The Seat of Empire
City of Liberty -- Adjusted by Race, Class, Religion, and Dictators: 1820 to 1840
1834 view of the city
The 1820 census counted 13,247 people in the city making it the 9th largest city in the still largely rural country. (Baltimore ranked 3rd with 63,892.) But Washington had two populations: during the long summers when congress was not in session and when the crowd swelled while it was in session. Admittedly that pulse of 232 politicians was a minor bump even if all of them brought their wives. Nor did the few hundred who came for the show amount to that many.
To say Washington swelled is a rhetorical flourish, but the 1820s was a time when rhetoric counted. When congress came to town everyone preened themselves on the importance of the city, not for what was made, sold or done there, but for what was said there. Forget George Washington's dream of canal boats floating down the Potomac to the city with goods to be shipped to the world. The city exported many a freighted word all in the service of LIBERTY, particularly in South America. Printing became the city's major private industry. The Post Office became its most important department. Since the War of 1812 taught Republicans how to tax, the federal government also had the liberating balm of money to spend.
In the 1820s congress sat from December to March in odd years. In even years it usually adjourned in late May, not to come back until December. There should be tales of two cities to tell, about real people not just preeners. But it was a full time government town. In 1824 there were 152 employees at the Treasury department and 13, 32 and 21 respectively at State, War and Navy departments. At the Navy Yard where ships were repaired and built, 433 men did real work. At the peak of the building season there were 230 hands working on the Rotunda of the Capitol, but many came and went depending on the demand for labor. Slaves were often hired for the day. Only 81 men worked in December.
Brian Kraft overlay of 1836 Tanner map showing where residents lived in 1822
There was a local elite but it was not cohesive and could never rival the federal chain of command that rived and bound the largely vacant city. A few of the so-called original proprietors, and former congressman John P. Van Ness who married the sole heir of one, still lived in the city. Most of the other originals built their homes in Georgetown.
The few who stayed built mansions on out of the way lots on their own land as if to hide. Daniel Carroll who originally owned all the land around the Capitol built his mansion tucked down the hill a half mile from the Capitol. No Southern hospitality from him. With most of Pennsylvania Avenue to choose from the Van Nesses built their mansion in a sea of dank scrubby grass south of the White House.
While padding out the boards of directors of some poorly capitalized local banks, the elite did muster cash for defending the city in 1812. Then they funded construction of a nondescript hall for congress to temporarily sit in after the British burned the Capitol. By 1820, they were largely spent. Except for the ever growing Capitol, there was virtually no building on Capitol Hill by Carroll or anybody else.
The local elite avoided politics. In the 1820s the local political leaders were men who had come to the city at the behest of the federal government and who had done its bidding from their first days in the city. The first man elected mayor of the city in 1819, when congress finally gave local voters that right, was Samuel Smallwood, the former overseer of slaves who labored at the Capitol and White House in 1790s. The two builders most responsible for getting those icons built, George Blagden and James Hoban, were only elected aldermen. So how did a man who for five years merely watched slaves work rise to such heights while the men directing the projects lagged behind?
In 1800, a relative of Smallwood's, the federal government's local Naval Agent William Marbury, put Smallwood in charge of much of the work done to build the Washington Navy Yard. He parleyed that into a successful lumber business and sizeable house just north of the Navy Yard.
Anyway, no one told the story of a slave overseer's rise to power, and for that matter, being mayor didn't much matter. An 1822 directory of the city first listed names and boarding houses of US Senators (elected to six year terms), then representatives (elected to two year terms), then listed committees and their members. Who is on what committee is all those who came to the city with expectations needed to know. Then the directory listed the city's residents.
The men who really ran the city were the chairmen of the Senate and House committees for the District of Columbia. Congress had exclusive jurisdiction over the city and trusted those two committees to tell them what needed to be done on that day every week when each house attended to the District's business. (Being chairman was a headache so Sen. James Barbour, Rep. Joseph Kent and their successors only served two years in their respective chairs.)
Both chairmen were closer to the new City Hall at 4th and D Streets NW than Mayor Smallwood. They lived on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Kent at Mrs. Blake's at 10th Street and Barbour at Brown' hotel at 6th. The L'Enfant plan promised great things for the city's radiating avenues and left Pennsylvania Avenue for grand ceremonies. To cross the street you had to walk 160 feet! Nobody told congressmen.
While scattered from Georgetown to the Navy Yard, they increasingly boarded where Pennsylvania reached its lowest point at the foot of Capitol Hill. In 1822, 20 of 46 senators lived on the Hill,. 72 of 213 representatives. Brown's was soon trumped by Gadsby's at 4th Street NW and then boarding houses at 3rd Street trumped Gadsby's -- if you call going down hill a trump. Evidently building a canal where Goose Creek flowed relieved the foot of Capitol Hill of its reputation of being a marsh.
All that geography said, it signified relatively little for this important reason. The King and most of his Court lived at the other end of the avenue. That royalist cant is not meant to be pejorative. Consider, after John Adams' unfortunate term, both Jefferson, Madison and Monroe served for 8 years. To rise above the general chaos of American electoral politics (remember, back then candidates did not publicly campaign for the presidency) must have felt like ascending to the throne.
Plus by the time of Monroe accession in March 1817, there was no expectation that the president needed to reform the government or that he faced any national problem. As Monroe put it in his first Inaugural Address:
Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy. In contemplating what we have still to perform, the heart of every citizen must expand with joy when he reflects how near our Government has approached to perfection; that in respect to it we have no essential improvement to make... If we persevere in the career in which we have advanced so far and in the path already traced, we can not fail, under the favor of a gracious Providence, to attain the high destiny which seems to await us.His sense of "high destiny" prompted Monroe to act like a king, at least when foreign diplomats bowed before him as they presented their credentials. He disdained talking with them. Otherwise, with other people, he was as republican as he must be.
There were rough patches. Fast forward to December 1818. The wife of Secretary State John Quincy Adams wrote to her father-in-law John Adams about Mrs. Hay, the Monroe's married daughter who lived in the White House with her husband, a Virginia lawyer:
Mrs. Hay... is giving rise to a great deal of conversation about rank and station—She has assumed a tone with the Corps Diplomatique, which places them and herself in the most unpleasant situation—I have been worried with enquiries about it, but have hitherto managed to keep aloof—Mr. A—— has however been called upon to interfere, and upon the French Ministers being very urgent that Mrs. H– should accept an invitation to his Ball—was obliged to be the bearer of her determination [not to], which is I think rather an insulting rejection of any intercourse with them what ever—The French Ministers foolish anxiety to have her at his Ball, has brought this matter to a crisis, and I fear it will produce an unpleasant state of things—After they moved into the White House, the Monroes had furniture sent from Paris where their tastes had been honed when he had been sent there in 1803 to negotiate with Napoleon. (He was also there from 1794 to 1796 when the city was not so tasteful.) But evidently Mrs. Hay had harsher views of France. She had gone to a finishing school in Paris, maybe she was getting her revenge. But she said she refused because she had no rank in Washington society merely by being the president's daughter. That left everybody else in Washington society to go figure.
Mrs. HayThen Monroe had to dodge two knottier problems: taking no action against Gen. Andrew Jackson for hanging two British spies in Florida and getting statehood for Missouri without forcing citizens there to give up their slaves. Both issues tingled political antennae which in Washington inevitably led someone to warn of a threat to the Republic.
President Monroe did face re-election in 1820 but the congressional caucus that nominated him in 1816 was not about to not nominate him again. His cabinet members thought one of them would be his successor in 1824, provided they could keep Jackson in check (much as Rome's Senators were ever wary of ambitious and victorious generals heading home from Gaul.) Secretary of War John C. Calhoun of South Carolina wanted to court martial Jackson for going beyond his orders. Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford of Georgia agreed. After ascertaining that neither Britain nor Spain nor the Holy Alliance (Austria, Prussia and Russia who pledged to preserve all the world's monarchies) were about to start a war over Florida, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams backed Jackson. The Hero came to the city, squared his accounts, resigned from the army and returned to Florida to be territorial governor, briefly.
After the cabinet divided over Jackson, Speaker of the House Henry Clay upped the ante. He led the House in an effort to force the administration to recognize all of the almost independent South American republics. Baltimore was a hot bed of revolutionary support and its enthusiasm, and money, cued Washingtonians to the cause. Clay wanted to embarrass Adams as he negotiated a treaty with Spain ceding all of Florida to the US. Adams resisted recognition because he wanted to guarantee American expansion in Oregon as he negotiated the new western boundary with Spain.
Evidently Adams' walks in the vacant city did not worry him that Americans might not be as quick to fill the Western Hemisphere as he imagined. After all, the would-be ambassador from Buenos Aires hailed from New Haven, Connecticut. (He seemed suspiciously wealthy. Adams resisted his importuning and deduced that he made his wealth by illegally outfitting privateers. Although certainly rare, he would not be the first driven out of Washington by the threat of jail time. He went home not to his new country but to his new mansion in New Haven.)
Given that Liberty was a catch word in most state papers and every Clay speech, President Monroe and Clay recognized that statehood for Missouri would have to be "winked" through. In 1819, Speaker Clay, a Kentucky slave owner, bought up a bill at the end of the session with time enough to pass and hurry it over to the Senate. Then James Tallmadge, a New York congressmen from Dutchess county, amended the Missouri statehood bill to require that no slave be brought into the state and that the children of slaves already there be freed at the ago 25. To the consternation of Southern members, the amendment passed by a narrow vote. Clay kept the bill from going to the Senate and congress adjourned.
During the nine months until a new congress convened, partisans rallied supporters. Then with the new year, speeches thrilled the galleries in the House and Senate. Blacks could sit in the galleries and evidently at one point during the long debates there were enough there to prompt a Virginia congressman to charge the opposition with playing to the gallery and doing that threatened a "servile insurrection."
Many Washingtonians were nonplussed by the debate since the offices of the Colonization Society were open. Monroe charged the Navy with finding some coast line in Africa to liberate so the pledge of the society could be fulfilled: To send freed slaves there and demonstrate "the consolatory evidence of the all-prevailing power of liberty enlightened by knowledge and corrected by religion."
Supporters of the Tallmadge amendment shot back that opening up new markets for slaves in Missouri would defeat colonization since slave owners would rather sell slaves than free them. During the 1819 debate Tallmadge pointed out that "since we have been engaged in this debate.... a slave driver, a trafficker in human flesh, as if sent by Providence, has passed the door of your Capitol, on his way to the West, driving before him about fifteen of these wretches, victims of his power."
Taken aback by the intensity of the "Missouri question", cooler heads in the city tried to stifle further debate about slavery. That suited most residents, who reporters said provided a "buz" in favor of the Southern position. (They didn't count the blacks who attended the debates.) After the Missouri debate, the local newspapers avoided mentioning slavery again, save in advertisements by slave dealers and those seeking run-away slaves. Presidential hopefuls avoided the word.
Washington did not have a strict color line. In her 1824 novel, A Winter in Washington, Margaret Bayard Smith's heroine paused in her round of social visits to check on a poor Irish woman and her child. They lived with a free black man. The child was not his.
Margaret Bayard Smith by Charles Bird King
Thomas Law who invested in the city in 1794 was the typical Englishman, so white as to have a tinge of pink. He was rich enough to win the hand of Martha Washington's grand daughter in 1796. They had one child, a daughter, before they separated in 1804. However, Law had three sons who had an olive skin tone. Their mother was back in India. Mrs. Law accepted the illegitimate children. After a Harvard education, Law's eldest son John became a lawyer in the city often representing slaves suing for their freedom.
Privately, Monroe worried that the Missouri debate was contrived to form a basis for a new party to oppose him in the 1820 election. Sure enough, Sen. Rufus King of New York led the debate against slavery and then ran for president.
Monroe won all but one of the 232 Electoral College votes. He truly reigned. In his Second Inaugural Address, not only was the nation perfected but: "We now, fellow-citizens, comprise within our limits the dimensions and faculties of a great power under a Government possessing all the energies of any government ever known to the Old World, with an utter incapacity to oppress the people."
After the Inauguration the race to succeed him begin in earnest. Four cabinet officers in the running were in easy walking distance to the White House. Adams lived (lived not boarded) near 14th and F Street NW; Calhoun at 7th and E NW; Crawford at 14th and M NW, and Navy secretary Smith Thompson at Pennsylvania and 17th NW. Those aspiring to the presidency made sure they did long time in the city and did not merely attend during the legislative season. Secretaries of state Madison and Monroe both lived in the city before they were elected president, 8 years and 6 years respectively.
In due time one could properly speak of a race for the presidency starting with getting the nominations. There would be a course of state conventions to run through. However, looking toward 1824, all eyes were on Washington where all senators and congressmen, except for a few old fuddy-duddy Federalists like Rufus King, would caucus and pick the candidate who would easily win.
So as James Monroe began his second term in March 1821, every resident of Washington was confident that the next president lived in the city. One can scoff at the idea that everybody cared, but recall that all the candidates had slaves or servants who had also lived in the city for years and had their own network of friends rooting for their famous masters. For example, upon returning to his old boarding house in December, even a northern congressman usually found the same black man stoking the fire in his room in the morning and the same black woman cleaning his room. Although many of them were slaves of the boarding house landlord, they were free to form opinions about the men and wives they served. A Maine congressman proudly reported to his absent wife that Rachel remembered her as one of the few boarders to pick up after themselves.
If you were half respectable, you could visit all the candidates personally. The undeclared campaign (no one ever said they craved the office!) began during the social season stretching between Christmas and Easter. (N.B. its climax came when the Supreme Court rose, not Christ.) Invariably that season started with the exchange of cards which were delivered as preludes to visits. There was a strict etiquette dictating who made the first move. Then making visits meant calling on anyone in the city who might be considered to be in society which by definition included every elected politician and appointed bureaucrat. That sounds relatively straight forward, but thanks to Mrs. Hay, who snubbed others than just the French, no one was quite sure of the proper etiquette.
Mrs. Adams, for example, was obliged to receive everyone and visit everyone who left their card. During the season, she and her two horses that she drove herself clip clopped from Georgetown to the Navy Yard. (Capt. Thomas Tingey, commandant of the yard, had been a social fixture since 1804 when he took command. His daughters married well.) It was joyless drudgery. Mrs. Adams put it this way: "There is so much scandal and ill nature here it is impossible to be too guarded." Speaker Clay promised to bring up a bill to set the rules of etiquette. (He didn't.)
But more dear to congressmen in boarding houses and hotels was getting invitations to select dinners, informal "evenings" and more inclusive balls aiming for 300 attendees. In the late 20th century historians would argue that most political appointments were brokered by politicians' wives in their parlors. Their husbands' republican ideals prevented them from doing it. There is no evidence for that in their private letters and diaries.To wit, John Quincy Adams wrote:
W. S. Smith [Adams' nephew] came with a recommendation of Dr Tobias Watkins as Secretary to the Commission of Claims under the Florida Treaty. This Dr Watkins, was assistant Surgeon General in the army and has been displaced by the late reduction of that body— He is now residing at Baltimore with a wife and six children, and is certified to be perfectly qualified for this Office. There are perhaps fifty applicants for it, and there is difficulty in making the selection. The problem to solve in such cases is the highest degree of qualification for the place with the most urgent want of it— There was a person by the name of Palmer, who came with very strong, numerous and respectable recommendations from New-York, and whose knowledge of languages was said to be very uncommon— I had much inclined to the appointment of him, and had already mentioned him to the President. I therefore told Smith I was afraid this application for Watkins was too late— [The president appointed Watkins.]But remember the ladies! What a charming out for men wearied by their own skulduggery! Even the wives of bureaucrats were in the game. It was said of Mrs. Pleasanton, the beautiful wife of a Treasury auditor, that she was "very witty and clever and with an agreeable and kindly manner [and] had an extensive influence over the councils of the nation."
Mrs. Adams noticed other political wives trying to get jobs for relatives and friends but she deprecated it. Her husband faced the daunting task of vetting men for ambassadorships to the new republics in South America with little help from women. He had to put up with the likes Sen. Richard M. Johnson who suggested ten men for one ambassadorship. (Johnson left his "wife" back in Kentucky to run his plantation where she had been born in slavery.)
Anyway for the wives of Adams, Calhoun, Crawford and Thompson, minding the invitations for dinners, "evenings" and balls was being busy enough. For dinners there were around a dozen guests. "Evenings" were a less formal weekly open house. For balls, a hostess filled all of the rooms of her house, at most eight, and then spread out a late buffet dinner on her back porch. Or there was Carusi's Assembly Room.
The Marine Corps band balanced its performances at the White House with its afternoon tattoos at the Marine Barracks just east of the Capitol. Other than on the Fourth of July, there was simply not much call for music in the Capitol itself. To bolster the Capitol Hill social scene, senators allowed women on the floor and packed them in when the great Southern orators speechified. The tradition of Sunday sermons in the House chamber was revived. (The North almost had a monopoly on divines.)
One of the Marine band musicians saw where the action was. When the Washington Theater burned, he bought the remains and turned it into "Carusi's Assembly Rooms" at 11th Streets NW below Pennsylvania Avenue. It became a new social center where crowds could escape the withering gaze of Mrs. Hay at the White House.
Briefly the city had the perfect host, rich, famous and above politics. After over a decade of wars and actions in the Mediterranean checking the Barbary pirates that was interrupted by a war with Britain, the Monroe administration brought the victorious captains to Washington to form a three member Naval Board. Captains who long reigned as complete masters of ships wouldn't stoop to being a mere president.
Gruff John Rodgers settled his nerves by moving into a double house built by Morris and Nicholson on Greenleaf's Point back in 1795. Almost nobody lived there anymore. The weirdly adventurous David Porter built a castle on Meridian Hill a mile north of the White House. The greatest of the three, incandescent despite his ingrained humility, Stephen Decatur had a spacious house built on what would soon become Lafayette Square. (It was designed by Benjamin Latrobe and paid for out of the prize money awarded to Decatur for enemy ships captured or destroyed.)
Commodore Decatur's ball in his new house on the square just north of the White House was deemed the greatest ever held in the city. Two months later, on March 22, 1820, he died after being shot in a duel by a fellow officer.
His was the first great funeral in the nation's capital. However, because he died in a duel, congress did not officially mourn his passing. Both houses merely adjourned and followed the casket, along with the rest of official Washington, seamen and most male residents in the city and environs. Ladies followed in carriages. The procession went from Decatur's house up largely empty streets to Kalorama for burial. Joel Barlow's house was then owned by the husband of his wife's sister, Col. George Bomford, who was famous for inventing the "Columbiad" howitzer and was then detailed to the city to help supervise construction of the Capitol.
Once the widow was relocated, the French minister began entertaining at what will always be called the Decatur House. The British entertained more to the west, up Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mrs. Hay aside, White House levees were crowded and at elegant dinners one used gold spoons from France (don't forget those gold spoons.) Yes, beautiful Mrs. Monroe was retiring, but she was also rich, a Kortright of New York City. The president was no glad hander and never quite made clear if it was his republican diffidence or somewhat mischievous nature that precluded his picking his successors. (Vice President Tompkins was a drunk who boarded at Dowson's on Capitol Hill.)
Insiders thought Crawford or Adams would be the next president. Crawford was liked by congressmen and highly regarded by the Washington elite. Margaret Bayard Smith saw in him a close enough approximation of her ideal, Thomas Jefferson. Like Jefferson, he was a rather big men, but full faced and less abstracted by philosophy. He was the perfect country gentlemen and his house on M Street NW deemed a bucolic seat. See Smith's Forty Years in Washington Society for her letters extolling Crawford. Despite once representing Georgia in the Senate, he did not support removal of the Cherokees.
Insiders thought Crawford or Adams would be the next president. Crawford was liked by congressmen and highly regarded by the Washington elite. Margaret Bayard Smith saw in him a close enough approximation of her ideal, Thomas Jefferson. Like Jefferson, he was a rather big men, but full faced and less abstracted by philosophy. He was the perfect country gentlemen and his house on M Street NW deemed a bucolic seat. See Smith's Forty Years in Washington Society for her letters extolling Crawford. Despite once representing Georgia in the Senate, he did not support removal of the Cherokees.
William H. Crawford
He had cut a figure in the city for over a decade, missing the British sacking of city because he was US Minister in Paris. He returned to be Madison secretary of war, then moved to the Treasury in late 1816 and Monroe kept him there. As Treasury secretary he demonstrated traditional republican penny pinching in stark contrast to that other Southern gentleman Calhoun who egged on by Clay's American System, i.e. protective tariffs and federal support for roads and canals, spent liberally for the national defense.
Adams grew up in the American diplomatic corps, then served in Holland and Prussia. After a term as senator from Massachusetts ending in 1808, he was sent to St. Petersburg, Russia, and London. Along with Clay, he negotiated the Treaty of Ghent ending the war. He settled into Monroe's cabinet in the fall if 1817. He was unknown and not much liked. He kept his cynicism about Liberty to himself. He finally welcomed South American ambassadors even though privately he thought Roman Catholics could never understand Liberty. His friends in New England longed to help the Orthodox Greeks oust their Muslim overlords. Adams fumed, to himself.
Naturally, many Americans hearkened to the call of Liberty anywhere. To believe in Washington was to believe that you must leave it, properly empowered, of course. Take William Thornton, designer of the earliest version of the Capitol and commissioner of the city from 1794 to 1802. In vain, he had anticipated Jefferson appointing him Governor of the District of Columbia. In the liberating 1820s, he wanted to be an ambassador to South America. Thornton didn't get the appointment but he was well ahead of his time. He told his next door neighbor, Secretary of State Adams, that his tireless work for revolutionaries qualified him for job. Adams told him that the president wanted a objective observer on the scene.
Entertaining in Washington won the nomination; controlling newspapers in Washington won voters wherever other papers reprinted the Washington news. Clay changed the way Congress did its printing, extending his influence over the nation. No longer would Congress contract with the lowest bidder. Congress decided to choose the printer of its debates and papers and set the fee. Clay chose the National Intelligencer, the nation's most influential newspaper, allowing it to make profits of up to 50% on the contract.
Its first editor, Samuel Harrison Smith became a banker (and somewhat retired from history, his wife Margaret Bayard Smith carved a larger niche.) Tired of transcribing speeches and being the mouthpiece of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, he sold the paper to younger men. English born Joseph Gales and Virginia born William Seaton, both eagerly supported whoever was standing. They gladly made changes that congressmen wanted to make to the published version of their speeches.
Thanks to Clay's patronage, both editors joined the city's social elite. In 1823 Seaton built a spacious brick house on E Street NW between 7th and 8th Streets an easy carriage ride if not walk to Brown's hotel. (That hotel became the more relaxing satellite of the Capitol. When architect Bulfinch wanted to show off his latest model of his plans for the Rotunda, he unveiled it at Browns.) Gales lived a block away until he moved to Lafayette Square in 1829. Gales hosted an annual ball just like the cabinet members
Like most in Washington society, Gales and Seaton were won over by Crawford's Southern charm. But if the Intelligencer endorsed him too soon its bottom line was in peril since Speaker Clay could adjust their printing contracts. Clay didn't demand their support. He was playing a long game, and even left the House for three years, though not to rusticate. He corresponded with republicans in Mexico and South America and in speeches extended his American Plan to Buenos Aires and Chile.
All of the cabinet secretaries controlled the printing of their department. So the weekly 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 did not attack other candidates on a regular basis, only the other candidates' department.
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. Dr. Tobias Watkins, the clerk who conferred frequently with Adams about the claims against Spain, coordinated Adams' campaign in the newspapers.
The battle for the support of bureaucrats also helped shift the focus of the city away from Capitol Hill. Intriguing facts and figures gleaned in the departments surrounding the White House were filtered to newspaper row along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Congress loomed on the hill more as a referee or a court of last resort, properly prepared by public opinion. Often to find out what was really happening one had to read the out of town newspapers and trust that their Washington correspondents weren't in a cabinet officer's pocket.
Of course, all the players knew that Monroe's opinion counted a great deal, and he seemed partial to Calhoun. So Crawford jumped at a chance to remind Monroe that the secretary of the treasury counted. Commissioner of the Public Buildings Lane died suddenly in 1822. Much money had gone through his hands as he supervised restoration of the White House and the Senate and House wings of Capitol as well as building the Rotunda. 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. As far as scandals went it didn't have legs. But it was a win-win for the city: buy lots and buy furniture! Hadn't Congress been told repeatedly that lot sales would pay for everything?
During the social season of 1822, Navy secretary Thompson and wife were the greatest party hosts. Crawford and Adams had to worry, but then Thompson wound up on the Supreme Court instead. Plus by 1822 Calhoun began to remake himself realizing that he could not out-Clay Clay. He lowered his sights and aimed for the vice presidency.
Thanks to an epidemic in the summer of 1822 (it killed John Law), in the fall Washington had its first religious revival with "large assemblies every night." Two young Presbyterian divines from Princeton came to beat the bushes for converts. One notable society belle, left unnamed by Mrs. M. B. Smith, threw herself at their feet. Even Librarian of Congress George Watterson was handing out Evangelical tracts. In an 1826 speech John Randolph of Roanoke rued the changes in Washington. Card tables and horse races had been replaced by a "meddling, obtrusive, intrusive, restless, self-dissatisfied spirit." (The eccentric Virginia congressman soon to become a senator had no affection in general for the city which he epitomized, in the same 1826 speech, as the place where men drive "from one end of [this] interminable and desolate city to the other, intriguing about the presidency.")
It bears remembering that elite Southerners of that era were not necessarily religious. Mr. Hay left the White House one day and during his visit with the Adams shocked them with his views on religion. One could argue that Washington in particular needed some religion. A young man just appointed to a clerkship with an American diplomatic missions overseas, took his travel money to a gambling den, lost it all, and was found dead in his bed with a shotgun in his hand. By the way, shotguns were common in the city where hunting birds in the city's many vacant squares was a popular pastime. Even the Adams' youngest son went after birds with a shotgun.
Then hard on the heels of the revivals came not the Savior but the Hero. The reputation of Andy Jackson, who had killed men in duels and ordered Englishmen hung, frightened not a few. The General, who had been an occasional visitor to the capital proved himself a hickory of ambition. In the fall of 1823, after he declined appointment as the US minister to Mexico, he graciously bowed to the wishes of the Tennessee state legislature and assumed a seat in the Senate. That legislature had endorsed him for president a year earlier.
January 8th, the date of his 1815 victory in the Battle of New Orleans was often celebrated, including in the capital. For example, in 1819 the officers of the Marine Corps hosted a ball. In 1824, with Jackson in the city, John Quincy Adams hosted a ball in his honor. The General came at 8pm and left after supper. Dancing continued until 1 am. In his diary Adams noted that a thousand people attended.
Jackson impressed everyone with his dignity. After meeting him, Mrs. Daniel Webster said if she could vote, she would vote for Jackson. He measured his success differently. He met everyone with whom he had ever threatened or had a duel, and resumed friendly relations. Then Clay hoodwinked Jackson into voting for both tariffs and internal improvements which stressed many Jackson supporters.
His rivals were inured to the ways of Washington and ran circles around the Hero that the nation thought was the epitome of the Man of Action. That emboldened Clay to throw his hat back in the ring and go after Crawford and Adams. With an assist from Webster, he rallied the House for Greek independence. We had three naval ships close to Turkish waters! That prompted President Monroe's bold message, written by Adams, guaranteeing the Liberty of South America. The rest of the world would be spared, for almost another hundred year.
It might seem that having a continual whirl of dinners, nights and balls must have been much more profitable for local citizens than having political parties asking for contributions as would later become the norm. Not so. A touring English journalist, William Faux, quizzed William Thornton about the city's mores. Apart from running the Patent Office, he had long been one of the city's 37 justices of the peace who adjudicated disputes with less than $20 at stake.
He observed that like ancient Rome, the city was first peopled with thieves and assassins, but had since improved. But people still lived above their means with some gentlemen in debt to their butchers to amount of several hundred dollars. (Thornton didn't reveal that Dolley Madison's brother-in-law never paid Thornton back $3000. He was a prominent Treasury Department clerk. That he was a rascal indebted to many including the Madisons didn't hurt his standing in the city. Instead of repaying Thornton, he built the so-called Cutts-Madison house on Lafayette Square. It served as Dolley's home from 1837 to her death in 1849.)
Although everyone knew that Crawford, Adams, Jackson, and, once again, Clay wanted to be president. None of them, not even Clay, made a public comment about it. The passion was there, of course. But when Crawford went after Monroe with his cane and had to be warned back with fireplace tongs, Monroe didn't even think of dismissing Crawford from the cabinet and make public the bitter rivalries of what was called his Era of Good Feeling. (see Adams' diary 14 December 1825.)
Crawford won the February 1824 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.
There was no outward enthusiasm about the election in the city (except secret offers and rejections of the vice presidency) and as candidates returned home only a modicum of enthusiasm followed them (except for Jackson who, of course, never courted it.) Adams' wife admitted that they were invited to more dinners while on their usual summer return to Massachusetts but her husband was as gruff as usual. When offered a peach while on-board a steamer, he refused it until the man offering it boasted about the number of friends he had in New York.
Meanwhile, in the Philadelphia market they were selling Lafayette Peaches. That now 67 years old French hero of the American Revolution was not running for office. He toured the country as many candidates to come would, logging 6000 miles, just to tell Americans how great their country was. He graced many a ceremony. Columbian College opened in 1822 in a building built just north of Boundary Street (today's Florida Avenue) between 14th and 15th Streets NW. Lafayette was at the graduation of its first three students
On December 9, he addressed Congress assembled. A 13 foot Statue of Liberty, sculpted by an Italian, gazed down from over the doorway inside the restored House chamber as Lafayette assured his audience, in words rumored to have been written by 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." Congress gave him $200,000 to support his retirement.
The Marquis in 1824
As for the "superior political civilization" the nationwide canvas for the presidency was inconclusive. Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, but not a majority. Plus the most populous state, New York, as well as five other states, did not have a popular vote. Nor did anyone get a majority in the Electoral College.
That added to the tension of Washington social gatherings, slightly. Gen. Brown hosted the January 8th ball for Jackson probably at Carusi's, but Adams made sure to attend. Major General Jacob Brown had won battles against the British when they counted, before the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814. In 1821, Monroe appointed him as commanding general of the army. Then Brown had a stroke, taking seven months to recover. He came to Washington, and lived quietly in a house on the Arsenal grounds on faraway Buzzard's Point two miles south of the Capitol until he died in 1829. To politicians, at least, he was a model general.
Crawford tried to circulate again in a vain attempt to prove he was able. On February 9, the House of Representatives, still members elected in 1822, decided between the top three electoral vote-getters, Jackson (99), Adams (84) and Crawford (41). Since he was on ballots with both Jackson and Adams, Calhoun won the electoral vote as Vice President.
Out of the running, Clay (37) encouraged his supporters to vote for Adams, which was crucial. Given that Adams, Crawford and Clay all represented what passed for statesmanship in Washington, the majority ruled. Washington's social elite marveled at how calmly the losers accepted the results. Adams was briefly rather shaken. There was a snowstorm the day after which stopped plans of the lower sort to burn Adams in effigy. Only the city's blacks demonstrated any joy at the out come. A president who was not a slave holder! Then Adams made Clay secretary of state. Jackson's supporters suspected a corrupt bargain.
At first blush the triumph of Adams seemed to bode well for the city. Many summer mornings after getting his diary up to date, he swam in the Potomac at the mouth of the Tiber Creek. Once he described the water as "blood warm."
The categorical no of Jefferson's and Madison's time was passe. In 1812 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. Even during his brief stint as a senator, Jackson supported new roads for national defense.
Delegations of canal backers came to the city and Congress bought stock in canal companies all around the nation. All hailed the Potomac canal and foresaw barges filled with coal coming down it paying tolls that 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."
That last comment, though for a good cause, was a libel on the city, at least according to Sessford's 1826 report on city improvements. (John Sessford, a Treasury department messenger, began publishing an annual update on building activity and other improvements in the city in 1820.) In the Third Ward, right below Capitol Hill from 1st to 10th Streets NW the city was quite alive. "This Ward increase rapidly in every respect," he wrote and noted: 5000 feet of new pavement, two squares of low ground drained and planted with trees; new footways along Pennsylvania Avenue; the Centre Market well supplied and crowded, and 23 new brick buildings.
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. They owned a mill on Rock Creek that Adams bought for one of his sons to run. In 1828, President Adams 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.
There was almost a flowering of civilization in the city. The main achievement of the Columbian Institute for Arts and Sciences was Dr. John A. Bereton's catalogue of all the plants he found in the District of Columbia, a rather amazing total of 458. (Most of the other 26 papers presented over the 20 year life of the society were about math and astronomy.)
A touring scientist who was somewhat of a lunatic ignited interest in an exploring expedition to the Southern Pacific ocean. He believed caves would be found there on islands that would lead into the interior of the earth. Congress authorized a naval expedition with a team of scientists.
Adams also had ideas. In his 1825 message to Congress, he distilled in a phrase what had been activating the city and attracting many to the city 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." Unfortunately, Adams had to parlay with congressmen, not God. Adams had a bright thought that might liberate them and make them more attune to Liberty is Power. In his 1825 message, he reminded congressmen not to be "palsied by the will of our constituents."
Adams became the first president whose election immediately spawned a movement which rapidly grew into the Democratic Party dedicated to thwarting his every move. He became the first president opposed by the majority in both houses of congress. Adams could not easily fight back.
A man came into Adams' office and threatened to shoot him, Adams talked him out of it. But thanks to his predecessors, who beginning with Jefferson sent their annual message to Congress and apart from the Inaugural Address disdained speaking in public, Adams had few opportunities to talk his opponents out of their efforts to cripple him.
His wife was too exhausted to save him as Dolley had saved her husband. And how exactly could she reconstitute and lead Society after 8 years of that tyro Mrs. Hay? Mrs. Monroe showed Mrs. Adams the dignified way out -- retire early in the evening due to illness.
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 1828 Congress put a stop to it all by abolishing architect Bulfinch's job, hoping that with no more plans there would be no more construction. After all, the two wings were united and a puffed up Roman dome made of painted wood overlooked the city. The saga of building that began in 1792 ended. The last to go up was a penitentiary down by the Arsenal. Bulfinch designed that, too.
The building boom continued below Capitol Hill, 25 more brick buildings. There was one new brick house built on Capitol Hill. What made the city tick were the hotels lower down on Pennsylvania Avenue where so many congressmen boarded. That made sense. When the House debated the Tariff Bill of 1824, lobbyists filled the hotels.The Tariff bill of 1828 filled them even more. It would soon be called the Tariff of Abominations, but not by businesses in the North who profited from it.
Some lobbyists carved out a more permanent space there. There was Ramsey Crooks, John Jacob Astor's man in town, ensconced at Brown' and ready to nurture various projects. Crooks wrote speeches for congressmen, crafting spread eagle oratory about the nation's right to all of Oregon where Astor had a trading house. He wrote the bill destroying the government's Indian trade which competed with Astor's fur company.
Of course no bill could destroy the city's fascination with the novel savage. On the second floor of the War Office next to the White House, there was a display of Indian artifacts and portraits. Charles Bird King painted every visiting chiefs. It became a "must see," only rivaled by the display of models you could play with at the Patent Office.
David Vann, Cherokee, who interpreted for the Creek chief Opothleyahola while negotiating removal
Yet perhaps the most startling sight in the city was the perfection attained by some slaves. The Gadsby hotel, larger than Brown's, three blocks down the Avenue at 3rd Street, could accommodate up to 400 people, and employed over 70 slaves. Daniel Webster reported that a "colored servant" came with each suite. Englishman John Gadsby evidently knew how proper waiters should behave. Two Englishmen coming to capital to liberate the oppressed slaves were nonplussed to find that the two waiting on them behaved and spoke more like gentlemen than they did.
So what if it took genteel slaves to serve the cuisine, drinks and cigars fueling Liberty is Power?
Adams thought slavery would be the divisive issue, but The Democracy had other ideas. That's what Jackson's supporters, even in the aristocratic slave-holding South, first called themselves as they tried to embarrass and defeat the Adams administration.
Work on the White House became a political football, forcing Adams' friends in congress to take pains to explain that a public building designed like a palace had to be furnished and landscaped somewhat like a palace. Adams, who really cared for little more than the garden, requested nothing, especially after his spending $50 for a billiard table created a scandal.
White House in 1827
The Senate pro-tem refused to call John Randolph out of order during his racist and scurrilous rants. He blamed Adams and Clay for making a corrupt bargain. In 1826 he reached the depths excoriating: "This until now unheard of combination of the black-leg and the Puritan; this union of Black George and Blifil." The reference to characters from Fielding's Tom Jones bore repeating throughout the city. (His blaming Clay's mother for "this being so brilliant and so corrupt, which, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shined and stunk," did not. Clay challenged Randolph to a duel, he accepted. They squared off in Virginia with no injury to either. The duel didn't stop Randolph. He practiced Libel is Power, and the city let him get away with it.)
To beat Jackson in the 1828 election, Adams had to win more states than just those in New England. But Adams didn't play the race card. He 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 and end "the heart-chilling desolation and sterility that reign all around them." John Sessford warned that there was an injurious "general dispositon... to reduce the pay of laborers to so small a pittance, and to the introduction and employment of non-resident slaves."
The federal jail annually held some 450 blacks some of the unfortunates actually free but like Solomon Northrup only able to prove it 12 years later. The captured slaves were quickly sold south to pay the cost of jailing.
In his diary, Adams noted the achievements and good deportment of the bank porter William Costin, a free black who lived on the square across from the Capitol. His achievements included winning a court case checking the city's effort to force free blacks to leave the city. He also started a school for white children.
Life for African Americans did not get any better under Adams' 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 a congressmen in a speech 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.
Adams' opponents did play the race card. Given the city's obsession with the liberation of South America, Adams thought sending a delegation to a congress of all the western hemisphere's republics to be held in Panama would sail through congress. Because those other republics were awash with the rhetoric of Liberty, they talked about abolishing slavery. Randolph led Southern members in opposition to sending a delegation to a land where Southern women would not be safe.
The Jackson Democrats 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.
Jackson (178). Adams (83).
Over 20,000 people came to Jackson's Inauguration. President Adams didn't. He had left the White House the day before, and slept in his new rental on Meridian Hill overlooking the city (Capt. Porter was off sailing for the Mexican navy.) Daniel Webster marveled that the masses "really seem to think that the country is rescued from some dreadful danger." The president-elect joined senators, judges and diplomats in the Senate that was "full of ladies." At noon he led a procession through the Rotunda and out on the Portico. He read his address, took the oath, "a great shout followed from the multitude, and in fifteen minutes.... every body was dispersed." Some credit a ship's cable for keeping them at bay.
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 way but the damage was limited to the glasses, plates, curtains, windows and furniture. Congress, which begrudged giving Adams anything, gave Jackson $6,000 more "for furniture and repairs of furniture" just after appropriating $14,000 to furnish the White House.
For local residents the "riot" came to symbolize the rapacity with which the uncouth Democracy set upon their jobs and traditions. The greatest tradition of all ended. Bent on economizing and paying down the debt, Jackson had no plans for more public buildings in the city. There was some good news in Jackson's first message to congress - operations would not be scaled back at the Washington Navy Yard, but no big ships were to be built and the Naval Board should be abolished. Not that the army fared better. In his Inaugural address Jackson gushed about the militia, "a million of armed freemen" covering the country with "an impenetrable aegis." (The 1830 census credited the nation with 12,866,020 people, but discount 2,009,043 slaves as not militia ready.)
As it turned out an aegis, the invisible cloak that protected Zeus, is what Jackson needed. His was not a Teflon presidency (or what the 1820s might call a greased skillet.) During the election newspapers created an unquenchable appetite for scurrility and scandal. Adams retired quietly, for awhile, but his supporters kept up attacks. Plus Jackson had the bad luck of having his supporters split. Duff Green's Telegraph that for three years attacked Adams, began attacking Jackson within two years of his election, and for what not a few thought was a very good reason. His secretary of war, a dashing young bachelor, married a woman not worthy of respect and his secretary of state, a suave middle aged widower, had no problem with that.
Van BurenNo one has written about the geography of the so-called Petticoat Affair but it may be important to note that when John Eaton and Martin Van Buren first came to Washington to take their Senate seats in 1821, neither lived in the warrens for politicians surrounding the Capitol and lining the north side of Pennsylvania Ave between 4th and 14th Streets NW. Van Buren first joined a congressional mess at Strother's Hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania, but found it "too gay" (i.e. too many distracting women) and opted for urbanity in Georgetown's Peck's Hotel.
The lode star of his political trajectory was his belief that the South had solved the problem of slavery. While blacks often seemed out of place on Capitol Hill, e.g, in the Senate gallery, they knew their place in the southern village across Rock Creek that had been founded in 1759. Around 1500 slaves served some 5000 whites in Georgetown - there were 600 free blacks. (Not that Van Buren boarded with Southern senators. Mess-mate Rufus King of New York, the old anti-slavery Federalist, was his first confidant in the city.)
Eaton found a somewhat quiet venue where love could blossom unaccompanied by politicians jeering. He met Peggy O'Neale Timberlake, a wife with two children, while boarding at her father's Franklin House at 21st and Pennsylvania NW. It was where military men stayed and Eaton had served with Gen. Jackson who would also stay there when he came to town.
Before Jackson came to Washington to move into the White House, he blessed Eaton's marriage to Peggy whose husband a navy purser died at sea. The social season started before the president's inauguration but after the scandalous marriage. Mrs. Timberlake had not waited a year before remarrying. So when Floride Calhoun, wife of the vice president (for both Adams and Jackson), declined to return a visit from the new wife of the newly appointed secretary of war, the rest of Washington society declined to "recognize" her too. (And then Floride went home to South Caroline to be with their children. The VP only need stay in the city when Congress was in session.)
Many Washington ladies had grown to dislike Peggy O'Neale for being too flirtatious. She was born and bred in her father's inn and became the playmate of too many men. Her early marriage to a Navy purser, she was 17, didn't sedate her. When he was at sea, she continued flirting or worse. Then when he died..... Mrs. Decatur set the pattern for navy widows and men visited her with the same humble veneration they had taken to Mount Vernon to visit the relict Martha Washington. Susan Wheeler Decatur wound up next to a cottage next to Georgetown College, about as holy as a woman could get outside a nunnery.
A political tool to stymie Van Buren and marketing tool to sell cigars
In Washington's first decade, the Eaton marriage probably would have smoothed over everything, but thanks to a religious awakening and society's heightened sense of propriety, after all it was threatened by barbarians from the West, the scandal of the hasty marriage festered. As it did, Jackson embraced his secretary of state, both were widowers. They took long rides making a great circle to Tenleytown and back. Once Van Buren took the bridle to steady the President's horse which Jackson credited for saving his life.
That friendship alarmed Vice President Calhoun who thought it understood that he was to succeed Jackson. Duff Green promoted the marriage scandal and faced down an armed Blair who was stalking him. That family of newspaper publishers from Missouri moved to town to defend Jackson at all costs. Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, Calhoun, a Yale graduate, matured the Jeffersonian philosophy of States' Rights into the Doctrine of Nullification.
At the time, the nation faced no real crisis. It was still mums the word about slavery. The only real crisis in the city, in the eyes of The Democracy, was purging the corrupt from the bureaucracy and replacing them with worthy men. What else was cleaning out the Augean stables about? 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 probably didn't help either. What chance had he to attend to the city's social whirl and ingratiate himself with the congressman who became Jackson's treasury secretary?
But all his clerks, including his relative Michael Nourse, remained. Dr. Tobias Watkins, who had become a close advisor to Adams and a Treasury auditor, was prosecuted for using $7,299.50 of public money for his own use. (Trumping up charges against auditors was easy. Watkins paid the money out to navy department agents but there was no record of their receiving it. Six of Watkins' 16 clerks were replaced.)
As it turned out, in his first 18 months Jackson only replaced about 10% of the bureaucracy nationwide, then 10,000 jobs strong. 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.
To be sure contemporaries awash in rhetoric did not clog their life with stats. Here is how Clay remembered those dark times in an 1832 speech attacking Jackson:
Recall to your recollection the 4th of March, 1829, when the lank, lean, famished forms fresh from fen and forest, and the four quarters of the Union, gathered together in the halls of patronage; or stealing be evening's twi light into the apartments of the President's mansion, cried out with ghastly faces and in sepulchral tones "Give us bread! give us treasury pap! give us our reward!"... Go to the families who were driven from employment on which they were dependent for subsistence.... Go to the mothers, while hugging to their bosom their children. Go to the fathers, who, after being disqualified for long public service for any other business, were stripped of their humble places....Changes in the departments depressed locals not only because old friends were out. Except for Van Buren, department heads were nobodies. True, in the retelling the story of the Petticoat Scandal goes better if being snubbed by Mrs. Branch, Mrs. Ingham and Mrs. Berrien really amounted to something, but it didn't. Naval officers howled in derision behind navy secretary Branch's back. Sickly Samuel Ingham made no mark at Treasury and the Attorney General, John Berrien, made no mark other than defending slavery and States' Rights. To be sure all three gentlemen were rich and had the wherewithal to host balls and dinners, but Calhoun overawed them which increasingly irked President Jackson.
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 rigueur. (The President kept to his military diet, mostly rice and wine not whiskey.) The local aristocracy still refused to accept the new comers but Jackson was a bona fide Hero and had to be seen. Margaret Bayard Smith did insist that the opposing parties did not mix socially any more. But the naive did not see it that way. Sarah Polk, the wife of a rising Democratic power in the House, found that the parties did mix socially, despite her disinclination to serve liquor at her otherwise convivial dinners.
Even boarding house messes were not segregated by party or region. The Democracy that got Jackson elected was not at all cohesive when its members contemplated who might succeed Jackson. The Whig Party had hardly assembled its many parts. Henry Clay didn't return to the city as a senator until November 1831. Although there were exceptions, the city was divided geographically by what might called the three classes of politicians. Those who observed from the periphery boarded in Georgetown; those who only had a job to do or whose reputation was unassailable boarded on Capitol Hill at Dowson's; and those on the make for money or power boarded on the plain between the Capitol and White House. (Van Buren had soon moved from Georgetown and boarded in a house not far from Calhoun's digs on 7th Street.)
Poverty fanned out from the Capitol. 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, only 978 east of it. Much was shabby on the hill. Boarding houses surrounding the Capitol did not accommodate congressmen 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."
However, the Hill was no slum in the making. There were lots of open spaces. On the hills just north northwest of the Capitol, one could lean back on a chair under a shady tree and soak in a bucolic view. Keeping cattle from grazing on Capitol Square was ever a priority.
Some elegance began to surround the White House. 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. John Tayloe, the president's neighbor to the south, died in 1828. The Octagon house was in a bit of a ditch, so Tayloe's son Benjamin built a house on Lafayette Square. 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, the Pleasantons for example near Rock Creek, lived northwest of the mansion but didn't exactly form a neighborhood. Rep. Fairfield of Maine took a walk from the White House to Georgetown and found the land "uncultivated and the most of it unfenced. The house, except here and there, are small, old, ill-fashioned, and out of repair. At Georgetown we found quite a city - buildings large - streets wide and paved, etc.."
To be sure, the leader of The Democracy did not only cater to the Lafayette Square crowd. Jackson opened his weekly afternoon levees to all and even the poorly dressed and unwashed were welcome. Hack drivers came inside rather than wait in their carriages for their smart customers to come out. That made going to the White House unattractive to the ilk who could afford hacks.
Jackson bore all comers, except his own Cabinet. They could not not peacefully sit in a room together. During the campaign, the only attack made by Adams' supporters that enraged Jackson was that his marriage was bigamous because his wife had not properly divorced her estranged husband. Only enemies would castigate him for blessing the marriage of Eaton and Peggy. But attacking that marriage became a holy cause.
In the 1820s Washington was infused with a new religious fervor, as was much of the nation. The big reform organizations, 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 checked 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.)
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 honor of the cabinet wives. Then a young Presbyterian minister confessed that he had been called to Peggy's side after she had a miscarriage of a child before she was married. The child could only have been Eaton's. Jackson personally investigated all allegations and cleared Peggy's name, to his satisfaction at least.
The President's annual dinner for the cabinet did not go well. Secretary of State Van Buren tried to smooth troubled waters at his dinner for the cabinet by inviting Jefferson's daughter then a widow living in Washington. (Cabinet wives trembled at the mere presence of Van Buren because he didn't shun Peggy.)
Then in May 1831, Van Buren figured out how to save the government from "the defiling clutch of the gossips." He resigned, forced Eaton to resign and shamed Branch, Berrien and Ingham into resigning. As a reward, Van Buren became ambassador to Britain. Eaton became the governor of Florida, still just a territory thanks to the restive Seminoles discouraging white settlers. As punishment the Senate did not confirm Van Buren's recess appointment. It confirmed Eaton unanimously.
In the press, Green's Telegraph led the attack on Van Buren. In the Senate, both Clay and Webster attacked him for forcing the dissolution of the cabinet, instituting the spoils system and colluding with the British government to advance his party. He had ended a stalemate in negotiations over West Indian trade, citing the change in US government as the reason. Webster wondered if there was a quid pro quo that Van Buren got from the British to advance his political ambitions: "What is to be the consideration paid for this foreign favor?" It was arranged so that Calhoun cast the deciding vote against Van Buren's appointment. Calhoun reportedly exulted "It will kill him, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick."
Such posturing did not rattle what might be called the building blocks of the city, all the checks and balances were in order. But concentration of venom on one man, a former senator, was ominous. Plus it focused attention on the most poorly defined officer of the government, the vice president. He presided over the Senate and moved into the White House if the president died. Calhoun made clear his disdain for Jackson who he thought defiled the White House. The city entered a violent decade.
Local politics was just as divided. On the Fourth of July 1831, the Whigs, led by William Seaton, gathered at City Hall. The Democracy, led by the current mayor John Van Ness, gathered at the Rotunda. With Tayloe dead, Van Ness was probably the city's richest man. Why did he run for office? He was a long time friend of Van Buren's. That wily politician had formed the alliance between small farmers and New York City's Irish workers that gave The Democracy power in the north. An alliance with Southern slave owners gave the party national power. Although born in New York, Van Ness owned a few.
It is common to assume that our ancestors were at least conscious of the sins we lay at their feet. But In their speeches Van Ness and Seaton did not address slavery or Indian removals. Whites envisioned a world without blacks and Indians or at least without them ever voting. They focused their hatred on other white people with different religions, ethnic backgrounds, political beliefs and, thanks to Jackson's battle with the Second Bank of the United States, economic standing.
Even though it was in Philadelphia, to most men of means in the city the Bank was sacrosanct and threats against it deeply troubling. How else explain why in a generally robust national economy, housing starts in the city declined precipitately from a four year average of 158 a year to only 62 new houses in 1832.
The charter of the Second Bank of the United States ran out in 1836, so Jackson's attacks amounted to no more than music for the ears of his supporters. Defeating Jackson in 1832 would moot that music. So in early 1832 Henry Clay banked on launching his bid to defeat Jackson by pushing a bill to renew the Bank's charter. If Jackson signed it, he'd lose supporters. If he vetoed it, Clay would gain supporters and deny Jackson a second term
On June 30, 1832, Jackson vetoed bill because the Bank was "dangerous to the liberties of the people." To add insult to injury, Van Buren rose from the dead and became Jackson's running mate. Jackson's election would mean Vice President Van Buren would preside over the likes of Calhoun, Clay and Webster for four years.
A pandemic of cholera which began in 1831, arrived in Montreal on June 6, 1832, by June 30 it was in New York City. The Dutch Reformed Church wrote to President Jackson asking him to declare a national day of fasting and prayer. He replied that he didn't have that Constitutional power. Since congress was once again revising the tariffs, a chore taken up every four years, it was still in session until July. Clay found another plank with which to spank the president. Clay had the Senate pass a resolution asking the president to do what he just said he wouldn't do.
The joke going around was the cholera arrived in New York at the same time as Van Buren came home from London. He arrived in Washington on July 8 and "lodged on the White House." Then congressmen, the president and Van Buren went off on vacation.
After its previous epidemic of undetermined nature in 1822, the city government formed a Board of Health. For the next decade it mainly strove to prove to the world that the city's death rate was not any worse than other American city's death rate, which was true. In 1827, 124 adults and 127 children died. It also urged draining the city's "low grounds" which was done along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Given the warning of the approach of cholera, in August the doctors who made up the board ordered the banning of the marketing of all eatables from watermelons to oysters and the suspension of public gatherings for ninety days. It designated three fever hospitals, Western Hospital, Center Hospital and Eastern Hospital, all three staffed by the city's leading doctors. The most vocal avatars of Liberty being on their long summer recess, it took a mass meeting of locals at City Hall to shout down those strictures.
The city's first ghetto was south of the canal. Surrounded by the river and the canal that largely collected sewage, the area was known as the Island. The Potomac did not send fresh air to the Island. Emerging mud flats just to the west exhaled dank humidity. Thanks to the disinclination to employ resident free blacks or use large gangs of slaves, many Irish workers were hired to macadamize the Avenue, along with a boat load of Swiss who had just arrived. They had to crush enough stone to fill a 45 foot wide swath in the middle of the Avenue from 3rd to 14th streets NW.
The laborers wilting in the rock dust were easy to see. Plus there were long ditches to be dug. Washington was very much a village but because of the pretensions of its design pubic works undertaken in the city could be all consuming and disruptive.
The first cases of cholera were on the island and most victims were black. So in an era when it was thought that whites and blacks were exempt from each other's diseases, there was no panic among whites. That didn't last long. First laborers died and then "better" people, even on Capitol Hill. There were 459 cholera deaths (251 whites, 162 free blacks and 46 slaves.) Cholera never lingered. It moved on.
On September 9, 1832, at the height of the epidemic which seemed centered on the Island which spread out to the southeast of the Van Ness Mansion on 17th Street NW below the White House, Marcia Burnes Van Ness died. She was the daughter and heir of David Burnes who had originally owned the site of the White House and most of what became downtown Washington. She married Rep. Van Ness who in 1832 was the mayor city. She died at age 50 of a lingering illness and her death allowed an outpouring of public grief. At her public funeral, the first in the city for a woman, the casket was carried between lines of girl orphans. She had been the moving spirit in building the new Home for Orphans on H Street NW between 9th and 10th Streets.
It's a pity that Jackson wasn't in town for the funeral which might have provided a gauge about how deeply that sentimental man cared for the city. But the city's hatred of him probably would not have been melted by his tears.
Jackson tried to do right by the city. In his first message, he 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. His stand against Nullification, "The Federal Union - it must be preserved," was quite a down payment on future stability coming from a Tennessee slave holder.
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 they hoped would become Washington's Brooklyn. But Congress only appropriated $200,000 and the bridge continued to be washed away.
Bridges over the Potomac were no match for river ice
By winning a second term, presidents put their stamp on the city. Accusing Jackson of acting like a King simply made that point. But in his own way, he restored the simplicity of Jefferson to the Palace. Despite being a widower and childless he wallowed in domesticity. Once the Eaton scandal ended and a woman could stay in the White House with out losing her respectability, he filled the White House with the children of relatives. (He also bred and trained horses, but not for pony rides. He raced them under the name of his ward Andrew Jackson Donelson. He also owned three slave jockeys.)
Unlike Jefferson, he did not have the complicating need to intellectualize everything. The slaves he brought to the White House, about a dozen, were family not tokens of the impending crisis. He was a man of principal but not consistent and not boxed in by past Declarations. He was the first president since Washington who took advice. Of course, his opponents denigrated Jackson's advisers as newspaper hacks forming a kitchen cabinet that flattered Jackson's worst instincts.
The Bank had a knack for taking care of its friends in Washington including many a newspaper hack. Many thought that happy knack would at least keep government funds in at until an eventual charter renewal. Then on March 30, 1833, the Treasury building burned down thanks to a pensioner worried about what auditors might find in his file. Jackson's reaction to the destruction of the very Augean stables he came to clean out was to glorify the Washington bureaucracy with a building for the ages.
He wanted a new Treasury building to dwarf the Bank building in Philadelphia. The enlarged Treasury Building was to be filled with auditors and strong rooms to store gold.
In 1834, two years before the Bank's old charter expired and four years before construction began on the new Treasury, Jackson withdrew all government money from the Bank and deposited it into local banks throughout the country. Expecting them to become founts of corruption, critics called them pets. Clay's Whigs controlled the Senate and it censured Jackson for trampling on the Constitution by firing his secretary of the treasury and replacing him with one who removed the money which, Clay argued, could not be done without enabling legislation.
Since Democrats controlled the House, Jackson could not be impeached. So the Senate censured Jackson. Clay warned: "The preliminary symptoms of despotism are upon us; and if Congress do not apply an instantaneous and effective remedy [charter the Bank], the fatal collapse will soon come on, and we shall die - ignobly die! base, mean, and abject slaves - the scorn and contempt of mankind- unpitied, unwept, unmourned."
Washington's Bank of the Metropolis at 15th and F NW which had been founded by John Van Ness in 1814 became the local pet, but that left all the local banks run by Whigs out of luck. The Bank up in Philadelphia had about 70 times the fiscal clout as the Metropolis Bank which only had about $11,000 in species bank in 1832 when it last reported.
The men investigated presented a mix of those still tied to the fortunes of the original proprietors and new speculators like W. W. Corcoran who was the 36 year old son of a Georgetown cobbler, merchant and sometimes mayor. Young Corcoran handled real estate in the city for the Second Bank of the United States. Whigs counterattacked by accusing the local pet bank of rewarding congressmen with "loans" to buy public land warrants. Since abuse was bipartisan abuse, no report on the bank's dealings was made.
With the pets loosed on the greedy nation, there was a 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. By law, the federal government paid in hard currency so Washington had plenty every weekly payday. But the dismal science (economics) had laws too. Brokers hoarded hard currency for shipping elsewhere and flooded the city with debased paper currency in return. A paper dollar was worth just 85 cents at a store.
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.
But Washington was depression proof. It was so entwined with national self-esteem that one could argue that Black Hawk's War kept the city in funds. In 1832 he led an incursion of disparate Indians across the Mississippi River into Illinois. Seventy-seven whites and up to 600 Indians were killed. Black Hawk was captured and on his way to prison in Virginia, he was taken to the White House to meet Jackson. To impress barbarians an emperor needs a Rome. (And the mud and dust wouldn't mar Black Hawk's view of it.)
Black Hawk who got a Presidential medal from Jackson and his portrait taken
Plus thanks to the always-soon-to-be-completed Chesapeake and Ohio canal, there was always an expectation of a coming boom in the city. Ironically, that long awaited improvement that was to make Washington a true Metropolis almost brought it down.
Dutch creditors threatened to take city property that was the collateral for a $1.5 million loan used to build the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Jackson urged Congress to have the federal government assume the loan and pay the annual obligations. He didn't care that the canal couldn't turn a profit. He didn't want foreigners owning land in the city.
In 1834, Mayor Van Ness and his Whig rivals climbed into canal boats to celebrate the opening of the canal. Jackson and Van Buren did not participate, so much the better; former President Adams did and gave a long speech. The only mote obscuring the vision of sure salvation was the opening a year later of the first railroad line between Baltimore and Washington. The former city bet on the railroad, the latter on the canal. The first railroad station was at 2nd and Pennsylvania NW convenient to the hotels where so many congressmen boarded.
Time were hard enough that some found scapegoats, and it wasn't paper money. On January 30, 1835, Richard Lawrence, an out-of-work house painter, tried to assassinate President Jackson in the Capitol as he left funeral services for a congressman. The assassin later 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
(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 to the newly built government asylum on a pleasant hill east of the Anacostia River and died there in 1861.)
Then in Washington Mrs. Thornton's slave allegedly tried to murder the widow. Authorities blamed abolition literature and found a white "incendiary" in Georgetown who possessed some. While troops guarded him from a lynch mob, rumor spread that a prominent free black owner of the Epicurean restaurant, Beverly Snow, insulted the virtue of the wives of mechanics. So a white mob attacked Snow's eatery which was on Pennsylvania Avenue across from Gadsby's and Brown's hotels. (It was August. No congressional boarders were there or anywhere else.)
At roughly the same time, there was work stoppage at the Navy Yard caused, at least in the official record, by a ban on bringing lunches into yard so that nothing, especially copper bolts, could be taken out in the bags used to bring in the lunch. Commandant Hull, who had a reputation for running a "tight ship", had taken over from easy-going Capt. Tingey who died in 1829. In his memoir Michael Shiner, then a slave working at the yard, remembers that white workers were also provoked by black caulkers from Baltimore brought in to working on the frigate Columbia.
In the modern retelling, the Navy Yard workers are blamed for the violence throughout the city reportedly angry at competition from blacks. However they were well paid, had worked with slaves for years and continued to work with them. After a rally of shouting at the Navy Yard gate, the labor dispute was amicably settled. Rioters did vandalize a school for black children, some tenements, a church, and a whore house. Marines first pacified the city. Shiner remembered that "officers of the army and navy the good Citizens of Washington in a couple of weeks they had the City of Washington as quiet as a Church and the laws were all respected and every thing went on quietly."
Reacting to the tears of his wife, President Jackson pardoned the one white worker convicted of stealing copper. Mrs. Thornton tried to get her slave out of jail. Snow wound up in Toronto. Jackson sent a message to congress asking them to consider banning abolition pamphlets from the mail.
It is fair enough to use Shiner's diary as a gauge of the tension between the races. In September, while drunk he was beaten up by whites, briefly locked up, escaped, captured again, brought to a justice of the peace to be jailed only to be returned to the Navy Yard where he and everybody got back to work. Rough times, indeed, but Shiner also recalls when "Hon. Major General Andrew Jackson president of the United States," and other dignitaries came for the launching of the Columbia on March 9, 1836. Even with their own liberty, slaves could be awed by the city's pomp and pretensions.
The rage of poor whites was not against blacks taking their jobs but against blacks like Snow who proved their betters by learning how to talk and behave like the gentlemen from Gadby's and Brown's that he 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."
But in the City of Liberty in the Age of Jackson, the wretched class of white people was the King's rabble. It was easier to damn the Abolitionists and 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. Whites did not fear competition for jobs. They were enraged at black entrepreneurs who in most cases profited by providing the food, drink and entertainment along Pennsylvania Avenue. Snow's eatery reopened a few years later, under the management of another free black.
Jackson's publicists and more radical thinkers raised the class consciousness of Americans, even bureaucrats. Bureaucrats 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 administration asked Amos Kendal, of the kitchen cabinet, to defend the budget against bureaucrats. Beginning in 1829 he had led the campaign to root out corruption in the bureaucracy. He worked as a Treasury auditor replacing one of the men he had fired. A Massachusetts born Kentucky newspaper publisher, he also wrote both state papers and newspaper commentary on those papers. When Clay began attacking the scandal ridden Post Office Department, Jackson made him Postmaster General.
The default Democratic defense against any Clay attack was that no man was more profligate with government money than Clay. Fortunately for the city, Kendall had a large family and brought them from Kentucky. As Postmaster General he came to look askance at the invasion of incompetent job seekers who were mostly men without families. He persuaded the administration to support 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.
Or look at it this way. In 1836 construction began on the new Treasury building that was to hold the all the government's gold. Of course, its clerks needed a raise.
The Democracy belied its name and let Jackson name his successor. The party nominated Vice President Van Buren at a convention in Baltimore in May 1835. No future president had a longer stint of hands-on training before taking the reigns of power. Usually vice presidents skulked in the Senate chair . After the slaughter at the Alamo, Texan troops defeated the Mexican army and took its general Santa Anna prisoner. The preponderance of opinion was for hanging him, but cooler heads sent him to Washington instead. Future presidents would delight in killing terrorist leaders, but Texas leaders preferred ingratiating themselves to the man with power to sign away his country's birthrights. Santa Anna met Jackson and Van Buren squired him around town.
In December 1835 and February 1836 Jackson hosted an elegant dinner and ball to which all who counted were invited. Was it to show off Van Buren or show up Van Buren, 5' 6" tall, for the small man he was?
With the Eatons gone, Washington dinners and balls once again counted. Mrs. Lewis Cass had three lavish affairs and finally in December 1836 got to move into the US embassy in Paris with her husband the new minister. Van Buren's own dinner during the last day's of Jackson's reigns was long remembered: "I cannot recollect all the courses, but I believe they were something like the following: 1st soup, very rich a delicious; 2d, turkey; 3d, beef smothered in onions...; 4th, a la mode beef; 5th; most superb mutton...; 6th, ham; 7th, a bird, the name of which I could not understand; 8th, pheasants, and 9th, bass."
However, the love affair between Jackson and the People continued. As happened to President Jefferson, admirers gave Jackson a huge mammoth cheese in a tub about 5 feet in diameter and two feet thick. Crowds coming to receptions were allowed a bite. It moldered in the White House for many weeks. Wits noted that Democracy had a distressing odor.
The opposition's strategy was to force the House to once again decide the presidency. Regional candidates would win enough electoral votes to deny Van Buren a majority. In the House the opposition controlled 7 states, 7 were split and the so-called Nullifiers controlled the South Carolina delegation. It would take 15 states to win.
For a period the most pressing question in Washington was "what is Ohio's William Henry Harrison's position on freemasonry?" In New England, New York and Pennsylvania, for reasons locked deep in psyches of white American males, membership in a Masonic lodge became a burning issue. Both Jackson and Van Buren were members of that secret fraternity.
A committee advocating for the rights of "Native Americans," had nothing to do with Indians, not even those then being removed from Georgia. It advocated preserving the country for white citizens born in the country and banning Irish immigrants. Such plaints had to be taken seriously in order to build the Whig Coalition. Hugh Lawton White, a Democratic senator from Tennessee, sought revenge on Jackson for his not making him his successor. (Gossips credited his second wife, a Washington boarding house landlady, for coaxing him to run.)
White won Tennessee and Alabama, Webster won Massachusetts, Harrison won Ohio and six smaller states, but Van Buren won the three most populous states, New York Pennsylvania and Virginia and enough smaller states to win 170 of 294 electoral votes, far fewer than Jackson's 219 in 1832.
An 1837 Guide to Washington rated the presidents on the contributions to the growth of the city. Monroe won the palm and Jackson wasn't even mentioned even though new buildings for the Treasury, Post Office and Patent Office were about to be built. But the author of the guide was a Whig, and that party united behind a program to deny Jackson credit for anything and to block whatever Van Buren tried to do.
Van Buren was the first president who was neither a statesmen nor a hero. He was a politician and what was painfully apparent to people in the city was that there were statesmen about who deserved to be in the White House. He gave a long Inaugural Address and made a point of insisting that he would veto any bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia or anywhere else. There was no chance that such a bill would pass and there was no evidence that his boast made any impression on locals.
Van Buren practiced "severe horseback exercise" to keep off the pounds so he must have been familiar with the City of Washington and the District of Columbia, but he never exhibited any feeling for it or the people living there. The feeling was mutual. He relied on the friendship of Southerners who thought him safe on slavery and the loyal band of politicians from New York with whom he had long enjoyed the game of politics. At Washington's boarding house messes, those worthies enjoyed explaining that all the unseemly ploys of New York politics had been in place before young Matty Van Buren came of age and started betting on them.
Van Buren had a passion for avoiding battles. He kept Jackson's cabinet which denied Whigs a chance to embarrass him on that score. To unsettle Van Buren, the Whigs threw down the gauntlet in New York City. There a mass meeting called for a ten thousand man March on Washington, not to free the slaves but to once again link the finances of the federal government to the now private Bank of the United States. The march didn't happen but a delegation of fifty did call on Van Buren, in vain. A few weeks later those fifty men returned to New York City and then most of the banks on East coast virtually shut down.
Van Buren called a special session of congress in September which by briefly filling boarding houses helped the local economy but didn't solve the national crisis. Private building almost stopped, just 16 new brick houses and 47 wooden ones.
Small local banks had little leverage in the national battle but locals could see the grand new Treasury building slowly rising. Van Buren's major legislative proposal would be the Independent Treasury bill which required federal monies to be held in federal depositories like the Treasury Building instead of a national bank.
Ironically, a newly elected Democratic congressman from New York, Zadock Pratt, famed for building a tannery empire in a Catskill's town renamed Prattsville, showed Whigs the way by throwing the first stone at the Treasury building. He found the sandstone being used too shabby. He prompted a congressional investigation which Whigs were happy to support.
A committee, aided by several architects, most of them Whigs, found more problems: 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 move the building materials down Pennsylvania Avenue to where the new Patent Office and Post Office were being built behind the hotels where most congressmen boarded. They had been in Blodget's "grand hotel," but it had burned down.
Then the depression following the financial Panic of 1837 saved the Treasury building. Congress wouldn't let a panel of Whig architects add to the mass of unemployed workers and contractors. On a close vote, congress decided to stick with the original design. The rather startling episode of locals trying to stop federal building in the city came to an end. But local Whigs didn't come to their senses.
Usually it was outsiders who attacked the good life in Washington, but to make political points locals joined in the attacks. A widower with grown sons, Van Buren fit comfortably into the White House with much of the best shipped down from New York. 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 Van Buren's lap of luxury. The printed speech became the prime Whig campaign document in the 1840 presidential election. Washington became a mill to generate campaign documents.
In reality the administration did tone down its balls and dinner. Dolley Madison was at Secretary of State Forsyth's January 8th ball but the fare was rather light. "A few cakes, a glass of wine and lemonade, ice creams and grapes, constituted the whole treat. It was all well enough, but very cheap," wrote a Democratic congressman. "And so far as it may operate as an example to repress extravagance and encourage simplicity and economy, it is all well and ought to be approved."
While attacking every administration measure, the opposition began impugning the performance of army troops revenging a massacre of a battalion by the Seminoles in Florida. Even Southern Whigs called Gen. Jessup an imbecile and sympathized with Osceola who led the Seminoles. Sen. Benton thundered that 500 runaway slaves led by Abraham convinced the Indians not to move west. Plus he chided Whigs for attacking their own. Most military men, officers especially, were Whigs. Men in uniform had no sympathy for the common man.
That said, despite their economizing ways Jackson and Van Buren did not cancel the South Sea's expedition authorized during Adams' administration. In August 1838 the Vincennes and other ships were ready to leave the Washington Navy Yard. A couple dozen scientists came on board. Captain Charles Wilkes invited the president and cabinet for a parting dinner. Despite Van Buren's unpopularity, every naval officer from miles around, all Whigs, wanted to be on board to meet the president. Wilkes, also a Whig, let them on. Then a seventeen year old brat climbed the stairs to Wilkes' house and demanded to be taken on the expedition. He was a Blair, son of the publisher of the Globe, the administration newspaper. Wilkes sent him home.
The local Whigs and Democrats found common ground with Van Buren on only one political issue, slavery. Roughly one quarter of the nation's representatives supported raising the issue of slavery again and again by accepting Abolition petitions. In 1838 petitions focused solely on Washington. Rep. John Quincy Adams and others began demanding that action be taken.
Southern members howled in rage after a Vermont member veered from the subject of a petition and mentioned slavery in Virginia. They walked out of the House chamber and reassembled in the room below the chamber used by the Committee for the District of Columbia. They verged of uniting behind a resolution to secede from the Union then cooler heads prevailed. With plenty of Northern allies, they had the House pass a gag rule preventing debate on the petitions.
In 1839, several hundred residents, including the Whig mayor, signed a petition asking Abolitionists to leave the city alone. Sen. Clay presented and extolled the petition. The slaves in Washington were content; the issue of slavery would solve itself; "the liberty of the descendants of Africa in the United States is incompatible with the safety and liberty of the European descendants;" and "some one hundred and fifty or two hundred years hence, but few vestiges of the black race will remain among our posterity."
But there were other petition drives that fueled heated rhetoric. The "young men" of America rued that their lives would be ruined unless the Bank once again held the government deposits. The Bank was the issue, not slavery. During one interminable debate, Rep. Jonathan Cilley, a Maine Democrat accused a Washington newspaper of once accepting a $50,000 loan from the Bank of United States and then changing its position on chartering the Bank. Rep. William Graves, a Kentucky Whig, tried to hand Cilley a note from the editor denying the charge. Cilley refused the note and thus affronted Graves' honor.
On February 24, 1838, Graves killed Cilley with a rifle shot at 80 paces on the dueling grounds in Bladensburg, Maryland. This was the first death arising from a congressional duel. Congressmen shrugged. The Washington Spy was the source for the bribe accusation. The Spy was old Matt Davis who had been the publicist for Vice President Aaron Burr who had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Cilley chose the unorthodox weapon and was bound to die anyway as the newspaper's editor and two henchmen were armed and prepared to kill Cilley if he survived the duel.
John Fairfield, Cilley's colleague from Maine, rejected the blase reaction. Even John Quincy Adams wouldn't vote to censure Graves, his Whig colleague. Then national outrage forced congress to outlaw dueling in the District and aiding and abetting dueling anywhere else. One provision of the law described a violation as a "high crime and misdemeanor" which left no doubt that an offending congressman could be impeached.
Nothing could tamp down the city (and country's) propensity to violence. John Quincy raged with "violent and intemperate" speeches as the House refused to accept Abolition petitions to placate to Southern sensibilities. But the Senate refused pass a gag rule. Benton of Missouri, a slave owner himself, told Van Buren's son: "We gave notice, Sir, that we were prepared to fight, yes, Sir, to fight for the freedom of debate! We held out the prospect of the pistol, Sir. Yes, Sir, the pistol in one hand and the freedom of debate in the other, Sir, and the other side shrunk from the pistol, Sir! They could not look the pistol down, Sir!" (Young Van Buren had just returned from Florida where he had been in the army fighting Seminoles which might have excited Benton's violent metaphors.)
Congress became the scum of all its parts. Capitol Hill suffered as well. Property values there declined. Captain Wilkes bought the two houses that George Washington built on Capitol Hill for $12,000. Wilkes paid $4000 and he wryly apologized to his friends in the West End for being so off the beaten track. His house on the hill was also on its own little hill. It was a tough place to get to if you wanted to leave your card, but a safe place to leave his wife and children as he sailed off into the unknown.
Elsewhere, in 1839, there were 141 houses built and 178 in 1840, the most in any year. Property values rose west of the Capitol, despite more slaves and free blacks living in the West.
There was no celebration of the improving local economy as long as there was a Democrat in the White House. A succession of Whig mayors beginning in 1834 reached a crescendo in 1840 with the election of newspaper editor William Seaton in 1840 who would serve five consecutive two year terms.
He railed against House Democrats who refused to recharter the city's banks in order to force the city to only use hard money for paying debts and taxes. To add insult to injury, congress almost passed a new charter for the city that made no provision for the ownership of slaves. That shock, an Abolitionist trick that Democrats winked at, would never come to pass once Southern members were alerted, but it was too close for comfort.
Mass meetings were held in the city and Georgetown, resolutions passed to redress grievances against a congress for treating the city "with indignity, insults, wrong and oppression." Said one speaker: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Adams did what they could to improve the city, but "the Hun, Atilla, came.... Almost every family was more or less affected by his wild and reckless despotism." His successor "has brought the Country, and the District, as well as the Government, to bankruptcy and ruin by the folly of his measures, and profligate and useless extravagance in the expenditure of public money...."
The Whig central committee met in Washington's City Hall, under the control of Mayor Seaton. The city government and most of the city's elite were bent on the destruction of the sitting president. Expansionists along both the northern and southern border pressed Van Buren to start wars with Mexico and Canada, doing either would probably have assured his re-election. Instead he sulked. Old political friends who became Whigs gave speeches excoriating Van Buren for bringing golden spoons to the White House, even though they had used those spoons after Monroe had ordered them from France.
A Van Buren newspaper mocked the attacks 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. 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 Van Buren stalwart lamented in his diary that "the Democratic clerks are wheeling into the Harrison ranks by platoons." The city was once again fairly launched on the tumultuous sea of changing administrations.