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 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."

Monday, January 16, 2017

Seat of Empire: Liberty -- Adjusted... 1820 to 1840

The Seat of Empire
chapter three
Liberty -- Adjusted by Race, Class and Religion: 1820 to 1840

1834 view of the city

There was nothing remarkable about the growth in Washington's resident population. The census counted 13,247 in 1820, making it the 9th largest city in the still largely rural country. But no one counted the population of the city when it swelled during its brief "season" when Congress was in session. The city then was often the most important in the nation, and to many, the most important in the world, not for what was made, sold or done there, but for what was said there. Few goods came down the Potomac to be shipped to the world, but George Washington's city exported many a freighted word. Since the war taught Republicans how to tax, the federal government had money to spend which made its rhetoric more attractive. Printing became its major private industry.

In his 1825 message to Congress, President John Quincy Adams distilled in a phrase what had been activating the city and attracting many to it since the war's end, "liberty is power," which meant that America "blessed with the largest portion of liberty" must in time "be the most powerful nation upon earth," as long as man, fulfilling "the moral purposes of his Creator," used that power "to ends of beneficence, to improve the condition of himself and his fellow men."

Here, indeed, was a call to action, quite different from the libertine ideals of the Age of Revolution, no mere pursuit of happiness. Even the hypocrisy underscored by poet Thomas Moore, talk of freedom in a land of slavery, could be rhetorically solved by "liberty is power." In its 1817 memorial to Congress, the Colonization Society argued that the nation now had the naval power to project freedom onto the coast of Africa and demonstrate "the consolatory evidence of the all-prevailing power of liberty enlightened by knowledge and corrected by religion." Unwanted in America, black Christians would create a model colony in Africa, an example that would "liberate" all of the continent.



America's republican institutions, showcased in its capital, would liberate the civilized world. In 1824 a 13 foot Statue of Liberty sculpted by an Italian gazed down from over the doorway inside the restored House chamber as Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, assured his audience, in words rumored to have been written by Henry Clay, that "all the grandeur and prosperity of these happy United States.... reflect on every part of the world the light of a far superior political civilization." Lafayette toured the whole country but spent most of his time in Washington, and Congress gave him $200,000 to support his retirement. 

The Marquis in 1824

Not a few British visitors came not to mock the city but to make a pilgrimage to the capital of Liberty. Freethinkers like Frances Wright and Robert Owen explained their utopian visions to Congress, and then went out into the hinterland to effect them. (And then chastened by experience, went to New York City and proselytized for the Workingman's Party.) 

To be sure, young men with royal titles visiting their nation's embassies were in high demand for Washington social occasions, but they were eclipsed by emissaries from the new South American republics. There was a suspicious tendency in these republics to abolish slavery, and then there was their Catholicism. Liberty is power could teach them a lesson too. When the news came of the Texan victory over Santa Anna in 1836, a southern senator proclaimed it "a war of religion and liberty," and when the "noble" Anglo-Saxon race fought "victory was sure to perch upon their standard." 

Notions of liberty could get out of hand. Richard Lawrence, an out-of-work house painter, who in 1835 tried to assassinate President Jackson in the Capitol, explained that "he could not rise unless the President fell, and that he expected thereby to recover his liberty, and that the mechanics would all be benefited." The assassin's pistols that misfired were found to be in perfect working order.

Old Hickory survives two misfires

Many believed it was another sign of God's favoring the land of liberty, much like the deaths of the two sages of the Revolution, Jefferson and Adams, on the very day, July 4, 1826, of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Lawrence who also thought he was Richard III was adjudged insane and Washington noticed it didn't have an insane asylum. In 1855 Lawrence was moved in the newly built government asylum on a pleasant hill east of the Anacostia River and died there in 1861.

Afire for liberty the great men of the 1820's knew Washington was where they must sweat for greatness. Not a few of them accepted cabinet positions which kept them on the scene far into the summer. Secretary of state John Quincy Adams  sweated it out on F Street. 

A flattering view of F Street

Many mornings he swam in the Potomac at the mouth of the Tiber Creek. One summer morning, in his diary, he described the water as "blood warm." (He would be the first former president to die in Washington.)

The city began to distinguish between those who came to it because, as Adams avowed, "liberty is power," and those who came for a handout. In 1817 a vet 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. 

At the same time Clay was castigating Anderson for his ham handed attempt to influence Congress, Clay changed the way Congress did its printing, immeasurably extending his influence over the nation. No longer would Congress contract with the lowest bidder, which meant a mere printer made the spare profits. Congress decided to choose the printer and set the fee, and Clay chose the National Intelligencer, the nation's most influential newspaper, allowing it to make profits of up to 50% on the contracts, and, Clay hoped, making it his mouthpiece to sway the nation. In his 1825 message, Adams caught this aspect of the spirit of the age, reminding congressmen not to be "palsied by the will of our constituents." This has ever been a concept to which most in Washington subscribe, but covertly.

At this time ignoring constituents was often easy because Main Street barely had a clue about what was at stake. Soon enough agitation over slavery would rather bend Washington out of shape, but in 1819, the first slavery crisis, the debate over Missouri's admission to the union, was very much manufactured in Washington. A New York congressmen noticed that slavery could be made an issue as Missouri applied for statehood. New York politicians seethed at Virginia's hold over the presidency, and nothing better chipped at Virginia's ascendancy in national affairs than challenging slavery. 

The congressman alerted do-gooders in the North who circulated petitions to be sent back to Washington. Then as the rest of the nation moved on to worry about more pressing matters like the financial Panic of 1819 and consequent depression, those petitions raised the hackles of southern congressmen and eloquent wrangling ensued for three sessions thrilling Washington, and filling the galleries of the restored House and Senate chambers. Just as thrilling, since it involved that behind the scenes trickery insiders love, Clay engineered a compromise allowing slavery in Missouri but drawing a line across the continent that slavery could not cross. 

Taken aback by the intensity of the "Missouri question", the Washington establishment tried to stifle further debate about slavery. That suited most residents of the city, who, reporters said, provided a "buz" in favor of the southern position. (They didn't count the many blacks who attended the debates, sometimes filling the House gallery. Not until 1828 would they be denied admittance to the Capitol.) After the Missouri debate, the Intelligencer avoided mentioning slavery again, save in advertisements by slave dealers and those seeking run-away slaves. Presidential hopefuls avoided the word.

That campaign to succeed Monroe played out completely in Washington. By tradition the Republican candidate was chosen by a caucus of Republican congressmen meeting in February. William H. Crawford of Georgia came in a close second to Monroe in the caucus of 1816 and looked forward to winning the caucus of 1824, and thus, because the Federalist party had disappeared, become president. Monroe won all but one electoral vote in 1820. 

Crawford joined Monroe's cabinet as treasury secretary where he found ambitious colleagues, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and Smith Thompson, secretaries of state, war, and navy respectively. Speaker Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, elected senator in 1824, also joined the fray. Among politicians the general impression was that Jackson was too impulsive a man to be president. So he came to Washington to exhibit his disarming gentlemanly charms and demonstrate that an Indian-fighter need not be a brute. Monroe refused to publicly favor one over the other, though when Crawford went after him with his cane and had to be warned back with fireplace tongs, those in the know got the message. (Monroe didn't even think of dismissing Crawford and making public the bitter rivalries of what was called his Era of Good Feeling.) 

The basic campaign strategy was to stop Crawford in the caucus or impugn its validity thus letting states vote without national guidance which, with such a crowded field, would force the House to elect the president, a process that Washington insiders could control. However, the city had to be shaped to effect this strategy. Neither the White House drawing room nor the National Intelligencer could carry the water for so many candidates.
The transformation of Washington society came first, helped immeasurably by Mrs. Monroe's disdain for the "squeezes" of her predecessor. Spurred on by her equally haughty daughter, Mrs. Hay, she established a pecking order among the ladies based on the rank of their husbands.

On social matters their daughter Mrs, Hay (above) overruled Pres. and Mrs. Monroe (below)




The wives of diplomats suffered most under the Monroe regime but the lesson of decorum was there for all to learn, especially as there was a complex protocol for the exchange of calling cards and paying visits. Technically anyone could attend her "levees," but usually only those who knew where they belonged did. Her husband re-instituted Jefferson's stag dinners but they were as stiff as his wife's affairs. All of the candidates gladly filled the breach hosting convivial dinners and balls. In the former the hostess filled her dining room; in the latter she filled all of the rooms of her house, at most eight, and then spread out a late buffet dinner on her back porch. Speaker Clay joined the executive officers who, by tradition, were expected to entertain. So Clay's "Wednesday nights" tried to top Adams's "Tuesday nights;" Crawford was everywhere; the Calhouns always had more ladies; and at the appearance of General Jackson, none called this hero a mere senator, applause was in order. Navy secretary Thompson and wife were, for the 1822 season at least, the greatest party hosts, but he wound up on the Supreme Court instead. 

A musician in the Marine Corps band noted the bursting drawing rooms and when the Washington Theatre burned, he bought the remains and turned it into "Carusi's Assembly Rooms" at 11th and C streets which became a new social center to rival Monroe's staid White House. At the peak of the season, still coinciding with the commencement of the Supreme Court term in February, so relentless were Washington parties that one lawyer likened the city to "a watering place," but the mother's search for a rich husband for her daughter, already a venerable Washington pastime, gave way to what John Randolph described as men "driving from one end of [this] interminable and desolate city to the other, intriguing about the presidency."

Washington parties were never trivial. Ladies frequently attended congressional debates so they knew the political issues of the day. But more important than the social whirl confined to the city's short "season", was the year long posturing in the local newspapers. The city itself never out grew the Intelligencer, but politicians did. Its first editor, Samuel Harrison Smith became a banker. Tired of transcribing speeches and being the mouthpiece of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, he sold the paper to younger men, Joseph Gales and William Seaton, who eagerly supported whoever was in power. 

Like most in Washington society, they were won over by Crawford's charm, but if they endorsed him too soon their bottom line was in peril since Speaker Clay could adjust their printing contracts. The Intelligencer had a small rival, the Washington Gazette, a weekly edited by an Englishman who had fought with Simon Bolivar to liberate South America. Soon others learned to play with printing contracts. All of the cabinet secretaries controlled the printing of their department. So the Washington Gazette became a daily and won the Treasury printing; the new Washington Republic took the War Department printing; the new National Journal served the State Department. While it was clear who these papers supported, they did not ruin their effectiveness by being too blatant. They embraced the principles that separated their patrons from the rest but their principal job was to attack the other candidates' departments. 

The campaign very much became a battle of the bureaucracies, and not a few clerks did confidential double duty for the boss to find dirt on their rivals. (Clerks sat at their desks from 9 to 3, affording them ample time afterwards to write articles and speeches for hire.) Even when Crawford latched onto the financial panic and depression, which lowered federal revenues, and began advocating Jeffersonian retrenchment and reform, he made sure that reform did not begin at home. In 1820, without debate, Crawford's partisans passed an end-of-session law requiring most federal employees to be reappointed every four years, which would have been a bureaucrat's nightmare, save that the Tenure of Office Act exempted the 260 employees in the Washington departments. Customs collectors from around the country had to curry Crawford's favor, while clerks supporting Crawford in other departments were safe.

William H. Crawford, the bureaucrats' candidate in 1824

Crawford won the February Republican party caucus vote but not enough congressmen attended to make it creditable. Then he suffered a debilitating illness and his friends could not cover-up his inability to speak and write. Still his opponents showed no pity as the "A.B. Scandal" was cooked up purporting to show that Crawford profited from Treasury Land Office dealings in Illinois. The accuser was a senator from Illinois that Monroe had just appointed as minister to Mexico. So Crawford's friends dredged up a scandal that embarrassed the president and in the process put a dent in the armor of the city's amour-propre as it learned the perils of becoming a political football.

Commissioner of the Public Buildings Lane died suddenly in 1822 and his executors couldn't square his accounts with auditors in Crawford's Treasury department, which Crawford found interesting because Lane had also bought furniture for the president. Lane's accounts were leaked to the press, showing that to cover shortfalls Lane used money neither paid him by Monroe nor appropriated by Congress, suggesting that someone might have bought presidential influence. Congress investigated and found that the unaccounted money, $1,740.14, came from the sale of public lots in Washington. Hadn't Congress been been repeatedly told that lot sales would pay for building the Capitol and much else?

Looking into the matter further it was found that the published sum accruing from lot sales since 1791, around $700,000, didn't deduct "losses occasioned by the failure of purchasers," including almost $400,000 that Morris and Nicholson died owing. The government didn't know how many lots had been sold, and how much had been paid or remained due. City boosters never gave up the money-from-lots argument with which they had justified every federal expenditure on the city, and they soon added another justification for federal help: the government owned almost half the city's land and had never paid any tax on it.

In the fall voters gave Jackson a plurality of the popular vote, but not a majority in the Electoral College, so he and the two other top electoral vote getters, Adams and Crawford, faced an election in the House. (Calhoun opted to be elected Vice President.) Now out of the running, Clay encouraged his supporters to vote for Adams, which was crucial, and soon after his victory, Adams made Clay the leader of his cabinet, secretary of state, the position which the last three presidents held prior to their election. At first blush the triumph of Adams seemed to bode well for the city. Unlike Monroe he would have a united cabinet in a city that, thanks to the long intramural campaign, could be geared up to get things done.

The long campaign for the presidency had already done away with the categorical no of Jefferson's and Madison's time. In1812 Dewitt Clinton came to get money for New York's Erie Canal and went away empty handed. Thanks to candidates Clay and Calhoun, the army engineers, headquartered in Washington, had conducted a nationwide survey of roads and canals needed for national defense. Delegations of canal backers came to the city and Congress bought stock in canal companies all around the nation. When the need became pressing to get Washington newspapers out to the country, the Post Office became a model of efficiency with the miles of post roads doubling between 1815 and 1825.

Washington gained a reputation as the place to scramble for money like contracts to deliver the mail, and access was no problem. A citizen had the right to walk into any government office and most congressmen still boarded where they were in fair reach of all. During a typical session one of Astor's employees, Ramsay Crooks, stayed in Jesse Brown's Indian Queen Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue between 6th and 7th streets, where many congressmen stayed.


He wrote their speeches, crafting spread eagle oratory about the nation's right to Oregon where Astor had a trading house. He wrote the bill destroying the government Indian trade which competed with Astor's fur company. (The government clerk in charge adjusted. Thomas McKenny, moved to the War Department building to head the new Indian Bureau and began a local industry that would flourish longer than the fur trade. On the second floor of the building, he displayed Indian artifacts plus portraits the government had made of visiting chiefs by local artist Charles Bird King. According to Jonathan Elliot's 1830 guide to the city the collection was a "must see," only rivaled by the display of models you could play with at the Patent Office.) 

Black Hawk who got a Presidential medal and his portrait taken

To be sure influence peddlers tried to appear disorganized or off-the-cuff so as not to diminish congressional self-esteem, but Crooks often had to tell Astor that he had to spend more time at Browns to nurture various projects. And then every four years or so a tariff revision brought more paid agents to the city, working the hotels, and for such an important matter, by 1832, becoming quite blatant about hovering around congressional committees crafting the latest revision. Brown soon had competition. After running William O'Neale's Franklin House, John Gadsby built his own hotel, larger than Brown's, three blocks down the Avenue at 3rd Street, that could accommodate up to 400 people and employed over 70 slaves.He had moved across the Potomac from Alexandria. Gadsby and his family eventually moved into the Decatur House on Lafayette Square. After editing a party newspaper, the hotel business was the local ladder to wealth.

Gadsby's Hotel

President Adams was particularly attuned to this percolating activity in the capital. Not only did he believe in the virtues of improvements, he might also profit from them. His wife's family, the original commissioner Thomas Johnson was her uncle, had been in the city since the 1790s, owning a mill on Rock Creek, which Adams bought for one of his sons to run. In 1828, when he ceremonially broke ground for the Georgetown terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, after helping to garner a million dollars for the project from congress, he shared George Washington's vision of the Potomac. And he hoped to be in the White House looking out over a canal basin at the foot of President's house square where boats, perhaps some carrying Adams flour, could enter the Washington Canal and move down to the Navy Yard or, taking another spur of the canal, to Greenleaf's Point.


The activist Adams didn't do the one thing one might logically expect from a son of Massachusetts. With an eye to his political future, Adams only went as far as Monroe did in opposing the international slave trade, and always muted his dislike of slavery even when there were hopeful signs of change. In 1828 many Washington residents signed a petition supporting the gradual abolition of slavery in the District, and Congress resolved to study the issue. A Pennsylvania congressman urged ending the slave trade in the city so enterprise would take hold ending "the heart-chilling desolation and sterility that reign all around them."

Slave dealers bought the chattels of the area's many bankrupt and cash starved citizens (in 1826 and 1827, 634 people were imprisoned for debt,) and shipped them south to the cotton states. Even the federal jail annually held some 450 blacks, a few of the unfortunates free but like Solomon Northrup only able to prove it 12 years later. The lot were quickly sold south to pay the cost of jailing. Despite white stirring against them, the slave jails, private and public, continued. In uncertain economic times even respectable whites might have to sell a slave to make ends meet.

In his diary, Adams noted the achievements and good deportment of the bank messenger William Costin, a free black, but a further flowering of racism came under his watch. In 1827 the city council insisted on more stringent enforcement of the 10 PM curfew for blacks. A theater manager complained that he lost $10 a night since his black patrons stopped attending. The council raised the bond for a freedom certificate from $20 to $500. As Congress banned blacks from its galleries, even the congressmen against the slave trade denounced the growing population of "degraded" free blacks as a menace to national security. Blacks could not be trusted in the militia.

While he might make himself out to be the apostle of Liberty, Adams was in no position to press for equal rights. He bore the brunt of the Democracy. That's what Jackson's supporters called themselves as they dedicated themselves to embarrassing the Adams administration, which they claimed came to power thanks to a corrupt bargain. (The accused bargainer, Henry Clay, exchanged shots with John Randolph over this charge, in a duel that both survived and capped with a handshake.) 

The Jackson Democrats symbolically took the campaign for the presidency completely out of Washington. Jackson was nominated by a series of state conventions, meaning there were no more caucus bandwagons lubricated by Washington balls and dinners. Taking the campaign out of Washington made the capital itself a campaign issue. Jackson newspapers proclaimed that the proverbial Augean Stables would be cleaned out, with no more waste on the public buildings nor corruption in the bureaucracy. No sooner had the city learned that it could thrive on politics, then it realized that it might die from politics.

By tradition the president had ultimate direction of work on the public buildings, but Adams was the first ridiculed for his decisions, though critics now appreciate the design he gave to the Italian sculptor doing the bas relief of the large pediments decorating the Capitol.


  President Adams proves to be a good designer

Congressmen bemoaned the seemingly endless Capitol construction resulting in a labyrinth of confusing, usually unheated hallways. Other than hosting a few trade shows, art exhibits, and Lafayette, the Rotunda seemed useless. Some quibbled at protecting Trumbull's paintings with a railing even though a gentleman pounded them with a cane to see if they were painted on the stone. In 1828 Congress put a stop to it all by abolishing Bulfinch's job, hoping that with no more plans there would be no more construction. After all, the two wings were united and a puffed up Roman dome made of painted wood overlooked the city. 


Work on the White House also became a political football, forcing congressional leaders to take pains to explain that a public building designed like a palace had to be furnished and landscaped somewhat like a palace, and that Adams, who really cared for little more than the garden, requested nothing, especially after his spending money for a billiard table created a scandal.

In most histories of the city, the coming of Jackson forms a watershed between an old refined aristocracy and a rougher democracy. Washington society did find a cause celebre to wage war against Jackson, lending some credence to the illusion of cataclysmic change, and then there was the riot. Over 20,000 people came to Jackson's Inauguration, crowded in front of the Capitol, roared their approval, and then disappeared. Some credit a ship's cable for keeping them at bay. The Navy to the rescue once again.

On the other side of town it was a different story. There was such a press of people in the White House that Jackson had to be taken back to his hotel. That relieved congestion only to allow the poor to stream in. The indelible image to the son of Alexander Hamilton, a Jackson supporter, was "a stout black wench eating a jelly with a gold spoon." Some feared the very walls would give but the damage was limited to the glasses, plates, curtains, windows and furniture. Congress, which begrudged giving Adams anything, would appropriate $6,000 "for furniture and repairs of furniture" just after appropriating $14,000 to furnish the White House for Jackson.

For local residents the "riot" came to symbolize the rapacity with which the uncouth democrats set upon their jobs and traditions. The new administration did immediately remove and prosecute Joseph Nourse at the Treasury who had been there since 1800. That he lived in a magnificent house didn't help, that that house was in Georgetown didn't help either.



But all his clerks, including his relative Michael Nourse, remained. Tobias Watkins, an auditor and close advisor to Adams, was prosecuted but only 6 of his 16 clerks were replaced. As it turned out, in his first 18 months Jackson only replaced about 10% of bureaucracy nationwide, then 10,000 jobs strong, and Washington clerks fared almost as well. Not all clerks were Adams supporters anyway. In the Post Office Department, which supervised most federal employees nationwide, 21 were for Adams, 17 for Jackson and 5 neutral. As for ending corruption, Jackson made the Post Office a cabinet position and appointed a pliant politician, William Barry, who managed to increase postal expenditures by over $2 million dollars, much of that awarded to characters who rather screwed up the mail service. Democrats liked easy money, too, though after congressional investigations, even Democrats could find no defense for the department. Jackson replaced Barry with his most trusted advisor, Amos Kendall, who restored efficiency.

As for city affairs, John Van Ness, an old friend of Jackson's secretary of state, Martin Van Buren, was elected mayor from 1830 to 1834. In his first message, Jackson urged that Congress let the District of Columbia send a delegate to Congress, to which one member replied that the mayors of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria already had the privilege of coming onto the floors of the House and Senate and that was enough representation.

But while local politicians and bureaucrats adjusted, Washington society was insulted when Jackson put a man in his cabinet who had recently married a fallen woman and virtually insisted that she be accepted by society. Washington society had always been amorphous. A stable high society could have formed around the two grand daughters of Martha Washington who both married major land owners in the city. But Martha Peter moved to Georgetown and Eliza Law divorced her husband soon after her rumored dalliance with a Marine officer in 1804. 

In 1829 permanent Washington society consisted of people without pedigree, and two of the main cogs, Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith and Mrs. William Seaton, were wives of men who made their marks as newspaper editors. Judging from the hundreds of gushing letters written about the attentions garnered from British and French ministers and their ladies, Washington society took its lustre from the diplomatic corps, but patriotically found its leader among the wives of the top office holders. So in1829 when Floride Calhoun, wife of the secretary of war soon to become vice president, declined to return a visit from Peggy Eaton, the new wife of the newly appointed secretary of war and Jackson's close friend and advisor, the rest of Washington society declined to "recognize" her too.

 Floride Calhoun

Many Washington ladies had grown to dislike Peggy O'Neale Eaton, the beautiful and flirtatious daughter of a city innkeeper. Her marrying a Navy purser didn't sedate her. When he was at sea, she continued flirting, especially with Senator Eaton who stayed at her father's inn. Indeed, under Jackson's orders, once her husband died at sea, Eaton married Peggy to end the talk about her. Mrs. Jackson died right after the election and Peggy had been a favorite of hers. 

A political tool to stymie Jackson and marketing tool to sell cigars


In Washington's first decade, the marriage probably would have smoothed over everything for in the opinion of many, even in the city's third decade, the reputations of its wives were none too high. But in the 1820s Washington was infused with a new religious fervor, as was much of the nation. A fever epidemic swept the city in the late summer and early fall of 1822, and it sparked Washington's first religious revival with "large assemblies every night." Two young Presbyterian divines from Princeton came to beat the bushes for converts. A woman newspaper editor, Anne Royal, kept track of the city's "black coats," as she called them, and found that even Librarian of Congress George Watterson was handing out Evangelical tracts. In an 1826 speech John Randolph rued the changes in Washington. Card tables and horse races had been replaced by a "meddling, obtrusive, intrusive, restless, self-dissatisfied spirit."

The big reform organizations, "the Great Eight," promoting missionaries, Bibles, Sunday schools, temperance, and "saving the sailors," blossomed in New York where the money was. Evangelicals focused on Washington to answer two prayers: to stop mail delivery on the Sabbath and to win the soul of the president. Divines rightly saw that the Sabbatarian movement might check most sinful enjoyments since the Sabbath begins at sundown on Saturday making holy a working man's one carefree night. During the campaign Adams damned himself by traveling home to Massachusetts on a Sunday. On his way to his inauguration, Jackson was careful not to travel on Sunday. (He still gambled on horses and cock-fights, however.) 

Rev. Ezra Stiles Ely from Philadelphia, who spoke openly about a Christian Republic, supported Jackson actively in the election and became the spiritual advisor to Jackson's ward and aide, Andrew Jackson Donelson and his wife. Ely wrote to the President urging him to respect the decision of other cabinet wives not to socially recognize the new wife of the Secretary of War. Then a young Presbyterian minister confessed that he had been called to Peggy's side after she had a miscarriage of a child, who could only have been Eaton's. Jackson personally investigated all allegations and cleared Peggy's name, to his satisfaction at least. Indeed he blamed first Clay and then Calhoun more than the evangelicals for orchestrating the attacks solely for political gain.

The wives of half his cabinet members, all friends of Calhoun, and most of Washington society still would have nothing to do with Mrs. Eaton. Despite Jackson's banishing women from living in the White House for a season, and sending Peggy briefly to Tennessee, it soon became widely believed that preferment in the administration depended on accepting Mrs. Eaton. Finally after two years of this, secretary of state, Martin Van Buren, a widower who scandalized some close associates with his doings with some of the city's widows, hit on a way to solve that problem and save the government from "the defiling clutch of the gossips." He resigned, shaming Eaton into resigning, and justifying the forced resignation of the rest of the cabinet. Eaton was sent off to be governor of Florida and then ambassador to Spain. The Senate, controlled by an opposition that delighted in not confirming Jackson's appointments, sent the immoral Eatons off into the world without a nay.

During the long social standoff, the social whirl continued. Jackson had an elegant dinner with the best wines for the diplomatic corps signifying that opulent entertainment remained de rigeur. The city had not looked for social leadership from Mrs. Adams, who had battled depression while in the White House, so a widower president made little difference. The cabinet and leading legislators took up the slack. Margaret Bayard Smith insisted that the opposing parties did not mix socially any more, but she was getting old. Sarah Polk, the wife of a rising Democratic power, found that the parties did mix socially, despite her disinclination to serve liquor at Polk's otherwise convivial dinners. 

When Commodore Charles Wilkes moved from New York City to work under the naval board, he marveled at the intellectual charms of a city where money alone did not impress, and where politics was banished at social occasions so only wit and beauty reigned, as well as whist.

Of course, one had to ignore the many poor people. In that regard, the view from the White House was not bad. The square to the north, named after Lafayette in 1824, had some of the city's most handsome houses. Frank Blair editor of the Washington Globe, the administration newspaper, bought the townhouse across from the White House that had been built in 1824 by the late Surgeon General Joseph Lovell. The city's banks were just on the other side of the Treasury building to the east of the White House, and a relatively genteel population lived along the Avenue west to Georgetown. 

The property taxes the city collected in each ward were generally spent in that ward, and the west end prospered. In 1832 there were 2,255 houses west of the Capitol, to 978 east of it. The poor lived south of the canal, southwest of the Capitol in what was known as the Island. And thanks to the disinclination to employ resident free blacks, many of these poor were workers from elsewhere attracted to the city by the promise of jobs macadamizing the Avenue or spanning the Potomac. 

The cholera epidemic that swept the nation briefly visited Washington in 1832. The doyenne of the city's philanthropists did her might to succor the Irish poor on the Island, but she died in her mansion across the mouth of the Tiber. The death of  the wife of Mayor Van Ness moved Congress to eulogies. She was the local and rich belle courted by so many congressmen in 1800. But perhaps Marcia Burnes Van Ness's death at 50 was a blessing. When her husband died in 1846, a Philadelphia woman revealed that she had been secretly married to him. 

Perhaps Marcia figured that out. Like several wives of the well off, she devoted herself to charities like the Washington City Orphan Society. The seasonal tide of men left not a few unwanted children in its neap. In her 1824 novel, A Winter in Washington, Margaret Bayard Smith painted a scene of a poor Irish woman and her child living with a free black man. The child was not his.


Margaret Bayard Smith by Charles Bird King

Poverty fanned out from the Capitol. Boarding houses still accommodated most congressmen, and some not handsomely: "the best rooms [are] of the smallest size, patched and broken glass and paper shades for curtains, a chair or two, one wash basin, a broken pitcher and nothing else." Three decades of both politicians and "mechanics and laborers" working in and on the Capitol, without the usual domestic comforts, created some traditions. The men hauling huge stone columns up the hill and the men arguing the large issues of the day commonly drank on the job and then after work drank some more, and pursued other pleasures in the many grog shops in the Capitol and on Capitol Hill, though, of course, not in each other's company. 

At least the city still provided the solace of nature. Since the boarding houses only surrounded half of it, artists could find views of the Capitol which made its surrounding look completely bucolic The fields and forests north of the city, beyond the shanties of blacks living on the fringe of the city, remained suitable for horseback riding, which became a passion with many politicians, and with Jackson in office, horse racing revived. The president had the pleasure of losing wagers on his own filly.

Each generation of Washington movers and shakers had some who, after a riding expedition, staked a claim outside the city. Postmaster General Amos Kendall bought land just north of the city line, not far from Samuel Harrison Smith's country house. The Blairs found Silver Spring, a bit farther from the action than Thomas Law's farm in Oxon Hill. But the restless horseback riders of the 1830s had other expansion in mind. Republican philosophers including Jefferson had always assumed that the Indians would eventually find their homes west of the Mississippi, and in the view of the state of Georgia, the government had promised to move them there. 

Adams respected Indian treaty rights, even having Georgia Indians, principally the Cherokees, come to Washington to renegotiate treaties that had been fraudulently made. Jackson defied the Supreme Court and used American troops to remove the Indians. (He first awarded the job to his friend and honorary Cherokee, Sam Houston, who would have become a millionaire off the contract, but Congress investigated and Houston, with a wink from Jackson, moved to Texas, then a province of Mexico.)

Securing territory for whites created hot spots, including a nagging war with the Seminole Indians in Florida. But generally Washington was treated to the pathos of Indian capitulation. A hard drinking town, Indian delegates frequently got drunk and the government paid the bills run up at Washington hotels. But there was also pageantry. In 1837 a delegation of Sioux attended a packed theater to watch a traveling ballerina. Dancing with ostrich plumes, she enthralled them. They interrupted her dance to give her their headdresses and ceremonial robes. She gave each a plume.

Another facet of Jacksonian expansion was less entertaining and less remunerative for the city. Westerners faulted the quasi-governmental Bank of the United States for restricting credit necessary for "enterprise," the usual word for land speculation. In 1832 Jackson vetoed the bill rechartering the bank because it was "dangerous to the liberties of the people," and foreigners owned most of its stock. Henry Clay hoped that veto would vault him into the presidency which would have delighted Washingtonians who adored Clay. Jackson was re-elected in a landslide.

Two years before the bank's old charter expired. Jackson withdrew all government money and deposited it into local banks, called pets, that could then expand their operations. Washington's Bank of the Metropolis was the local pet, but Whigs controlled Congress and publicly rebuked Jackson for an usurpation of the highest order. 


 Then the local Whig controlled banks threw themselves on their swords, so to speak. In 1834 three of them suspended payments on the paper money they put in circulation, plunging the city into chaos. Smelling a political move, Democrats investigated and uncovered, to their satisfaction at least, a pattern of self-dealing and insider manipulation so that brokers like W. W. Corcoran could buy bank shares and notes at panic prices. 

The men investigated presented a mix of those still tied to the fortunes of the original proprietors and new speculators like Corcoran who began his rise to wealth after his Georgetown dry goods store failed. Whigs counterattacked by accusing the local pet bank of rewarding congressmen with "loans" to buy public land warrants. But congressional investigators found bipartisan abuse so no report on the bank's dealings was made. This was the first glimmer of that  eclat George Washington promised for the city. There was a germ of bipartisan agreement that the city was ripening for mutual benefit.

With the rapid expansion of bank credit, the nation was clogged with all sorts of paper money, eclipsing the confusion of the heady post-war period before the Panic of 1819. Western Democrats especially sought the high ground by trying to outlaw paper money all together, and Washington became the laboratory for their theories. Hard money Democrats like Senator Thomas Hart "Bullion" Benton insisted that in a city where congressmen and federal employees were paid on a weekly basis, largely in hard currency, there should be enough coin in the city for all transactions. Instead brokers bought up currency for shipping elsewhere, flooding the city with debased paper currency in return. A paper dollar was worth just 85 cents at a store, which was tough on many. 

The low denominations of paper money were called "shinplasters" and were commonly used to pay for hack hire and menial services. The Democrats pushed bills outlawing paper money below a certain denomination in the city, insisting this would help end poverty in Washington.

The poor themselves soon found their own scapegoats, and it wasn't paper money. In 1835 Washington had its first race riot after one of Mrs. Thornton's slaves allegedly tried to murder her. Abolition literature was blamed and a white "incendiary" locked up and a lynch mob was soon on his case. While troops guarded him, rumor spread that a prominent free black, Beverly Snow, insulted the virtue of the wives of unemployed Navy Yard workers. So a white mob vandalized a school for black children, some tenements, a church, a whore house, and Snow's popular Pennsylvania Avenue eatery though "all the gentlemen of the city protected Snow as far as they could." 

The rage of poor whites was not pointless. Since public schools had fees most poor white children did not go. Snow proved that servile blacks could learn to talk and behave like the gentlemen they served. In an 1830 congressional debate there was general agreement that the slaves in the city were well behaved, and "that crimes in this District are principally committed by the idle and dissolute free blacks, and a still more degraded and wretched class of white people... as flock into this District in pursuit of temporary employment or plunder." 

It was easier to regulate the free blacks. After the riot, the city council banned blacks from owning any business. "Let them become subordinates and laborers, as nature has designed," one letter writer argued. But the ordinance was soon unenforced. Snow's reopened a few years later, under the management of another free black.

The poverty during relatively flush times especially embittered the city's white bureaucrats who well knew how bloated the federal treasury had become thanks to the protective tariffs. A number of clerks formed an association to press their case for higher pay. After his flour mill on Rock Creek failed to support his retirement, in 1832, former president John Quincy Adams took a seat in the House and soon began presenting their petitions. Congress investigated and uncovered a number of bureaucrats trying to raise large families on a salary that could barely support one man. (The committee didn't examine how the even lower paid department messengers, usually blacks, fared.)

Democrats in Congress made a parade of stern old republican oratory about retrenchment and pointed out that there were a hundred clamoring for each job. However, administrators like Amos Kendall recognized that the mass of these job seekers were incompetents or young men without families. At first he blamed the poverty of clerks on their too often trying to entertain in the style of their bosses, but in 1836, he and the administration supported a law that increased the lowest level clerk's salary from $800 to $1,000, and authorized more clerks to get the next higher rate of $1,200. This was a slight raise, but along with it, the administration accorded a higher status to bureaucrats, by surrounding them with massive column of a classical cut.

While Jackson had all the attributes of an anti-Washington politician, suspicious of the concentration of power, federal work projects and the accumulation of debt, he had a passion for the Union that was evident even before his would-be successor Vice President Calhoun fomented the 1832 nullification controversy in an effort to block collection of custom duties in South Carolina. When, thanks to the Tariff of 1828, federal revenues rose and retirement of the federal debt was in sight, Jackson was not shy about using the surplus to embellish Washington as a symbol of the Union. 

After a spring flood in 1831 washed away the wooden bridge over the Potomac, Jackson supported a stone bridge costing over a million dollars to link the north and south together. (This excited speculators to create Jackson City on the south end of the bridge which was to become Washington's Brooklyn.) But Congress only appropriated $200,000 and the bridge continued to be washed away. To relieve Pennsylvania Avenue from periodic inundation with mud, the federal government paid $130,000 to have it macadamized.

 Bridges over the Potomac were no match for river ice

When Dutch creditors threatened to take city property that was the collateral for a $1.5 million loan the District's cities used to buy stock to help build the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which quickly proved it couldn't turn a profit, Jackson urged Congress to have the federal government assume the loan and pay the annual obligations. He reacted more to the prospect of foreigners owning much of the city's land, and didn't join city supporters in singing the old song, that once the canal was completed, the barges filled with coal coming down river would more than pay for the government bailout. "Pass it," one proponent said, "and you will no longer view from this Capitol deserted streets and decaying villages."

The enduring symbol of Jackson's regard for the city was the new Treasury Building. After the old one was destroyed by fire in 1833, an act of arson revealed two years later, the clerks moved into a row of new townhouses at 14th street south of Pennsylvania Avenue. Then Jackson decided to do more than just rebuild the plain Georgian-style brick building east of the White House it. He became the first president to glorify the Washington bureaucracy with a building for the ages. 

Like Jackson, the city's principal architect Robert Mills, born in South Carolina, was keen about using buildings to cement the Union. He had just designed an imposing obelisk to be built in celebration of the centennial of George Washington's birth, an effort that floundered when the current Washington heir living at Mount Vernon refused to give up the bones of the General and his wife for interment in the capital. Given the Treasury job Mills designed a colossal Greek Revival office building, with 114 planned rooms, and 30 granite columns 36 feet tall, one for each of the then 30 states.



Nothing better symbolized Jackson's battle against the Bank of the United States, that from its own neo-classical building in Philadelphia boasted of being the guardian of the country's economic well being. The enlarged Treasury, to be filled with auditors and strong rooms to store gold taken from the bank's vaults, would prove that the rectitude of the federal government best guarded the nation's wealth.

The building came to symbolize in a small way the many troubles of Jackson's handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren. The economy tanked with the Panic of 1837, and the Seminole War dragged on to the point where Van Buren contemplated laws to make it easier to nationalize the state militias, 200,000 strong, and also importing dogs from Cuba trained to hunt down trouble makers in the bush. Van Buren had no stomach for an honorable war, avoiding a showdown with France over unpaid Quasi-war claims, not engineering a war with Mexico to gather in the new Republic of Texas, and turning his back on hotheads along the northern border who wanted war with Britain again to liberate Canada. 

It would seem that he was assured peace at his new home since, given their protestations when Jackson succeeded Adams, the resident Washington elite should applaud an orderly transfer of power to Van Buren reminiscent of the Jefferson to Madison to Monroe transitions. Van Buren promised no shake up in the bureaucracy and more than the Treasury was being built. Blodget's old hotel, which housed the Patent Office and Post Office, burned and two separate building were being built on the site across the street from each other.



However local Whigs, who won control of the city government, did to Van Buren what had been done to Adams. A freshman Democratic congressman from New York, Zadock Pratt, famed for building a Catskills tannery empire in a town renamed Prattsville, inspected the Treasury building then under construction, didn't like what he saw, and prompted a congressional investigation which Whigs were happy to support. A committee, aided by several architects, most of them Whigs, found the walls were too thin, the halls too narrow, and too many of the rooms were underground. They charged that in a fit of his typical dictatorial pique, Jackson had ruined the city plan by placing the building so that it blocked the view from the White House to the Capitol. 

Congress delayed appropriating money for the building and debated a bill to tear down what had been built, start anew, and use the building materials to rebuild the Post Office. Van Buren's major legislative proposal was the Independent Treasury bill which required federal monies to be held in federal depositories like the Treasury Building instead of a national bank, and that fed Whigs' zeal for tearing down the half constructed building.

However, made well aware of the distress of laid off workers, which helped symbolize the national misery caused by the financial Panic of 1837, on a close vote, Congress decided to stick with Mills. (Pratt began a campaign to stop using crumbly sandstone and build all public buildings with granite or marble. Then after only two years in town, he declined to run for re-election and left Washington for good.)

Whigs moved on to other measures to highlight the capital as the very soul of Democratic corruption. A widower with grown sons, Van Buren fit comfortably into the White House with much of the best shipped down from New York. Political opponents couldn't fail to notice, and they made him pay for it. As the financial Panic of 1837 resulted in depression, Whigs contrasted Van Buren's comfortable life style with the general misery. Rising in opposition to a routine $3,000 appropriation for upkeep of the White House, Congressman Ogle from Pennsylvania attacked the lap of luxury Van Buren lived in and the printed speech became the prime Whig campaign document in the 1840 presidential election. 

Local Whigs had to bite their tongues at the unjust attack on repairs so necessary, since a stream of visitors, especially from Britain, continued to come to the city with a sharp eye for the shabby. Only when the collector of customs in New York, a Democratic, sailed off to England with over a million dollars in federal money, did the spotlight veer from supposed Washington corruption.

Locals did draw the line against attacks on the city when abolitionists tried to make the city notorious as the very soul of "Slave power." 


Abolition petitions were as old as the Republic but in the 1830s they increasingly concentrated on slavery in the District, over which Congress had "exclusive jurisdiction." In 1838, in the midst of this campaign, an outraged nation succeeded in getting Congress to prove its power over the District and legislate some morality. "The Washington Spy" wrote in a New York newspapers that he could prove that a congressman told a contractor, "make it in my interest and I will pull strings for you." When a congressman insisted on an investigation, which could only embarrass the Van Buren administration, Rep. Jonathan Cilley accused the newspaper of once accepting a $50,000 loan from the Bank of United States and then changing its position on chartering the bank. 

Whigs and Democrats were at it again with newspaper men "who batten and fatten upon the slang and slander of the bar-rooms and tippling shops" getting their share of abuse. ("The Washington Spy" sat in the chamber covering debates, so he was called before the House. He stood on his rights not to admit that he was indeed "The Washington Spy," but said the culprit was a senator so the House dropped the matter.) 

That anti-newspaper talk emboldened Cilley to refuse to receive a letter from the editor demanding an explanation for his remarks. Rep. Graves who tried to deliver it took that as an affront to his honor, a duel ensued and Graves killed Cilley with a rifle shot at 80 paces. This was the first death arising from a congressional duel and congressmen were understanding, especially since Cilley chose the unorthodox weapon and was bound to die anyway as the editor and two henchmen were armed and prepared to kill Cilley if he survived the duel! National outrage forced congress to outlaw aiding and abetting dueling in the District proving that public pressure could force Congress to govern Washington morally.

Slavery was a more complex issue. Several hundred residents, including the Whig mayor, signed a petition asking abolitionists to leave it alone. They supported the "gag rule" that prevented receiving petitions, even though the most respected man in the city, John Quincy Adams, led the petition campaign. However, that Adams was a prominent Whig didn't incline locals to support the re-election of Van Buren who like Adams before his leaving the White House, always accommodated slavery in his rise to power. 

The Whig central committee, composed of congressmen, met in the Washington City Hall, under the control of Mayor Seaton, who would even refuse the retiring Van Buren the customary farewell thank you from the city. A Van Buren newspaper had mocked the attack on Van Buren's life style and wondered if the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, who mustered 76 electoral votes in the 1836 election, lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider. In response, from headquarters in Washington the Whigs launched a nationwide campaign of Log Cabin and Hard Cider parades with coonskin hats and "Tippecanoe" songs about Harrison's exploits against Indians in that 1811 battle. 

Clerks began moving into one wing of the Treasury building in 1839 and on July 1840, Congress passed the Independent Treasury bill, but a more portent symbol of the times was a log cabin on Pennsylvania Avenue at Market square, where one could always get hard cider. The election results came in over a three week period and as each state went for Harrison another white flag was hoisted over the log cabin. One stalwart lamented in his diary that "the Democratic clerks are wheeling into the Harrison ranks by platoons." The city was fairly launched on the tumultuous sea of changing administrations.