Federalist charge against his administration. But the stonewall, washed by hours of Federalist eloquence, soon broke. 

In those early years, Congress was rather exciting. Some congressmen brought their wives who did not want to miss the show. The young nation was obsessed with politics, and speeches were prime entertainments. The editor of the Intelligencer transcribed and published them so they could be reprinted and read throughout the nation. James Bayard, for example, spoke six hours over two days against Jefferson's attempt to scale back the nation's federal courts. 

Answering Bayard was the Republican floor leader John Randolph of Roanoke, only 29 years old but a must hear speaker with wit, invective and a very high voice.  He was a curiosity to see as he came to and from his lodgings in Georgetown, slender, boyish and bristling with punctilio, always accompanied by his horse, slave, dog and whip.

33 year old House leader, John Randolph

In addition, highly prized orators could be heard arguing before the Supreme Court in February, which met for three weeks in a small room in the Capitol. Jefferson tried to limit its term but succeeded only in making its short term the height of the social season in Washington; days of oratory and argument were followed by nights of partying.

The Capitol became the place to be, a building that many wanted to touch, and take a penknife to, scratching on names, obscenities, and libels. Even though it was unfinished, it worked. One estimate had "annually four to five hundred persons whom their affairs bring to seat of government" taking shelter in the Capitol "during the severity of the winter." There were refreshments to buy, even, some say, companions for hire. 

On Sunday, divine services were held there since the city had no churches, and the occasion became a great show of fashion and curiosity especially when a latter day Jeremiah took the podium. One predicted that "your temples and your palaces... will be burned to the ground," because by delivering mail on Sunday, the government did not properly observe the Commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.

Because of the Capitol, the city, rude and rustic though it may be, became a spotlight. Jerome Bonaparte, came to the United States in 1803, was smitten by Elizabeth Patterson, a belle in Baltimore, married her (later annulled by arrangement of his brother Napoleon) and brought her to Washington, where she dazzled all with the near nudity of her dresses. Tongues wagged. 



Residents banking on the non-Jeffersonian dream of a grand capital strained to prolong the social glee and extend it to other parts of the city. Horse breeders ex-commissioner Thornton and Tayloe, who built the Octagon house, sponsored the Washington Jockey Club Races when congressmen arrived. The Capitol Hill dancing assembly began in December; Georgetown's in January. (The same crowd went to both.)

Judging from the letters many congressmen wrote home, what they thought they lacked in Washington was any semblance of a real city, like Philadelphia and New York. Most resigned themselves to a rutted life from boarding house to Capitol and back again. Locals tried to make them perambulate past all the real estate. It seemed obvious to locals, but to nobody else, that the city's main selling point were all the vacant lots.

To force a change of heart Benjamin Stoddert begged congressmen to invest in Washington real estate. But by 1802 the consensus formed among those congressmen who dabbled in land speculation that Washington real estate was not to be touched, except through matrimony. 

Rep. John Van Ness of New York won the highly sought hand of Marcia, the daughter of original proprietor David Burnes who died in 1799. Since Burnes' son died, Marcia inherited control of many of the lots surrounding the President's house.

Marcia Burnes: most desirable match in the city

Still, Van Ness was usually short of ready cash and didn't start building his mansion on the lots where the original Burnes' cottage and farm stood south of the White House until 1815. The War of 1812 came none too soon to raise property values. 

Washington was the only city where to conduct a modicum of business you had to go over a mile. To check on a constituent's business with the Treasury meant an expensive ride in a hack or a long hike.

The first Treasury Building

One had to cross Tiber Creek on a small bridge, avoid the low ground of lower Pennsylvania Avenue and go up to the  F Street ridge, follow that until it ran into Pennsylvania Avenue, and continue up a sight hill to the small building on the other side of the Palace, a chore even by hack. That said, some like congressman Manasseh Cutler from Massachusetts and British embassy attache Augustus Foster were dazzled by the nature, from shooting canvas back ducks in the marsh south of the Central Market to botanizing in the lush hills north of F Street.

 The view west from the bottom of Capitol Hill in 1803
Blodget's Hotel not quite finished

Most of Pennsylvania Avenue was avoided because that low ground began to deteriorate rapidly as the F Street ridge was settled and no provision was made for drainage. To say the least, the Plan needed fine tuning. The Planner didn't seem to notice. L'Enfant moved back to the city slept at Rhodes Tavern on Pennsylvania and 14th Street. Nobody noticed him either, much to his chagrin. With his dog at his side, he haunted the halls of the Capitol by day. The government owed him $37,500 in royalties for his plan, plus $50,000 for "enterprise," and $8,000 for "labor." In 1808, L'Enfant settled for $4,600.

Here was a city that needed a mayor. Thanks to the Constitution, congress had to decide how to govern it. They first investigated and uncovered how woefully the locals, who like Law and Thornton were constantly besieging them outlandish schemes, had mismanaged the project. On May 1, 1802, Congress replaced the three commissioners. It put a superintendent, in charge of the public buildings, though appropriating no money for any more building. It made selling lots to pay off all the loans required to finish the public buildings the new superintendent's prime duty, with the stipulation that he could wait while the many court cases determining ownership of thousands of lots remained unsettled. 

On May 3, the City of Washington got its own government, a mayor appointed by the president and a council of 12 elected annually that voted 5 of its members into an upper chamber. All white males, resident for 12 months, who paid property taxes, could vote. The city had to care for the poor, infirm and diseased, could charge fees for licenses and was limited in the rate it could tax property. The law outlined all the minute powers that the city government had, including "to restrain or prohibit gambling," but such ordinances would not "be obligatory" on non-residents (i.e. congressmen.)

It hardly bears remembering who Jefferson picked for the first mayor. Robert Brent was from a distinguished Virginia family that had sold quarried stone for the public buildings. He married into the Notley Young family that had owned almost all of southwest Washington. Top drawer indeed, both families owned many slaves. But Brent became the first man put in the unenviable position of being mayor in a city in which he ranked well below the president, cabinet, congress and court in status and power. 

The first city council included three original proprietors and three men who had worked on the public buildings. A quarter of the budget of almost $4,000 went to relief of the poor, not a few of them disappointed claimants for congressional largess or federal jobs.  It made the old "temporary" hospital on Judiciary Square, that had been built as a hospital for hired slaves and other laborers, the city's new poor house. The city couldn't afford a public school until 1805.

The city had to pay for improving roads, but, to meet demand, only a few blocks around the public buildings had to be readied for development. This was not what Washington had promised in 1791 when the proprietors signed over their land to the government.
The niggardly scale Congress and the President set for the local government only meant that locals had to importune Congress and the President for special appropriations. Yet any improvement on one side of the District or city set off howls of protest from the other. 

In 1807 the pack of congressmen boarding in Georgetown were inspired by their landlords to oppose any federal support for a bridge over the Potomac, claiming it would block ships going up to the busy port. Not so, rallied congressmen coached by Capitol Hill landlords. Only 50 large ships had gone up that far in seven years and many of those when the government moved in bringing all the bureaucratic trappings from Philadelphia. They pointed to the undeveloped lots southwest of the Capitol, which would flourish with a bridge. Even Morris's and Nicholson's buildings would be finished, if there was only a bridge. 

The bridge was built without federal help, and the southwest did not flourish save that soon slave traders built private jails for slaves on Maryland Avenue so convenient to the bridge and the shackled march south. Even newcomers from north recognized the need for slaves as servants and to carry messages to maintain contacts in a city where so few people lived so far apart. But most wished slaves being transported south could be kept out of sight.

A consensus rapidly formed in Congress that the local affairs of the District of Columbia were an infernal nuisance, and its citizens had too much influence on Congress. During eight years of local stagnation, if not agony, Jefferson did little more than offer some private charity and agreed to be president of the board of trustees for the school system. His standard reply to all requests for help was that the federal government could only spend money on the public buildings and the one avenue connecting them. So, while Jefferson had Lombardy poplars planted along Pennsylvania Avenue, he let the wood lots on government land be ravaged by wood choppers for private gain. He told Margaret Bayard Smith who regretted their loss that the government couldn't afford to guard them.

 Jefferson's improvements: the House wing and connecting covered walkway and Lombardy poplars on Pennsylvania Avenue

It took a murder for the city get something so basic as a jail. An Irishman named McGurk, who had been a carpenter building the President's house in 1800, murdered his pregnant wife. Punishment by the old laws of Maryland was generally rough and ready. The same court that sentenced McGurk to death, sentenced a burglar to 39 stripes. But the condemned man's lawyer, Augustus Woodward, pursued appeals, and McGurk had to be watched six months before he swung. Congress appropriated $11,000 to build a two room jail. (There would not be another hanging until 1818. Jefferson appointed the lawyer Woodward, who tended to be a prod for justice in other matters, to a position in the Michigan territory.)

A two room jail might seem an embarrassing addition to a Seat of Empire. But it didn't take too much to fulfill the needs of the city. Truth be told, even with 40 new members the congress managed with that one magnificent building on Capitol Hill. A temporary building was built for the House that members called the Oven. Some of Jefferson's followers, led by Randolph, carried republican economizing to its logical conclusion and suggested moving Congress into the President's house, the president into a private house and finishing the Capitol when the country had money to spare.


But the capital of the rising empire could not escape the critical gaze of the rest of the world.  In 1803, during negotiations in Paris that would lead to the Louisiana Purchase, special envoy James Monroe fielded questions about the new capital from Napoleon himself. Did the federal city grow much, how many inhabitants, does the president "reside always at the federal city," and "are the public buildings there commodious, those for the Congress and President especially?" 

Jefferson had a abiding love of architecture and probably even with Napoleon's nudging,  he dropped his pose as an economizer and lavished the project with his attention. The many letters that passed between him and Latrobe, his architect of choice provide a lesson on classical architecture and taste. Indeed Jefferson appears to have wanted a bit of everything so that the House chamber would be a museum of classical styles, not all Greek as Latrobe wanted. Yet both were mindful of nationalism and Latrobe designed columns topped with corncob capitals, though he had to hire Italians to carve them.

That said, no architectural project in which congress was interested went smoothly. Although his original plan for the Capitol had been frequently amended by the architects supervising construction, William Thornton fought all changes and rallied congressional support even as Latrobe argued that the original plan for the building was unworkable and inconvenient. 

Appointed by Jefferson to head the patent office, Thornton announced he was a Federalist. Latrobe ducked Thornton's challenge to a duel and eventually won a libel suit, but he had little chance to tarnish the reputation of one whose talents as a host and horse breeder couldn't fail to impress congressmen, especially after Latrobe went so seriously over budget that workers and some suppliers had to agree to carry on without pay. 

So in 1807, at a cost of almost $400,000, including the $208 for a dinner for 167 workmen, the new House chamber, larger than the British House of Commons and with 24 massive Corinthian columns inside, opened to decidedly tepid reviews. Latrobe's specially designed chimneys clogged the air with fumes. All that stone plus a domed ceiling created an acoustical nightmare. (Members adjusted: by gathering around a member as he spoke, colleagues demonstrated their admiration; by staying in their seats they could get work done without being bothered by speeches.)



Once the work on the Capitol was done, it would not be fair to say that the city stagnated. Remember even with the economizing Jefferson in charge, the needs of Empire were being addressed at the Navy Yard. By 1805 there were 114 civilian mechanics employed at the yard leavened with hired slaves. Yes, the sea dogs coming home from the Barbary Wars were promptly put on half pay and sent home. A memorial commemorating the deaths of six naval officers in Tripoli, sculpted in Italy, graced the Navy Yard (and found a spot in front the Capitol once the likes of Gallatin were gone.) 

Tripoli Monument which is now at the Naval Academy

It is fair to say that the army did not excite the imagination of the city. The commanding general, James Wilkinson, visited the city briefly in 1800, hated the summer weather and returned to his troops on the frontier from whence congress got reports of men dying because Wilkinson had them bivouac in a swamp. But he was mindful of why there was a Seat of Empire. He sent delegations from Indians tribes to the federal capital to make treaties to give up their lands. In 1806 an Arikara chief, famed for his map making skills, depicted the President's house and drew "a gun, a sword, powder, ball and tobacco as the presents he expected."

The city might have muddled through its early years with its reputation intact if it had been only a place of resort for Americans who were by and large impressed with the Capitol. Then in 1804 a young and famous Irish poet Thomas Moore came to town. He stayed with the new British ambassador Anthony Merry and his wife in the British legation which consisted of two brick townhouses standing alone in a field west of the president's house. The Merrys bent his ear. Mr. Merry was shocked at the president's informality in dress (slippers and a red vest.) Mrs. Merry was shocked to be left standing alone at the president's dinner for the diplomatic corps while the president escorted Mrs. Madison to the table.



  Mrs. Merry has been treated uncharitably by some historians. Aaron Burr, an amiable widower, found her an interesting woman.

Few seemed to understand Jefferson's style of presiding over both the government and Washington society. He tried to elevate what most perceived as confusion and negligence to matters of principle. A pecking order among the ladies could not be encouraged by a republican president, so social affairs at the President's house were pall-mall. Even diplomats had to adjust. Jefferson wanted the French minister to trade in his gold lace for a plain frock coat. 

Of course, people who were distinguished back home and sent to Washington, be they congressmen or diplomats, did not want to come to a city without distinctions. Rank trumped all else. Even the French minister, General Turreau, who was known to beat his wife and consort with prostitutes, was a lion in society and invitations to his balls were highly coveted. 

Moore met Jefferson, even sang songs in his heart melting Irish tenor and then moved on to Philadelphia where he fell in with the wits running the Portfolio, a Federalist literary weekly that lampooned Jefferson for his slave mistress Sally (a story first broadcast to the nation in 1802 by a Richmond newspaper.) In 1806, the city and nation confronted Moore's poems branding the City of Washington as a sham:

   This fam'd metropolis, where Fancy sees
Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees;

and where Jefferson found "freedom in his slave's embrace." Ever after British visitors came prepared to laugh at the city, and those Americans influenced by British tastes did so too. The most charitable views expressed were along the lines of "the city is not as bad as Moore described it," which was hardly a compliment.

In1808 there was a serious effort in the House to move the capital back to Philadelphia. In a raucous debate nothing seemed to please opponents of the city. Capitol Hill exposed members to the blustery west wind, several had died. The low ground around the hill was unhealthy and could never be built on. That accommodations were poor almost went without saying, and most bureaucrats would gladly take a cut in salary if they could return to Philadelphia and many congressmen would agree to getting $3 a day instead of $6. 

What congressmen craved, it was argued, was society and a "lobby" to tell them what to do. One proponent argued that the city was unconstitutional because its citizens had no representation in congress. For that he received death threats from locals, who thought that the agitation to move was in itself a prime reason why the city did not prosper. The House split over some procedural votes, fueling local consternation, then defeated the measure handily.

That the country was experiencing a wave of patriotism may have helped the city survive the vote. In the summer of 1807, a British man of war attacked and boarded the American frigate Chesapeake as it left Norfolk and took off four supposed British deserters. Many Americans wanted to go to war to avenge the insult and the deaths of three sailors. In a matter of weeks Jefferson and his cabinet sketched out a plan for the conquest of Canada on four fronts, not for new territory, of course, but to deny Britain timber for her navy. Seven cities including Washington were given the highest priority for defensive measures. 

In 1798 when endorsing a navy yard in the city, George Washington claimed that "it would not be in the power of all the navies of Europe to pass" a fort on Digges's Point across from Mount Vernon. The 1807 crisis prompted the federal government to build one there and by 1811 thirteen cannons could sweep the river and six protected the rear of the fort.

Washingtonians did not shrink from the prospect of another war with Britain. English born Thomas Law had been averring since 1796 that every British defeat was a victory for the City of Washington. In 1803 Congress had created a militia for the District. In response to the attack on the Chesapeake, thirty-one men including Mayor Brent formed a "volunteer troop of horse." However, Jefferson let over two months pass before assembling Congress in emergency session in October to address the crisis. The British meanwhile somewhat apologized and Jefferson urged on Congress a form of coercion he found more congenial: an embargo of all trade with Britain. 

Washingtonians did their patriotic mite by buying stock in the short-lived Columbian Manufacturing Company to make finished goods heretofore imported from Britain. But war fever did not entirely abate. In 1808 inventor Robert Fulton wrote Torpedo War, a book designed to persuade the government to support his researches into a weapon of mass destruction that could defeat the Royal Navy. Jefferson joined Secretary of State Madison and a handful of influential congressmen at a February 1809 gathering at Kalorama, an estate just outside the city, where down by Rock Creek, Fulton pierced "a piece of timber, by a harpoon discharged by force of gun-powder from a blunderbuss."

The harpoon guided the torpedo

Jefferson's reaction to the experiment is not known, but the weapons sharp report might have shocked him into a realization that he was out of touch. The nation wanted action. The day after Jefferson left office, Congress repealed his Embargo but not out of any new found love for the British. The law was difficult to enforce especially along the northern border. Repeal only stoked the old war fever, which was a definite boon for the city. Instead of adjourning after the inauguration of Madison, the usual end of the short session, Congress met for most of March and held an emergency session from May to late June. Congress even anted up $10,000 to study Fulton's torpedo. (Rashly, he touted his weapon as a substitute for a navy which inspired Commodore John Rodgers to craft countermeasures at trials in New York which put "torpedo war" back on the drawing board for many years.)

Congress also anted up $30,000 to make the President's house a place people could get excited about. Official Washington seemed relieved to get past Jefferson, who had shown such a disinclination to ride crests of patriotism. To celebrate his foreign policy coup, the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory, the city had organized a ball for 450 people with illuminations and all manner of patriotic decorations. Jefferson refused to attend. To signal a new attitude, Madison allowed celebrations during his inauguration and "thousands and thousands" of people thronged Pennsylvania Avenue, and hundreds an Inaugural ball. With the $30,000 appropriation, Latrobe made the "family" drawing room at the President's house suitable for entertaining. The weekly reception there began to be called a "squeeze," because so many came leaving little room to move about.


Queen Dolley

Jefferson had lived in a Capitol Hill boarding house for three months before becoming president. Madison lived at 14th and F Street NW for eight years. (Next door to William Thornton who in 1800 thought the city would have a population of 160,000 in a few years.) Madison realized that the city needed a little bit of a king and queen. He was the wittiest of the Founders and enjoyed people, but he was small man and not kingly at all. His buxom wife Dolley, at least, looked and played the part of queen. Well, she was a friendly hostess to any man not wearing muddy boots or woman accompanied by a man, but she also studied the fashions of diplomats' wives and hired the European born footman who had learned all about protocol while working for the Merrys. (Slaves still lit torches to show the way.) The presidential carriage was back. Pall-mall was out. Even treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, for eight years a social bore, began hosting glittering balls.

The new spirit was good for real estate. In 1810, lots along Pennsylvania Avenue began to sell (at "very long credit"). A court decision favorable to the government's claim to disputed lots also helped, (though Greenleaf filed more suits in response.) The dreams of a commercial city flourished once again. Irish laborers resumed digging the canal after 18 years, and in just five years, the job was done at least from the bend of Tiber Creek at the foot of Capitol Hill down to the Navy Yard.

Late 19th century view of dream of the city's founders come true, the Canal, just before it was buried as a nuisance

At the same time, in the wake of disbanding the Bank of the United States, which from 1791 to 1811 flourished in Philadelphia, Congress unleashed a banking boom throughout the nation, and, acting as the local government, chartered new banks for the city. This was celebrated in a congressional report with a familiar refrain: "It can no longer be doubted, that the District of Columbia is destined to an enviable, perhaps unrivaled enjoyment of commerce and the useful arts, the essential concomitants of wealth, power and magnificence." Due, of course, to "its site at the head of maritime navigation of a great river." 

Not that the canal was funded by the government. Madison wouldn't go that far. He only approved a lottery to raise money for the canal, and soon approved more lotteries to finance construction of two schools, one for each side of town, a penitentiary and a city hall. Despite the renewed promise of a commercial boom, the city was still struggling to have the rudiments of a local government.

Despite the prospect of a war with Britain other than cannons trained on the Potomac 20 miles below, nothing was done to prepare defenses for the city. It bears remembering that half the news in American newspapers reported on the Napoleonic Wars, a chronicle on tactical genius in the rolling hills of Central Europe. Looking around the vacant hills of Washington, swagger was deemed sufficient if backed with stirring rhetoric. 

Indeed, Madison's renewal of pomp and parties almost backfired because he continued to equivocate on the issue of war. He reigned but did not rule. The Father of the Constitution worried that since congress declared war, the president could not first propose that it be declared. Many started referring to Dolley as president behind his back.

 Madison: not a few thought he less than filled the Presidential chair

Common folk in Washington had taken to calling the President's house the "white house," and New England politicians, most opposed to Madison, began to prefer that phrase. The opposition press picked it up too, associating it with the flag of surrender. "Tammany" writing in the May 2, 1810 Baltimore Whig, urged bringing "a more energetic and manly tenant into the white house" to replace "the contemptible blank of a neutral president." 

Even when Jefferson was in power, some Republican congressmen began to balk at his direction. When John Randolph decided the administration was shirking republican principles, he stepped aside as House leader and attacked Jefferson with insolent panache. Many suspected that the boyish Randolph's male sexual organ was not fully expressed. Mum was the word on that because enjoyed dueling pistols. 

Presidents came and went, but Randolph was always there, always one of the congress's centers of attention. The example of his eccentricities expanded a politician's possibilities in the capital. Some scorned any idea that they had to be circumspect. The rakish Joseph Clay of Philadelphia could espouse his philosophical atheism, writing checks to "Jesus Christ, or bearer." The rakish Henry Clay of Kentucky could gamble, drink, chase women, and covet Canada without fear that any misstep might ruin his career. (He had his limits, only gambling his handsome fees from arguing cases before the Supreme Court.)

When Madison's scruples got in the way of riding the crest of patriotism, the country looked to the young men on Capitol Hill. In 1811 his peers elevated Clay to the Speaker's chair at the age of 33. Heretofore the Speaker had been one of the older and quieter men. Clay rivaled Randolph as an orator.

The 12th Congress virtually guaranteed its constituents, at least those in the south and west, a war with Britain to right the wrongs, like impressment of seamen, suffered mostly by the anti-war northeastern states. Much of the congressional debate was secret, but the knowing could guess that progress was being made by the frequency of Clay's visits to the White House, sometimes with other "war hawks" in tow, to buck up the courage of the president. 

When war was declared most in the city were beside themselves with excitement. Madison donned a fighting hat with cockade and visited the War and Navy departments next door to rally the bureaucrats who would soon be dispensing money. There were no regular army generals in town, since republican wars were properly fought by farmers summoned at a moment's notice from their fields.

Of course soon the city filled with would be officers quite exciting the local sense of self-importance. Margaret Bayard Smith, the editor's wife, wrote to her sister that due to "the importance and expansion of our nation, this is the theater on which its most interesting interests are discussed, by its ablest sons, in which its greatest characters are called to act, it is every year, more and more the resort of strangers from every part of the union, and all foreigners of distinction who visit these states, likewise visit this city." Prices for lots and houses on Pennsylvania Avenue began to double.

Unfortunately for the glory of Washington, the war did not go well. General Hull surrendered his army outside Detroit without firing a shot, to the surprise of the outnumbered British forces. Naval victories revived the city's spirits, and captains were feted, captured flags displayed, and cash awards voted for victorious crews. The arrival of the Constellation for repairs at the Navy Yard inspired supporters of a bigger navy to invite wavering congressmen on its cramped deck, with President and his wife in attendance (Jefferson would have never done that,) and Congress soon authorized construction of 74 gun ships.

Constellation vs. Insurgent


But Canada remained unconquered. New York became the most important theater of operation. Needing a man from there in a leadership position, Madison appointed General John Armstrong as his new secretary of war. He wisely shook up the army command, naturally coveted the presidency, and could have been just what the situation called for, save that he did not like Washington. A senator in 1801, he had been under-whelmed. He even disliked the Man, having penned the mutinous Newburgh letter attacking George Washington's leadership during the Revolution.

In the face of the first British threat to the city in the summer of 1813, the city's militia marched down the Potomac and the British went away. But John Van Ness, general of the militia, was alarmed at the lack of defensive measures around the city. City leaders went to Madison and Armstrong pleading for something more than Fort Warburton on Digges's Point. One response was to change the name of the fort to Fort Washington.


John Armstrong: first active general to move to city, leading to disaster

In a report to Congress, Armstrong wrote that "the seat of the National Government, should be placed not merely beyond injury, but beyond disturbance, from an enemy." But he told everyone that if the British came, they would attack Baltimore, not Washington, where there was nothing of value. Many took heart when mariners explained how hard it was to sail up the Potomac, a point rarely mentioned when conversation turned to Washington's future as an emporium. 

But some residents threatened the first demonstration outside the White House if the administration planned to bailout, perhaps the only demonstration ever designed to enforce the message that the current resident better not try to leave. Dolley wrote, "disaffection stalks around us." And it wasn't just the redcoats who were feared. Margaret Bayard Smith confessed that a black rebellion, not the redcoats, was the "evil" she "had most dread of." 

From 1808 on, laws regulating blacks became increasingly draconian keeping them off the streets at night, and the British were promising them freedom. Van Ness, also the president of the Bank of Washington, rallied the leading men of the District and they arranged a loan offer of $200,000 to the government, if it would only build more forts around the city, where incidentally many blacks lived in their hovels.

In 1814 Madison formed the Tenth Military District to protect the federal city and Baltimore, but the Maryland lawyer, William Winder, put in charge did nothing to purpose. As a British force came up the Patuxent River and marched toward Bladensburg, Maryland, he worried about bridges to the city even though, when approaching from that direction, the only obstacles were some forests and a narrow creek. Winder massed his forces at Bladensburg, and despite his only losing 25 while killing 250, he ordered a retreat and both regulars and militia fled in the face of the enemy that they outnumbered 7,000 to 4,000. 

Only a navy battalion under Captain Barney made a creditable stand. (Fighting with him were several free blacks. However, the tale more told at the time was that blacks "never evinced so much attachment to the whites and such dread of the enemy.") The fleeing troops soon overtook Madison, Armstrong and Monroe who, upon the President's decision, left the battle in Winder's hands. Armstrong suggested the Capitol building be defended, but he was easily persuaded not to so order, and after the debacle soon resigned. Important papers were removed and the federal government left the city. (To Margaret Bayard Smith's relief, slaves gladly returned all the muskets tossed aside by the fleeing American militia.)

The Capitol and the President's house were soon in the hands of the enemy. On August 24, 1814, Admiral Cockburn and General Ross engaged in a bit of cabaret in both buildings, using as props things like seat cushions left behind by those who fled. Then helping to pile papers and furniture, they ordered the buildings burned. 

The White House after the British burned it

Private buildings were spared, save the office of the National Intelligencer, a newspaper often critical of Cockburn. Neighbors persuaded Cockburn not to burn it and consume the whole block. Papers and type were piled into Pennsylvania Avenue and burned. British marines, armed with large poles, broke the windows and burned all other government offices, save the Patent Office housed in Blodget's hotel recently bought and refurbished by the government. 

Thornton, who in 1802 had been appointed superintendent of patents by his neighbor  then Secretary of State Madison, protested that the models inside represented the fruits of private genius and thus should not be burned. Nobody was on hand to make a similar argument to save the congressional library in the Capitol to which Jefferson had given his library. Meanwhile by order of the secretary of the navy, the Navy Yard was destroyed, and bridges burned.. The fires raged until a ferocious thunderstorm put them out. The British soon left and regrouped to attack Baltimore.

In 1806 when former Vice President Aaron Burr got the notion of forming a breakaway nation in Louisiana (evidently spurred on by bored British and Spanish diplomats whiling away their time in Jefferson's Washington,) he fantasized that he would then send warships up the Potomac and humble the City of Washington. In 1814 British naval force came up the Potomac, paused at Fort Washington, and was amazed when the Americans blew up the fort. 



The British continued up river, received the surrender of Alexandria, and before Washington and Georgetown could surrender, they trimmed their sails and withdrew. The British got their comeuppance outside of Baltimore. The militia there fought under the command of Senator Samuel Smith (brother of the navy secretary, which boded well for Washington. While no local figure covered himself in glory, when Congress returned there would be heroes in town. Plus Francis Scott Key, who, during the British bombardment, penned what was to become the National Anthem, lived in Georgetown and practiced law in Washington.

Obeying a presidential order made a few weeks before the burning of Washington, Congress returned to the city in mid-September to pass emergency taxes to fill the depleted treasury. Congress met in the building that Thornton had saved. There was scarcely room for everyone and still many had not reached the capital. After a meeting with Madison did not assure some congressmen that the capital was safe from another invasion, they proposed temporarily removing the federal government to Philadelphia.

The debate split on regional lines, though the agitation in New England for separation from the union, about to fizzle out at the Hartford Convention, was not mentioned. Facing a presidential veto, proponents probably persisted only to highlight the disgrace of the Madison administration, and perhaps ease secession with the next British victory.

There is an innocent explanation for the defeat of the bill by a 74 to 83 vote. The city was adjusting. The first family moved into the Tayloe Mansion. (That rich Virginia family had an ample plantation just north of Richmond. Thomas Law, Daniel Carroll and others offered to build a temporary meeting hall for Congress, just north of Capitol Square, and that offer of a bank loan of $200,000 for defense grew to a $500,000 offer for restoring the Capitol and President's house.

The Capitol after the British burned it

The temporary Capitol (then a boarding house, then a prison)


Men who had never liked the city argued that the British burned the Capitol and President's house because they had no public buildings to match them. So victory would not be complete until they were restored. While that was being debated, on February 4, the news of Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans reached the city and all of Washington burned again, with bonfires. 

Congress decided to make  five annual $100,000 appropriations for rebuilding, but not a penny would come out of the depleted Treasury thanks to the $500,000 line of credit from District banks, and, of course, once again "it was probable that the sales of lots belonging to the public in the city, would furnish money enough to reimburse the loan before it came due." The first appropriation bill passed, 78 to 63 in the House, and then the Treaty of Ghent arrived and was ratified by the Senate in twenty-four hours. The war was over. One senator "recalled a sense of relief and exultation that was almost 'childish' filled the city," and reconstruction began.
 
One can view the rebuilding project as not unlike the original construction of the Capitol. Madison even imitated the Residence Act of 1790 and appointed three commissioners to oversee it, including John Van Ness, the banker who packaged the loan for reconstruction. And as of old, the project was soon over budget and over deadline, with acrimonious clashes of old rivals. Latrobe was in charge and Thornton always sniping at him.

In the 1790s few could watch and enjoy the construction of the buildings. Many enjoyed their restoration. In 1816 Grace Webster came to the city with her husband Daniel, who had voted for removal. She was prepared to sneer at "this place called a City." Two weeks later she wrote back home that it was "more pleasant than I expected. I have twice been to see the ruins of the Capitol it was more splendid than I had imagined." They chatted with the French and Italian stonemasons and she opined, "It looks as if it would be at least the work of this generation to repair and complete the whole."

President James Monroe especially took the project to heart. Remember is was he who was quizzed by Napoleon of the potential grandeur of the city. Soon after his inauguration on March 4, 1817, he imitated the first president and toured the northern states. He could not move into the White House until October anyway. Once back in Washington, he pushed the work forward on all fronts, even going with Latrobe in the rain to a Virginia quarry to inspect the stone to be used. Unfortunately for Latrobe, Monroe was also impatient. Soon Congress saw no reason to pay three commissioners salaries for a job one man could do.

Col. Samuel Lane, an old friend of Monroe's, became sole commissioner. At first Lane agreed with Latrobe that the major cause of delay was Congress's insistence on changing designs, a larger Senate chamber for example. But then Lane tired of Latrobe's excuses. One observer thought Latrobe's major drawback was his poverty. He didn't have the means to cajole support. Then while in conference with Lane and Monroe, Latrobe threatened Lane, who was crippled in one leg, with bodily harm. The President was shocked and Latrobe resigned in 1818 eventually to die in 1820 of yellow fever while supervising construction of a water system in New Orleans. Before leaving Washington he designed, built and made a drawing of St. John's Church across the square north of the White House.


Latrobe's church across from the White House

and the house he designed for Marcia and John Van Ness was ready for occupancy further down the slope south of the White House.



This was a dream come true for the Burnes family, a mansion built on profits from rising real estate values for all the Burnes' lots along Pennsylvania Avenue. But no other worthies built on such low land to start a millionaires' row.

Monroe appointed Charles Bulfinch, a Boston architect he met on his northern tour, to take Latrobe's place. Bulfinch soon had a host of problems: a collapsing arch he could blame on Latrobe's design, marble ordered from New York didn't come on time, and then the stone masons went on strike. It took Bullfinch 35 days to bust the union, with some masons clapped in jail and guarded by Marines, but he claimed to Congress that despite the stoppage, "the work has proceeded with spirit, and a remarkable degree of good order and propriety of conduct." The strikers had to be rehired because there were no replacements available. 

Congressmen returned to the Capitol in 1819, and found it restored down to the same bad acoustics in the House chamber, which didn't damp their urge to build more. The 300 to 350 "mechanics and laborers" working on the Capitol were not sent home. Congress decided to begin construction on the central Rotunda (then called the "Rotundo") that would bear the dome uniting the two wings of the building. That doing so would almost triple the cost of the project to $1.2 million gave no one pause. Congress had discovered the side benefits of tariffs protecting American industry.

Bulfinch had built his first dome at the Massachusetts State House in 1787 and knew the proper Roman proportions, but as congressmen came by to look at his plans and model, they all opined that the dome should be bigger. 

The tumescence of Bullfinch's domes

Bulfinch designed three domes and Monroe's cabinet picked the big dome and asked that it be bigger still. So Bulfinch built two domes. One tastefully covered the Rotunda, and on top of that another extended the Capitol's glory 70 feet higher into the heavens. Though the dome was made of wood, inside the stone Rotunda, a new venue for grandeur was opened. Stone carvers from Italy and France fashioned the column capitals and statuary. Responding to the American painter John Trumbull's lobbying, congress authorized the president to commission him to do four paintings commemorating the Revolution.

Meanwhile the White House was repaired without controversy under the supervision of James Hoban who designed and supervised its original construction. Often neglected in recounting the reconstruction of the city are the repairs of the two existing executive offices flanking the White House and the construction of two more. The four modestly sized buildings were largely uniform, two stories, made of brick, an inviting portico and a few columns. 



The Post Office and Patent Office remained on 8th Street, but the rest of the bureaucracy was in easy focus for men with dreams of jobs and contracts. 

To be sure, congress still had the power of the purse. That purse continued to swell to the point that common citizen made the mistake of thinking they could get their due. In 1817 a veteran of the late war named John Anderson came to town to press private claims bills for himself and his neighbors in the war ravaged Michigan Territory. He offered a $500 bribe to the brother Freemason who chaired the House Committee on Claims. The chairman revealed the shocking offer. Speaker Clay summoned Anderson before the House and reprimanded him. 

Loans became the accepted way to reward politicians. John Jacob Astor loaned James Monroe $5,000. Nicholas Biddle had his Bank of the United State loan $5,000 to Ways and Means Committee chairman Louis McLane, because "while you are taking care of the country, your friends must take care of you." Neither Biddle nor Astor pressed for repayment, and in time the tab of some members threatened to top six figures. 

The harsh treatment of John Anderson did not represent any revulsion toward the military which, after all, did fail the city in 1814. There was a crucial change in attitude toward the military, as if the government realized that it could not keep its generals and admirals at arms length and still expect the capital to be well protected. 

In 1815 the Navy department first and then the War department were reorganized so that officers were stationed permanently in the capital to oversee the readiness of the armed forces. The new Board of Navy Commissioners made the greater impact. The keel of the Columbus was laid at the rebuilt Navy Yard in May 1816. All official Washington and many more watched as, on March 2, 1819, it was launched, at a total cost of $426,000.

The yard had 380 civilian employees including hired slaves plus almost 70 officers and sailors. Hoping to ignite a house building boom near the restored Capitol, Carroll and Law organize a tontine to raise money to build prize houses. Law reminded Carroll that "South Capitol St. will get into play - consider that many people who hire slaves to the Navy Yard would live below the hill." (More to the point, not a few whites were taken aback by the shacks of blacks that were too often in view when looking down the hill.)

The naval war had been remunerative for American naval officers who, by law, got "prize money" for enemy ships they captured. Commodore David Porter built a mansion on Meridian Hill a mile north of the White House and Commodore Stephen Decatur built a large house, designed by Latrobe, suitable for entertaining on the square just north of the White House. 

Decatur House: built with the Admiral's prize money

The army also became visible when the corps of army engineers was headquartered in the city. A Revolutionary War officer himself, Monroe was partial to the army and made Gen. Joseph Smith, chief army engineer, his advisor on the Capitol construction.

Yet despite the restoration of the public building and the apparent boom in the city, with real estate sales up 500% between 1813 and 1818, there was pervasive unease. Two issues grew to dominated American life in the 19th century: race and currency. Washington was particularly touched by both. The economic boom and proliferation of banks tended to wacky excesses. Because of the influx of strangers and politicians from all over the country, strange bank notes flooded the city taking the place of coins. The mayor began distributing "due bills," chits to take the place of change. (Bad news for menial workers often paid in coin.) Even a congressman's paycheck was usually discounted 25% if actual gold was demanded.

As for race, the city had slavery like the south and also a rising number of free blacks like many northern cities. The free black population in the city rose from 123 in 1800 to 1,696 in 1820. The rising number of slaves from 623 in 1800 to 1,945 in 1820. The total population was 13,247. Whites in the city were comfortable with blacks as long as they were servants trained and provided for by their masters or employers. Black day laborers were also handy. There were also many Irish to bear the brunt of any load. Gaelic was Washington's second language. Trained blacks were deemed superior to Irish for house servants but whites preferred gangs of Irish laborers to gangs of blacks.

What caused consternation was the selling and transportation of blacks to the cotton states. In 1816 even slave owner John Randolph railed on the floor of the House that "not even excepting the rivers on the coasts of Africa, was there so great and so infamous a slave market as in the metropolis, in the very Seat of Government of this nation that prided itself on freedom." The city had just been shocked by a woman throwing herself to her death from the third story of a slave dealer's private jail. Congress formed a committee but it never made a report.

Addressing the problem of free blacks was more congenial. The first lobbying group organized in Washington was pledged to get rid of them. A few days after Christmas 1816, national politicians including Clay, Webster and Randolph, met with leading men of the city including Thornton and Francis Scott Key to form the American Society for the Colonizing of the Free People of Color of the United States, soon to be called the American Colonization Society. The society sent a memorial to Congress addressing "the evil [that] has become so apparent," too many free blacks lacking "political and social rights," and "dead to all the elevating hopes...." The solution was to send them back to Africa, and the national headquarters for the operation soon opened in Washington managed by a Presbyterian preacher.

The one consolation for blacks was that they weren't blamed for anything yet. When the nationwide economic boom gave way to the inevitable financial panic and depression, there were no riots against them. Perhaps because Washington did relatively well. The bubble in real estate burst, but houses were not boarded up and left for ruin. "While many larger cities are complaining of their pecuniary embarrassments," it was said of Washington in 1820, "no check has been made in the progress of its private improvements." 

With the reconstruction and new construction on public buildings, the legend of a depression proof city began. But there was still much cause for disappointment. With the Capitol finally on its way to fulfilling its 1793 specifications, city leaders grasped for excuses to explain why the city still presented the appearance of emptiness. 

Of course, the fault lay with the grandiose plan and the notion that the capital was to be a reserve for gentlemen. (Most men working on the Capitol came from other cities.) But those gentlemen still struggling in the city were loath to blame themselves and the infatuated dream they embraced. In 1820 the city finally raised enough lottery money to begin building a city hall on Judiciary Square at 4th and G Streets. In his speech at the cornerstone laying ceremony John Law, Thomas Law's son, excused the delay by musing on how lavishly Peter the Great supported construction of a new Russian capital. Despite not having such a patron, Law was proud of the city's progress recalling his boyhood days at his father's house at the foot of Capitol Hill when "the largest part of the beautiful avenue which connects the principal public edifices together was an impassable wilderness." (Harvard educate John Law was not Eliza Law's son, not Martha Washington's great grandson. His mother was a woman his father left behind in India. Despite his darker skin he was accepted by society, married a white Virginian, and represented slaves suing for their freedom.)

Then, further developing that wilderness theme, one year later the myth of the city's founding swamp was born. To justify the need for outside help to finish the city hall, Mayor Samuel Smallwood, who once oversaw the slaves working on the Capitol, recalled "the impenetrable marsh" that confronted those who came to fashion a capital city. What better time to shed a tear over the soggy past, when golden heights beckoned. 

 Washington's City Hall: another neo-classical knock off, not finished for several decades and never graced with a dome

No capital was ever invaded with less consequence nor restored with less regard to any grounded living traditions save an obsession with real estate values. The city was a stage for a sufficiently entertaining troupe that returned every December and acted out its increasingly arcane traditions.That war or the threat of war alone seemed to increase those real estate values set a dangerous precedent. George Washington's vision of a commercial rather than merely a political capital comes into better focus. Such a capital would be adverse to taking risks. Jefferson's antithetical vision amounted to same, the inclination to avoid trouble. The new Washington looked to farflung theaters of action, worlds to conques, to liberate. To become president was worth the struggle. To be in Washington was to be at the fulcrum of change, inconvenient as the city itself might be.

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Liberty -- Adjusted by Race, Class and Religion: 1820 to 1840