The Seat of Empire
The City Rises, Burns, and Rises Again: 1801-1820
The City Rises, Burns, and Rises Again: 1801-1820
An 1802 map of the hugely vacant city and the Mall was far from a reality
Thomas Jefferson had been privy to planning the city from the beginning, even encouraging L'Enfant to take as much land as possible from the proprietors for the government's use. He promised to sent him pictures of elegant buildings he had seen in Europe. But when he resigned as Washington's secretary of state at the end of 1793, relieving himself of any official responsibility for the capital, he helped form the Republican party (so-called, which became the Democratic party by Jackson's time).
Jefferson dedicated himself to counteracting the monarchical tendencies of the so-called Friends of Government, the Federalists. He disliked their treating Washington as a king. He made sure there would be celebration of "Jefferson's Birthday." He kept the date of his birthday secret.
Departing President John Adams informed Jefferson that he was leaving behind "in the stables of the United States seven Horses and two Carriages with Harness the Property of the United States. These may not be suitable for you: but they will certainly save you a considerable Expence as they belong to the studd of the Presidents Household."
No Presidential Studd! Jefferson and congress saw that the lot was sold. He disposed of courtiers too. He told the secretary of state not to deliver commissions to the justices of the peace that Adams appointed in his final days in office. In his Inaugural address the new federal city went without mention, save for those "fellow citizens... here assembled." He had no interest in assembling them again. He had no Inaugural ball nor, for the next eight years, any weekly public levees as they were called, that for the past twelve years in Philadelphia had sent people flocking to honor the president.
He confined his regular entertaining to small stag dinners of congressmen and showed off his plain manners and French chef. He did receive all visitors to what, to his chagrin, too many people called "the Palace." And he suffered with good humor when a Baptist preacher presented him with a 1,600 pound "Mammoth cheese," a symbol of American bounty and religious freedom. Jefferson put the cheese in a room next to his office and invited all comers to take a bite. In 1805 Jefferson wrote to his daughter that there were "fewer ladies than I have ever known" in the city for the season. He had only himself to blame.
What passed for style with Jefferson worked. With the death of George Washington, Jefferson was the most famous man in America and he proved that to be regarded as a sage wore as well as being treated as a king. His Republican party ruled Washington virtually uncontested for over 20 years. But when his successors entered office without Jefferson's stature, they perceived the need for pomp and grandeur. In 1815, a wit would write: "Did you ever see a basket of crabs, lifted up body and soul, by taking hold of the top one? Just so it is here - take hold of the President, and you raise the whole city, one hanging at the tail of the other in a regular gradation of dependence." So much for Jefferson's efforts to defeat the creation of a capital of courtiers.
As for the city around the "Palace," Jefferson tried to foster a capital that was decidedly low key -- the home of an economical, pay-off-the-debt government. To be sure, if the revenue from tariffs was large enough the government should finish the Capitol, which in 1801 had only one of three planned sections completed. And Jefferson, a bit of an architect himself, had ideas. Plus that's where the people's representatives met. But after perfecting the Capitol as an embodiment of Classical ideals matching the glories of, shall we say, Republican Rome, little more should be done for the city.
But the same political principles that dictated that federal government do little for the city, could require that the city do much for the federal government. To save money Jefferson decided to mothball the nation's small fleet of warships in the capital city. He asked the nation's foremost architect, Benjamin Latrobe, to come down from Philadelphia and design a system of canals and dry docks under open pavilions just northeast of the Capitol.
While the army raised to fight the French had been disbanded, the new navy had only been cut back. Jefferson gave the highest priority to the dry dock project. He wrote to Latrobe on November 2, 1802: "...we have little more than 4 weeks to the meeting of the legislature, and there will then be but 2 weeks for them to consider and decide before the day arrives (Jan. 1) at which alone any number of laborers can be hired here." (Masters preferred to hire out their slaves by the year in January.) Two things thwarted his plans: a naval war with Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean Sea and congress did not take the proposal seriously.
Jefferson was the first president to understand that the District of Columbia exists solely for the convenience of the federal government. Jefferson saw to it that the Navy Yard still grew, as he made it the place where frigates returning from the Barbary War would be repaired and re-outfitted far from blue water but under the nose of the cost conscious government, a very modest foreshadowing of the military-industrial complex.
Navy Yard in 1862, no one thought of making a view of the most dynamic area in the city prior to 1862, but it began growing in 1800
After Jefferson's March 4 Inauguration almost all the congressmen who had gathered just four months before left as the bi-annual short-session ended. The city had until the first week of December to improve living conditions for them, and, thanks to the census of 1800, there would be forty more congressmen to accommodate.
Eleven more boarding house materialized in Washington City, 6 more in Georgetown. Jefferson's supporters made much of Adams's long absences from the seat of government, and local boosters hoped that meant Jefferson would linger in the capital after Congress left. He did better than Adams who only stayed in the capital when congress was in session, but declaring that it was unsafe to be on tidewater during the months of July and August (a lesson brought home to him during the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic,) Jefferson went home to Virginia for July, August and a bit of September. His Secretary of State James Madison went home, too, not convinced by his landlord William Thornton that his F Street home near the President's house was always healthy.
With the President and Secretary of State gone, foreign diplomats moved temporarily to Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York. A tradition was born: when Congress was not in session, the city was extremely dull, despite Marine band concerts on the lawn of the President's house. Since the city did not have a local newspaper, it might have been completely forgotten save for what the anti-Jefferson Georgetown paper wrote. But Jefferson did help the city get a newspaper, though one not as lively as it could have been.
The editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, William Duane, veteran of many political battles and a civic minded, Irish bred, prod of some repute, opened a book store and printing shop on Pennsylvania Avenue and waited for a go ahead to move his pro-Republican Aurora newspaper from the old capital to the new. Meanwhile he shared his thorough knowledge of the bureaucracy that moved down from Philadelphia, e.g. the clerk Stephen Pleasanton is a "nothingarian." By the way, Pleasanton remained in bureaucracy for years. His wife was very pleasant.
Instead Jefferson enlisted a young untested editor from Pennsylvania, Samuel Harrison Smith, who began publishing the National Intelligencer from a building on Pennsylvania Avenue, next to what was to be the Central Market midway between the two great public buildings. His wife looked askance at the unhealthy low ground. Smith assured her that his office on the second floor was high, dry and healthy. They rented a house on Capitol Hill to live in.
The first page of every early 19th century newspaper had box after box of advertisements. The most unforgettable ad in the Intelligencer was for the "Central Intelligence Agency" near the Capitol where a chap would advise newcomers on finding housing. To be sure, new shops opened, but for another decade people would look to Alexandria or Baltimore for most necessities (because of all the bankruptcies arising for Federal city investments Georgetown was getting a bit rundown.)
The newspaper survived on paid federal government announcements. In return, the Intelligencer boosted the Jeffersonian agenda, and, going somewhat against that current, became a booster highlighting every local improvement. Thomas Law, the English gadabout who gained Mogul status in India, had been the only man in town with money and still acted that one. He barged in on editor Smith when he was still in bed: poems for the wife, a budding writer, and new civic improvements for the editor.
The main impediment to the flourishing of Jefferson's quiet capital was congress. Jefferson calculated that since congressmen were paid by the day, a shorter session saved money. He even told Republicans not to prolong debate by answering every Federalist charge against his administration. But the stonewall, washed by hours of Federalist eloquence, soon broke, and debates sometimes presented the spectacle of a succession of polished orators recounting and reshaping the whole history of the young Republic down to the very crisis poised to tear it apart.
In those first years, Congress was rather exciting. Some congressmen brought their wives who did not want to miss the show. The young nation was obsessed with politics, and speeches were prime entertainments. The editor of the Intelligencer transcribed and published them so they could be reprinted and read throughout the nation. James Bayard, for example, spoke six hours over two days against Jefferson's attempt to scale back the nation's federal courts.
Answering Bayard was the Republican floor leader John Randolph of Roanoke, only 29 years old but a must hear speaker with wit, invective and a very high voice. He was a curiosity to see as he came to and from his lodgings in Georgetown, slender, boyish and bristling with punctilio, always accompanied by his horse, slave, dog and whip.
33 year old House leader, John Randolph
In addition, highly prized orators could be heard arguing before the Supreme Court in February, which met for three weeks in a small room in the Capitol. Jefferson tried to limit its term but succeeded only in making its short term the height of the social season in Washington; days of oratory and argument were followed by nights of partying.
The Capitol became the place to be, a building that many wanted to touch, and take a penknife to, scratching on names, obscenities, and libels. Even though it was unfinished, it worked. One estimate had "annually four to five hundred persons whom their affairs bring to seat of government" taking shelter in the Capitol "during the severity of the winter." There were refreshments to buy, even, some say, companions for hire.
On Sunday, divine services were held there since the city had no churches, and the occasion became a great show of fashion and curiosity especially when a latter day Jeremiah took the podium. One predicted that "your temples and your palaces... will be burned to the ground," because by delivering mail on Sunday, the government did not properly observe the Commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.
Because of the Capitol, the city, rude and rustic though it may be, became a spotlight. Jerome Bonaparte, came to the United States in 1803, was smitten by Elizabeth Patterson, a belle in Baltimore, married her (later annulled by arrangement of his brother Napoleon) and brought her to Washington, where she dazzled all with the near nudity of her dresses. Tongues wagged.
Residents banking on the non-Jeffersonian dream of a grand capital strained to prolong the social glee and extend it to other parts of the city. Horse breeders ex-commissioner Thornton and Tayloe, who built the Octagon house, sponsored the Washington Jockey Club Races when congressmen arrived. The Capitol Hill dancing assembly began in December; Georgetown's in January. (The same crowd went to both.)
Judging from the letters many congressmen wrote home what they thought they lacked in Washington was a common sense place to live which Philadelphia and New York had provided. Some congressmen fashioned a rutted life from boarding house to Capitol and back again, despite the locals' mad efforts to make them perambulate past all the real estate, all the vacant lots. It was almost as if the local boosters thought the difficulty of navigating the city was its main selling point.
It certainly was a special art. To check on a constituent's business with the Treasury over a mile away
The first Treasury Building
one had to cross Tiber Creek on a small bridge, avoid the low ground of lower Pennsylvania Avenue and go up to the F Street ridge, follow that until it ran into Pennsylvania Avenue, and continue up a sight hill to the small building on the other side of the Palace, a chore even by hack.
The view west from the bottom of Capitol Hill in 1803
Blodget's Hotel not quite finished
Most of Pennsylvania Avenue was avoided because that low ground began to deteriorate rapidly as the F Street ridge was settled and no provision was made for drainage.
For the true players of the political game, it was not uncommon to solve the problem of wielding influence by living on the other side of town. Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin and Navy secretary Robert Smith lived next to the Capitol. (Gallatin rented the house George Washington built. Smith, momentarily, the richest man in government, bought his house.)
Stuck in the capital almost year round the cabinet secretaries needed a private residence. Congressmen boarded, most in jam packed houses by the Capitol but not a few in more civilized Georgetown nearer the White House and Executive offices where they got favors for their constituents. (Not John Randolph, however, who thought asking for favors for constituents was un-Republican.) The impoverished city designer L'Enfant worked both ends of government sleeping at Rhodes Tavern on 14th Street and, his dog at his side, haunting the halls of the Capitol by day. The government owed him $37,500 in royalties for his plan, plus $50,000 for "enterprise," and $8,000 for "labor." (In 1808, L'Enfant settled for $4,600.)
This confusing process of getting congressmen acquainted with the city might have eventually won their affection for the rural playground save for one thing. Congress had to decide how to govern it. They first investigated and uncovered how woefully the locals, who like Law and Thornton were constantly beguiling them, had mismanaged the project. On May 1, 1802, Congress fired the three commissioners, putting one man, a superintendent, in charge of the public buildings, though appropriating no money for any more building. It made selling lots to pay off all the loans required to finish the public buildings the new superintendent's prime duty, with the stipulation that he could wait while the many court cases determining ownership of thousands of lots remained unsettled.
On May 3, the City of Washington got its own government, a mayor appointed by the president and a council of 12 elected annually that voted 5 of its members into an upper chamber. All white males, resident for 12 months, who paid property taxes, could vote. The city had to care for the poor, infirm and diseased, could charge fees for licenses and was limited in the rate it could tax property. The law outlined all the minute powers that the city government had, including "to restrain or prohibit gambling," but such ordinances would not "be obligatory" on non-residents (i.e. congressmen.)
It hardly bears remembering who Jefferson picked for the first mayor. Robert Brent was from a distinguished Virginia family that had sold quarried stone for the public buildings and he married into the Notley Young family that owned almost all of southwest Washington. Top drawer indeed, both families owned many slaves. But Brent became the first man put in the unenviable position of being mayor in a city in which he ranked well below the president, cabinet, congress and court in status and power.
The first city council included three original proprietors and three men who had worked on the public buildings. Other notable members included newspaper editor Smith and James Barry, from Baltimore, who tried to refine sugar south of the Capitol, but when that failed made biscuits for the navy. A quarter of the budget of almost $4,000 went to relief of the poor, not a few of them disappointed claimants for congressional largess or federal jobs. The city couldn't afford a public school until 1805, and it made the old "temporary" hospital for workers on Judiciary Square the city's new poor house.
The city had to pay for improving roads, but, to meet demand, only a few blocks around the public buildings had to be readied for development. This was not what Washington had promised in1791 when the proprietors signed over their land to the government. To force a change of heart locals begged congressmen to invest in Washington real estate. But by 1802 the consensus formed among those congressmen who dabbled in land speculation that Washington real estate was not to be touched.
Save through matrimony. Rep. John Van Ness of New York won the highly sought hand of Marcia, the daughter of original proprietor David Burnes who died in 1799, and control of many of the lots surrounding the President's house.
Marcia Burnes: most desirable match in the city
Still, Van Ness was usually short of ready cash and didn't start building his mansion on the lots where the original Burnes' cottage and farm stood south of the White House until 1815. The War of 1812 came none too soon to raise property values.
The niggardly scale Congress and the President set for the local government only meant that locals had to importune Congress and the President for special appropriations. Yet any improvement on one side of the District or city set off howls of protest from the other. In 1807 the pack of congressmen boarding in Georgetown were inspired by their landlords to oppose any federal support for a bridge over the Potomac, claiming it would block ships going up to the busy port.
Not so, rallied congressmen coached by Capitol Hill landlords. Only 50 large ships had gone up that far in seven years and many of those when the government moved in bringing all the bureaucratic trappings from Philadelphia. They pointed to the undeveloped lots southwest of the Capitol, which would flourish with a bridge. Even Morris's and Nicholson's buildings would be finished, if there was only a bridge.
The bridge was built without federal help, and the southwest did not flourish save that soon slave traders built private jails for slaves on Maryland Avenue so convenient to the bridge and the shackled march south. Even newcomers from north recognized the need for slaves as servants and to carry messages to maintain contacts in a city where so few people lived so far apart. But most wished slaves being transported south could be kept out of sight.
A consensus rapidly formed in Congress that the local affairs of the District of Columbia were an infernal nuisance, and its citizens had too much influence on Congress. During eight years of local stagnation, if not agony, Jefferson did little more than offer some private charity and agree to be president of the board of trustees for the school system. His standard reply to all requests for help was that the federal government could only spend money on the public buildings and the one avenue connecting them. So, while Jefferson had Lombardy poplars planted along Pennsylvania Avenue, he let the wood lots on government land be ravaged by wood choppers for private gain. He told those who regretted their lost that the government couldn't afford to guard them.
Jefferson's improvements: the House wing and connecting covered walkway and Lombardy poplars on Pennsylvania Avenue
It took a murder for the city get something so basic as a jail. An Irishman named McGurk, who had been a carpenter building the President's house in 1800, murdered his pregnant wife. Punishment by the old laws of Maryland was generally rough and ready. The same court that sentenced McGurk to death, sentenced a burglar to 39 stripes. But the condemned man's lawyer, Augustus Woodward, pursued appeals, and McGurk had to be watched six months before he swung. Congress appropriated $11,000 to build a two room jail. (There would not be another hanging until 1818. Jefferson appointed the lawyer Woodward, who tended to be a prod for justice in other matters, to a position in the Michigan territory.)
A two room jail might seem an embarrassing addition to a Seat of Empire. Truth be told, even with 40 new members the congress managed with that one magnificent building on Capitol Hill, but plans must be fulfilled. Each House needed a house. In 1804 shipments of sandstone began coming from the government quarry in Aquia, Virginia again.
Some of Jefferson's followers, led by Randolph, carried republican economizing to its logical conclusion and suggested moving Congress into the President's house, the president into a private house and finishing the Capitol when the country had money to spare. Jefferson didn't go that far. In 1803 he had Latrobe build a temporary building called "the oven" to accommodate the House and work on the permanent House wing began.
But the capital of the rising empire could not escape the critical gaze of the rest of the world. In 1803, during negotiations in Paris that would lead to the Louisiana Purchase, special envoy James Monroe fielded questions about the new capital from Napoleon himself. Did the federal city grow much, how many inhabitants, does the president "reside always at the federal city," and "are the public buildings there commodious, those for the Congress and President especially?"
Jefferson had a abiding love of architecture and once the die was cast, he dropped his pose as an economizer and lavished the project with his attention. The many letters that passed between him and Latrobe provide a lesson on classical architecture and taste. Indeed Jefferson appears to have wanted a bit of everything so that the House chamber would be a museum of classical styles, not all Greek as Latrobe wanted. Yet both were mindful of nationalism and Latrobe designed columns topped with corncob capitals, though he had to hire Italians to carve them.
Unfortunately for the city, this collaboration was soon equivocated, and ironically by a man who had been one of the loudest boosters of the city. Although his original plan for the Capitol had been frequently amended by the architects supervising construction, William Thornton fought all changes even as Latrobe argued that the original plan for the building was unworkable and inconvenient.
Appointed by Jefferson to head the patent office, Thornton announced he was a Federalist. Latrobe ducked Thornton's challenge to a duel and eventually won a libel suit, but he had little chance to tarnish the reputation of one whose talents as a host and horse breeder couldn't fail to impress congressmen, especially after Latrobe went so seriously over budget that workers and some suppliers had to agree to carry on without pay.
So in 1807, at a cost of almost $400,000, including the $208 for a dinner for 167 workmen, the new House chamber, larger than the British House of Commons and with 24 massive Corinthian columns inside, opened to decidedly tepid reviews. Latrobe's specially designed chimneys clogged the air with fumes. All that stone plus a domed ceiling created an acoustical nightmare. (Members adjusted: by gathering around a member as he spoke, colleagues demonstrated their admiration; by staying in their seats they could get work done without being bothered by speeches.)
Once the work on the Capitol was done, it would not be fair to say that the city stagnated. Remember even with the economizing Jefferson in charge, the needs of Empire were being addressed at the Navy Yard. When congress left the city it was the place for a fight. During the Fourth of July celebration at there in 1802, a Marine guard bayoneted a "mechanic." Treasury secretary Gallatin raged that men in uniform had no place in the city, but no one banished the Marine guards. There were less than a dozen.
By 1805 there were 114 civilian mechanics employed at the yard leavened with hired slaves. There were only two naval officers aboard. The sea dogs coming home from the Barbary Wars were promptly put on half pay and sent home. A memorial commemorating the deaths of six naval officers in Tripoli, sculpted in Italy, graced the navy yard (and found a spot in front the Capitol once the likes of Gallatin were gone.)
Tripoli Monument which is now at the Naval Academy
The two officers in charge of the yard pulled their weight for the city: the commandant of the Marines, Burrows, loved to talk about land speculation with congressmen, and the commandant of the Navy Yard, Tingey, had two eligible daughters.
The army was not in the mix at all. The commanding general of the army, James Wilkinson, visited the city briefly in 1800, hated the summer weather and returned to his troops on the frontier from whence congress got reports of men dying because Wilkinson had them bivouac in a swamp. But he was mindful of why there was a seat of empire. He sent delegations from Indians tribes to the federal capital to make treaties to give up their lands. In 1806 an Arikara chief, famed for his map making skills, depicted the President's house and drew "a gun, a sword, powder, ball and tobacco as the presents he expected." (In a way the map presaged the future regard the army would have for the capital.)
The city might have muddled through its early years with its reputation intact if it had been only a place of resort for Americans who were by and large impressed with the Capitol. Then in 1804 a young and famous Irish poet Thomas Moore came to town. He stayed with the new British ambassador Anthony Merry and his wife in the British legation which consisted of two brick townhouses standing alone in a field west of the president's house. The Merrys bent his ear. Mr. Merry was shocked at the president's informality in dress (slippers and a red vest.) Mrs. Merry was shocked to be left standing alone at the president's dinner for the diplomatic corps while the president escorted Mrs. Madison to the table.
Mrs. Merry has been treated uncharitably by some historians. Aaron Burr, an amiable widower, found her an interesting woman.
Few seemed to understand Jefferson's style of presiding over both the government and Washington society. He tried to elevate what most perceived as confusion and negligence to matters of principle. A pecking order among the ladies could not be encouraged by a republican president, so social affairs at the President's house were pall-mall. Even diplomats had to adjust. Jefferson wanted the French minister to trade in his gold lace for a plain frock coat.
Of course, people who were distinguished back home and sent to Washington, be they congressmen or diplomats, did not want to come to a city without distinctions. Rank trumped all else. Even the French minister, General Turreau, who was known to beat his wife and consort with prostitutes, was a lion in society and invitations to his balls were highly coveted.
Moore met Jefferson, even sang songs in his heart melting Irish tenor and then moved on to Philadelphia where he fell in with the wits running the Portfolio, a Federalist literary weekly that lampooned Jefferson for his slave mistress Sally (a story first broadcast to the nation in 1802 by a Richmond newspaper.) In 1806, the city and nation confronted Moore's poems branding the City of Washington as a sham:
This fam'd metropolis, where Fancy sees
Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees;
In1808 there was a serious effort in the House to move the capital back to Philadelphia. In a raucous debate nothing seemed to please opponents of the city. Capitol Hill exposed members to the blustery west wind, several had died. The low ground around the hill was unhealthy and could never be built on. That accommodations were poor almost went without saying, and most bureaucrats would gladly take a cut in salary if they could return to Philadelphia and many congressmen would agree to getting $3 a day instead of $6.
What congressmen craved, it was argued, was society and a "lobby" to tell them what to do. One proponent argued that the city was unconstitutional because its citizens had no representation in congress. For that he received death threats from locals, who thought that the agitation to move was in itself a prime reason why the city did not prosper. The House split over some procedural votes, fueling local consternation, then defeated the measure handily.
That the country was experiencing a wave of patriotism may have helped the city survive the vote. In the summer of 1807, a British man of war attacked the American frigate Chesapeake as it left Norfolk and took four supposed British deserters. Many Americans wanted to go to war to avenge the insult and the deaths of three sailors. In a matter of weeks Jefferson and his cabinet sketched out a plan for the conquest of Canada on four fronts, not for new territory, of course, but to deny Britain timber for her navy. Seven cities including Washington were given the highest priority for defensive measures.
In 1798 when endorsing a navy yard in the city, George Washington claimed that "it would not be in the power of all the navies of Europe to pass" a fort on Digges's Point across from Mount Vernon. The 1807 crisis prompted the federal government to build one there and by 1811 thirteen cannons could sweep the river and six protected the rear of the fort.
Washingtonians did not shrink from the prospect of another war with Britain. English born Thomas Law had been averring since 1796 that every British defeat was a victory for the City of Washington. In 1803 Congress had created a militia for the District. In response to the attack on the Chesapeake, thirty-one men including Mayor Brent formed a "volunteer troop of horse." However, Jefferson let over two months pass before assembling Congress in emergency session in October to address the crisis. The British meanwhile somewhat apologized and Jefferson urged on Congress a form of coercion he found more congenial: an embargo of all trade with Britain.
Washingtonians did their patriotic mite by buying stock in the short-lived Columbian Manufacturing Company to make finished goods heretofore imported from Britain. But war fever did not entirely abate. In 1808 inventor Robert Fulton wrote Torpedo War, a book designed to persuade the government to support his researches into a weapon of mass destruction that could defeat the Royal Navy. Jefferson joined Secretary of State Madison and a handful of influential congressmen at a February 1809 gathering at Kalorama, an estate just outside the city, where down by Rock Creek, Fulton pierced "a piece of timber, by a harpoon discharged by force of gun-powder from a blunderbuss."
The harpoon guided the torpedo
Jefferson's reaction to the experiment is not known, but the weapons sharp report might have shocked him into a realization that he was out of touch. The nation wanted action. The day after Jefferson left office, Congress repealed his Embargo but not out of any new found love for the British. The law was difficult to enforce especially along the northern border. Repeal only stoked the old war fever, which was a definite boon for the city. Instead of adjourning after the inauguration of Madison, the usual end of the short session, Congress met for most of March and held an emergency session from May to late June. Congress even anted up $10,000 to study Fulton's torpedo. (Rashly, he touted his weapon as a substitute for a navy which inspired Commodore John Rodgers to craft countermeasures at trials in New York which put "torpedo war" back on the drawing board for many years.)
Congress also anted up $30,000 to make the President's house a place people could get excited about. Official Washington seemed relieved to get past Jefferson, who had shown such a disinclination to ride crests of patriotism. To celebrate his foreign policy coup, the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory, the city had organized a ball for 450 people with illuminations and all manner of patriotic decorations. Jefferson refused to attend. To signal a new attitude, Madison allowed celebrations during his inauguration and "thousands and thousands" of people thronged Pennsylvania Avenue, and hundreds an Inaugural ball. With the $30,000 appropriation, Latrobe made the "family" drawing room at the President's house suitable for entertaining. The weekly reception there began to be called a "squeeze," because so many came leaving little room to move about.
Madison realized that the people needed a little bit of a king and queen, and his buxom wife Dolley, at least, looked and played the part. While a friendly hostess to any man not wearing muddy boots or woman accompanied by a man, she studied the fashions of diplomats' wives and hired the European born footman who had learned all about protocol while working for the Merrys. (Slaves still lit torches to show the way.) The presidential carriage was back. Pall-mall was out. Even treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, for eight years a social bore, began hosting glittering balls.
The new spirit was good for real estate. Lots along Pennsylvania Avenue began to sell at "very long credit" in 1810, also helped along by a court decision favorable to the government's claim to disputed lots, (though Greenleaf filed more suits in response.) The dreams of a commercial city flourished once again. Irish laborers resumed digging the canal after 18 years, and in just five years, the job was done at least from the bend of Tiber Creek at the foot of Capitol Hill down to the Navy Yard.
Late 19th century view of dream of the city's founders come true, the Canal, just before it was buried as a nuisance
At the same time, in the wake of disbanding the Bank of the United States, which from 1791 to 1811 flourished in Philadelphia, Congress unleashed a banking boom throughout the nation, and, acting as the local government, chartered new banks for the city. This was celebrated in a congressional report with a familiar refrain: "It can no longer be doubted, that the District of Columbia is destined to an enviable, perhaps unrivaled enjoyment of commerce and the useful arts, the essential concomitants of wealth, power and magnificence." Due, of course, to "its site at the head of maritime navigation of a great river." Not that the canal was funded by the government. Madison wouldn't go that far. He only approved a lottery to raise money for the canal, and soon approved more lotteries to finance construction of two schools, one for each side of town, a penitentiary and a city hall. Despite the renewed promise of a commercial boom, the city was still struggling to have the rudiments of a local government.
Local boosters soon learned the frustrating lesson that when the capital came to life, the city itself seemed to be more of a secondary consideration as evidenced by this enduring curiosity: as the nation began its march to war with Britain nothing was done to prepare defenses for the city. It bears remembering that half the news in American newspapers reported on the Napoleonic Wars, a compendium of tactical genius in the rolling hills of Central Europe. Looking around the vacant hills of Washington, swagger was deemed sufficient if backed with stirring rhetoric. Indeed, Madison's renewal of pomp and parties almost backfired because he continued to equivocate on the issue of war. He was a short unprepossessing man who usually dressed in black and many started calling the larger than life Dolley president behind his back.
Madison: not a few thought he less than filled the Presidential chair
Common folk in Washington had taken to calling the President's house the "white house," and New England politicians, most opposed to Madison, began to prefer that phrase. The opposition press picked it up too, associating it with the flag of surrender. "Tammany" writing in the May 2, 1810 Baltimore Whig, urged bringing "a more energetic and manly tenant into the white house" to replace "the contemptible blank of a neutral president." Even when Jefferson was in power, Republican congressmen began to balk at his direction. When John Randolph decided the administration was shirking republican principles, he stepped aside as House leader and attacked Jefferson and Madison. He made independence from the nominal party leadership acceptable, even exciting.
This immeasurably expanded a politician's possibilities in the capital. Some scorned any idea that they had to be circumspect. The rakish Joseph Clay of Philadelphia could espouse his philosophical atheism, writing checks to "Jesus Christ, or bearer." The rakish Henry Clay of Kentucky could gamble, drink, chase women, and covet Canada without fear that any misstep might ruin his career. (He had his limits, only gambling his handsome fees from arguing cases before the Supreme Court.) In 1811 his peers elevated him to the Speaker's chair at the age of 33. When Madison's scruples got in the way of riding the crest of patriotism, the country looked to the young men on Capitol Hill.
The 12th Congress virtually guaranteed its constituents, at least those in the south and west, a war with Britain to right the wrongs, like impressment of seamen, suffered mostly by the anti-war northeastern states. Much of the congressional debate was secret, but the knowing could guess that progress was being made by the frequency of Clay's visits to the White House, sometimes with other "war hawks" in tow, to buck up the courage of the president.
When war was declared most in the city were beside themselves with excitement. Madison donned a fighting hat with cockade and visited the War and Navy departments next door to rally the bureaucrats who would soon be dispensing money. There were no regular army generals in town, since republican wars were properly fought by farmers summoned at a moment's notice from their fields.
Of course soon the city filled with would be officers quite exciting the local sense of self-importance. Margaret Bayard Smith, the editor's wife, wrote to her sister that due to "the importance and expansion of our nation, this is the theater on which its most interesting interests are discussed, by its ablest sons, in which its greatest characters are called to act, it is every year, more and more the resort of strangers from every part of the union, and all foreigners of distinction who visit these states, likewise visit this city." Prices for lots and houses on Pennsylvania Avenue began to double.
Unfortunately for the glory of Washington, the war did not go well. General Hull surrendered his army outside Detroit without firing a shot, to the surprise of the outnumbered British forces. Naval victories revived the city's spirits, and captains were feted, captured flags displayed, and cash awards voted for victorious crews. The arrival of the Constellation for repairs at the Navy Yard inspired supporters of a bigger navy to fete wavering congressmen on its cramped deck, with President and his wife in attendance (Jefferson would have never done that,) and Congress soon authorized construction of 74 gun ships.
Constellation vs. Insurgent
But Canada remained unconquered. New York became the most important theater of operation. Needing a man from there in a leadership position, Madison appointed General John Armstrong as his new secretary of war. He wisely shook up the army command, naturally coveted the presidency, and could have been just what the situation called for, save that he did not like Washington. A senator in 1801, he had been under-whelmed. He even disliked the Man, having penned the mutinous Newburgh letter attacking George Washington's leadership during the Revolution.
In the face of the first British threat to the city in the summer of 1813, the city's militia marched down the Potomac and the British went away. But John Van Ness, general of the militia, was alarmed at the lack of defensive measures around the city. City leaders went to Madison and Armstrong pleading for something more than Fort Warburton on Digges's Point. One response was to change the name of the fort to Fort Washington.
John Armstrong: first active general to move to city, leading to disaster
In a report to Congress, Armstrong wrote that "the seat of the National Government, should be placed not merely beyond injury, but beyond disturbance, from an enemy." But he told everyone that if the British came, they would attack Baltimore, not Washington, where there was nothing of value. Many took heart when mariners explained how hard it was to sail up the Potomac, a point rarely mentioned when conversation turned to Washington's future as an emporium.
But some residents threatened the first demonstration outside the White House if the administration planned to bailout, perhaps the only demonstration ever designed to enforce the message that the current resident better not try to leave. Dolley wrote, "disaffection stalks around us." And it wasn't just the redcoats who were feared. Margaret Bayard Smith confessed that a black rebellion, not the redcoats, was the "evil" she "had most dread of."
From 1808 on, laws regulating blacks became increasingly draconian keeping them off the streets at night, and the British were promising them freedom. Van Ness, also the president of the Bank of Washington, rallied the leading men of the District and they arranged a loan offer of $200,000 to the government, if it would only build more forts around the city, where incidentally many blacks lived in their hovels.
In 1814 Madison formed the Tenth Military District to protect the federal city and Baltimore, but the Maryland lawyer, William Winder, put in charge did nothing to purpose. As a British force came up the Patuxent River and marched toward Bladensburg, Maryland, he worried about bridges to the city even though, when approaching from that direction, the only obstacles were some forests and a narrow creek. Winder massed his forces at Bladensburg, and despite his only losing 25 while killing 250, he ordered a retreat and both regulars and militia fled in the face of the enemy that they outnumbered 7,000 to 4,000.
Only a navy battalion under Captain Barney made a creditable stand. (Fighting with him were several free blacks. However, the tale more told at the time was that blacks "never evinced so much attachment to the whites and such dread of the enemy.") The troops soon overtook Madison, Armstrong and Monroe who, upon the President's decision, left the battle in Winder's hands. Armstrong suggested the Capitol building be defended, but he was easily persuaded not to so order, and after the debacle soon resigned. Important papers were removed and the federal government left the city. (To Margaret Bayard Smith's relief, slaves gladly returned all the muskets tossed aside by the fleeing American militia.)
The Capitol and the President's house were soon in the hands of the enemy. On August 24, 1814, Admiral Cockburn and General Ross engaged in a bit of cabaret in both buildings, using as props things like seat cushions left behind by those who fled. Then helping to pile papers and furniture, they ordered the buildings burned.
The White House after the British burned it
Private buildings were spared, save the office of the National Intelligencer, a newspaper often critical of Cockburn. Neighbors persuaded Cockburn not to burn it and consume the whole block. Papers and type were piled into Pennsylvania Avenue and burned. British marines, armed with large poles, broke the windows and burned all other government offices, save the Patent Office housed in Blodget's hotel recently bought and refurbished by the government.
Thornton, commissioner of patents, protested that the models inside represented the fruits of private genius and thus should not be burned. Nobody was on hand to make a similar argument to save the congressional library in the Capitol. Meanwhile by order of the secretary of the navy, the Navy Yard was destroyed, and bridges burned.. The fires raged until a ferocious thunderstorm put them out. The British soon left and regrouped to attack Baltimore.
Meanwhile a British naval force came up the Potomac, paused at Fort Washington, and was amazed when the Americans blew up the fort.
The British continued up river, received the surrender of Alexandria, and before Washington and Georgetown could surrender, they trimmed their sails and withdrew. The British got their comeuppance outside of Baltimore. The militia fought under the command of Senator Samuel Smith, which boded well for Washington. While no local figure covered himself in glory, when Congress returned there would be heroes in town. Plus Francis Scott Key, who, during the British bombardment, penned what was to become the National Anthem, lived in Georgetown and practiced law in Washington.
Obeying a presidential order made a few weeks before the burning of Washington, Congress returned to the city in mid-September to pass emergency taxes to fill the depleted treasury. Congress met in the building that Thornton had saved. There was scarcely room for everyone and still many had not reached the capital. After a meeting with Madison did not assure some congressmen that the capital was safe from another invasion, they proposed temporarily removing the federal government to Philadelphia.
The debate split on regional lines, though the agitation in New England for separation from the union, about to fizzle out at the Hartford Convention, was not mentioned. Facing a presidential veto, proponents probably persisted only to highlight the disgrace of the Madison administration, and perhaps ease secession with the next British victory.
There is an innocent explanation for the defeat of the bill by a 74 to 83 vote. The city was adjusting. The first family moved into the Tayloe Mansion. Thomas Law, Daniel Carroll and others offered to build a temporary meeting hall for Congress, just north of Capitol Square, and that offer of a bank loan of $200,000 for defense grew to a $500,000 offer for restored glory.
The Capitol after the British burned it
The temporary Capitol (then a boarding house, then a prison)
Men who had never liked the city argued that the British burned the Capitol and President's house because they had no public buildings to match them. So victory would not be complete until they were restored. Then there was an amendment to the bill calling the bluff by requiring $500,000 to be expended to rebuild the public buildings in Washington while the government was in Philadelphia. The usual 79 votes in favor of removal melted to 74.
On February 4 the news of Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans reached the city and all of Washington burned again, with bonfires. The bill to rebuild was brought to the floor, a program of five annual $100,000 appropriations, but not a penny would come out of the depleted Treasury thanks to the $500,000 line of credit from District banks, and once again "it was probable that the sales of lots belonging to the public in the city, would furnish money enough to reimburse the loan before it came due." The bill passed, 78 to 63 in the House, and then the Treaty of Ghent arrived and was ratified in twenty-four hours. The war was over. One senator "recalled a sense of relief and exultation that was almost 'childish' filled the city," and reconstruction began.
One can view the rebuilding project as not unlike the original construction of the Capitol. Madison even imitated the Residence Act of 1790 and appointed three commissioners to oversee it, including John Van Ness, the banker who packaged the loan for reconstruction. And as of old, the project was soon over budget and over deadline, with acrimonious clashes of old rivals, for Latrobe was once again in charge with Thornton and his friends always sniping in the wings.
But most simply liked the challenge and what it symbolized. In 1816 when Grace Webster came with her husband Daniel, who had voted for removal, she was prepared to sneer at "this place called a City." Two weeks later she wrote back home that it was "more pleasant than I expected. I have twice been to see the ruins of the Capitol it was more splendid than I had imagined." They chatted with the French and Italian stonemasons and she opined, "It looks as if it would be at least the work of this generation to repair and complete the whole."
President James Monroe especially took the project to heart. Remember is was he who was quizzed by Napoleon of the potential grandeur of the city. Soon after his inauguration on March 4, 1817, he imitated the first president and toured the northern states. He could not move into the White House until October anyway. Once back in Washington, he pushed the work forward on all fronts, even going with Latrobe in the rain to a Virginia quarry to inspect the stone to be used. Unfortunately for Latrobe, Monroe was also impatient. Soon Congress saw no reason to pay three commissioners salaries for a job one man could do.
Col. Samuel Lane, an old friend of Monroe's, became sole commissioner. At first Lane agreed with Latrobe that the major cause of delay was Congress's insistence on changing designs, a larger Senate chamber for example. But then Lane tired of Latrobe's excuses. One observer thought Latrobe's major drawback was his poverty. He didn't have the means to cajole support. Then while in conference with Lane and Monroe, Latrobe threatened Lane, who was crippled in one leg, with bodily harm. The President was shocked and Latrobe resigned in 1818 eventually to die in 1820 of yellow fever while supervising construction of a water system in New Orleans. Before leaving Washington he designed, built and made a drawing of St. John's Church across the square north of the White House.
Latrobe's church across from the White House
and the house he designed for Marcia and John Van Ness was ready for occupancy further down the slope south of the White House.
Monroe appointed Charles Bulfinch, a Boston architect he met on his northern tour, to take Latrobe's place. Bulfinch soon had a host of problems: a collapsing arch he could blame on Latrobe's design, marble ordered from New York didn't come on time, and then the stone masons went on strike. It took Bullfinch 35 days to bust the union, with some masons clapped in jail and guarded by Marines, but he claimed to Congress that despite the stoppage, "the work has proceeded with spirit, and a remarkable degree of good order and propriety of conduct." The strikers had to be rehired because there were no replacements available.
Congressmen returned to the Capitol in 1819, and found it restored down to the same bad acoustics in the House chamber, which didn't damp their urge to build. The 300 to 350 "mechanics and laborers" working on the Capitol were not sent home. Congress decided to begin construction on the central Rotunda (then called the "Rotundo") that would bear the dome uniting the two wings of the building. That doing so would almost triple the cost of the project to $1.2 million gave no one pause. Congress had discovered the side benefits of tariffs protecting American industry.
Bulfinch had built his first dome at the Massachusetts State House in 1787 and knew the proper Roman proportions, but as congressmen came by to look at his plans and model, they all opined that the dome should be bigger.
The tumescence of Bullfinch's domes
Bulfinch designed three domes and Monroe's cabinet picked the big dome and asked that it be bigger still. So Bulfinch built two domes. One tastefully covered the Rotunda, and on top of that another extended the Capitol's glory 70 feet higher into the heavens. Though the dome was made of wood, inside the stone Rotunda, a new venue for grandeur was opened. While stone carvers from Italy and France fashioned the column capitals and statuary, responding to the American painter John Trumbull's lobbying, Congress authorized the President to commission him to do four paintings commemorating the Revolution.
Meanwhile the White House was repaired without controversy under the supervision of James Hoban who designed and supervised its original construction. Often neglected in recounting the reconstruction of the city are the repairs of the two existing executive offices flanking the White House and the construction of two more. The four modestly sized buildings were largely uniform, two stories, made of brick, an inviting portico and a few columns.
The Post Office and Patent Office remained on 8th Street, but the rest of the bureaucracy was in easy focus for men with dreams of jobs and contracts, and now within shouting distance of the commander-in-chief were officers to command.
There was a crucial change in attitude toward the military, as if the government realized that it could not keep its generals and admirals at arms length and still expect the capital to be well protected. In 1815 the Navy department first and then the War department were reorganized so that officers were stationed permanently in the capital to oversee the readiness of the armed forces. The new Board of Navy Commissioners made the greater impact. The keel of the Columbus was laid at the rebuilt Navy Yard in May 1816, and all official Washington and many more watched as, on March 2, 1819, it was launched, at a total cost of $426,000. The yard had 380 civilian employees including hired slaves plus almost 70 officers and sailors.
The naval war had been remunerative for American naval officers who, by law, got "prize money" for enemy ships they captured. Commodore David Porter built a mansion on Meridian Hill a mile north of the White House and Commodore Stephen Decatur built a large house, designed by Latrobe, suitable for entertaining on the square just north of the White House.
Decatur House: built with the Admiral's prize money
The army also became visible when the corps of army engineers was headquartered in the city. A Revolutionary War officer himself, Monroe was partial to the army and made Gen. Joseph Smith, chief army engineer, his advisor on the Capitol construction.
Yet despite the restoration of the public building and the apparent boom in the city, with real estate sales up 500% between 1813 and 1818, there was pervasive unease. Two issues grew to dominated American life in the 19th century: race and currency. Washington was particularly touched by both. The economic boom and proliferation of banks tended to wacky excesses especially in Washington with its influx of strangers and politicians from all over the country. Strange bank notes flooded the city taking the place of coins. The mayor began distributing "due bills," chits to take the place of change. (Bad news for menial workers often paid in coin.) Even a congressman's paycheck was usually discounted 25% if actual gold was demanded.
As for race, the city had slavery like the south and also a rising number of free blacks like many northern cities. The free black population in the city rose from 123 in 1800 to 1,696 in 1820. The rising number of slaves from 623 in 1800 to 1,945 in 1820. The total population was 13,247. Whites in the city were comfortable with blacks as long as they were servants trained and provided for by their masters or employers. Black day laborers were also handy. There were many Irish to bear the brunt of any load. Gaelic was Washington's second language. Trained blacks were deemed superior to Irish for house servants but whites preferred gangs of Irish laborers to gangs of blacks.
What caused consternation was the selling and transportation of blacks to the cotton states. In 1816 even slave owner John Randolph railed on the floor of the House that "not even excepting the rivers on the coasts of Africa, was there so great and so infamous a slave market as in the metropolis, in the very Seat of Government of this nation that prided itself on freedom." The city had just been shocked by a woman throwing herself to her death from the third story of a slave dealer's private jail. Congress formed a committee that didn't make a report.
Addressing the problem of free blacks was more congenial. The first lobbying group organized in Washington was pledged to get rid of them. A few days after Christmas 1816, national politicians including Clay, Webster and Randolph, met with leading men of the city including Thornton and Francis Scott Key to form the American Society for the Colonizing of the Free People of Color of the United States, soon to be called the American Colonization Society. The society sent a memorial to Congress addressing "the evil [that] has become so apparent," too many free blacks lacking "political and social rights," and "dead to all the elevating hopes...." The solution was to send them back to Africa, and the national headquarters for the operation soon opened in Washington managed by a Presbyterian preacher.
The one consolation for blacks was that they weren't blamed for anything yet. When the nationwide economic boom gave way to the inevitable financial panic and depression, there were no riots against them. Perhaps because Washington did relatively well. The bubble in real estate burst, but houses were not boarded up and left for ruin. "While many larger cities are complaining of their pecuniary embarrassments," it was said of Washington in 1820, "no check has been made in the progress of its private improvements."
With the reconstruction and new construction on public buildings, the legend of a depression proof city began. But there was still much cause for disappointment. With the Capitol finally on its way to fulfilling its 1793 specifications, city leaders grasped for excuses to explain why the city still presented the appearance of emptiness. Of course, the fault lay with the grandiose plan and the notion that the capital was to be a reserve for gentlemen. (Most men working on the Capitol came from other cities.)
But those gentlemen still struggling in the city were loath to blame themselves and the infatuated dream they embraced. In 1820 the city finally raised enough lottery money to begin building a city hall on Judiciary Square at 4th and G Streets. In his speech at the cornerstone laying ceremony John Law, Thomas's son, excused the delay by musing on how lavishly Peter the Great supported construction of a new Russian capital. Despite not having such a patron, Law was proud of the city's progress recalling his boyhood days at his father's house at the foot of Capitol Hill when "the largest part of the beautiful avenue which connects the principal public edifices together was an impassable wilderness."
Then, developing that theme, one year later the myth of the city's founding swamp was born. To justify the need for outside help to finish the city hall, Mayor Samuel Smallwood, who once oversaw the slaves working on the Capitol, recalled "the impenetrable marsh" that confronted those who came to fashion a capital city. What better time to shed a tear over the soggy past, when golden heights beckoned.
Washington's City Hall: another neo-classical knock off, not finished for several decades and never graced with a dome
Restored and refurbished monumental buildings would soon be worthy platforms from which to change the face of the continent, if not the hemisphere, if not the world.