The Seat of Empire
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.