Sunday, November 23, 2014

History Press has just published my new book Slave Labor in the Capital which describes the use of slave labor to build the Capitol and White House during the most difficult phase of construction from 1792 to 1800. This is not only a book about Washington history since many of the hired slaves came from as far away as St. Mary's County, Maryland. It also examines the growth of the work force, both slave and free, at the Aquia Creek quarries in Virginia. The book is not only focused on hired slaves. The policy of slave hired was designed to "cool" the demands of free workers. Led by James Hoban, Irish workers especially worked well with the slaves, and, in my opinion, Hoban engineered a policy that meant some wages went directly to hired slaves and not their masters.

When I left Washington in 1994, I made the fateful decision to take all the research materials I accumulated while writing my 1991 book, Through a Fiery Trial, which is a general history of the city's early development. Over the years I have mined several boxes of photocopies, especially letters to and from the commissioners and about 100 payrolls and receipts that I photocopied at the National Archives. I put the fruits of that research on the web. Now, the web can accommodate the documents themselves and since the National Archives seems loath to web publish what they have, I will slowly put images of all the documents I used for Slave Labor in the Capital on the web and links to the relevant correspondence of Washington, Jefferson and other "Founders" that are already there.  Of course sharing the documents and payrolls invites different interpretations of them but I welcome that. You can see the beginnings of that blog, and also info on where to order the book, at Slave Labor in the Capital

I hope the new blog doesn't make reading the book seem like hard work. I try to tell a story and try to put the readers in the shoes of hired slaves, their masters, their bosses, free workers, and the Founding Fathers. I'll forewarn you. The latter don't come off with the usual shine they get in history books. Like all History Press books, there are many illustrations including one of a worker's shoe.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How Washington Got Its Name

I've kept up web pages on early Washington history, mostly amplifications of parts of my book Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790-1800. Of late, according to my site statistics, there's been an inordinate amount of traffic on a modest page explaining how the city was named.

For example, my site is hosted my Yahoo and I can get "live updates" on viewers. In the last 10 minutes on a Tuesday morning, two people visited the how Washington was named site, one from Howell, Michigan and the other from Oslo, Norway.

Why such interest?

The first person to report on the naming of the city was Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. He came down to Georgetown, accompanied by James Madison, to confer with the three commissioners appointed by the President to supervise the preparation of the city for the reception of the federal government in 1800. After the meeting he sent a memo back to President Washington reporting on what the commissioners decided.

The 13th and last decision he mentioned was the name or names: "they have named the City, & the territory, the last after Columbus."


The first, of course, was named Washington.

Perhaps, there was a becoming sense of modesty in those days; perhaps the president was a bit embarrassed; perhaps the president had let it be known that he preferred the phrase "federal city", and, indeed, from all the reading I've done of his letters, Washington never called Washington "Washington." In a January 1791 letter he called the district: "The District of ten miles square for the permanent Seat of the general government." In a March letter he referred to "the federal town." A few weeks later he called it "the federal city." After September, when the city  was officially named Washington, he continued to call it "the federal city."

Obviously, Washington knew that the commissioners were going to name the city after him which was why Jefferson did not mention their decision. He prefaced his report by assuring the president that the commissioners were "preadmonished that it was your desire that they should decide freely on their own view of things." No matter: "they concurred unanimously in... every point with what had been thought best in

This suggests that Washington had given thought to the name. However, he may not have given thought to the name of the "territory" or the congressional ordain 

city was named by the three commissioners, charged with supervising the construction of the public buildings, at one of their then monthly meetings on September 8, 1791. These three men were recently appointed by President
Washington. Secretary of State Jefferson came down from the capital in Philadelphia to present the agenda of what the President wanted the commissioners to decide. Selecting the name for the city was one item and Washington told Jefferson to assure
the commissioners that they had complete freedom. Of course, everyone knew that the city would be named after Washington. One name bruited about Philadelphia before the meeting was "Washingtonople."  The commissioners named the city "Washington." They also had to name the ten mile square the city was in, mandated by the Constitution, in which in 1791 there were already two existing towns, Georgetown and Alexandria.
They chose the name "Columbia."

As far as I can ascertain there was no debate about "Columbia" either. During the Revolution, Columbia became the goddess protecting America against Britannia. For example Phyllis Wheatley sent a poem to General Washington in 1775, and it was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine in 1776, which contained these passages:

"Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,

Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms....

Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the

For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While round increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state!

Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading,Washington be thine."

In 1784 Washington wrote to Lafayette's wife: "When the weight of so powerful an advocate is on our side, will you My Dr. Marchioness deny us the pleasure of accompanying him to the shores of Columbia?"

During this period the many counties and cities named Columbia got their names. So if one were to create a district which would represent all of the United States of America, the name everyone seemed to agree on was "Columbia." In the competition for the capital, some Pennsylvanians planned a city on the
Susquehanna to be named Columbia.

In letters, debates and official documents the ten mile square along the Potomac was called the "Federal District." However, officially the congress met in "The City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia." In the early debates in Congress about the city, both names were used. Take this example in 1803 the House turned to the affairs of the "District of Columbia" and began discussing a bill to return portions of the "Territory of Columbia" to Virginia. I suppose the "Territory of Columbia" was no
longer used after the District lost what home rule it had in the second half of the 19th century.

 The committee consisted of Mr [Melancton] Smith Mr [Nathan] Dane and Mr [John] Kean to whom was referred the letter1 of John M Pintard requesting that Sea letters be granted for the ship Columbia and the sloop lady Washington bound on a voyage to the northwest coast of America report "that it appears to them that the ship Columbia and the sloop Lady Washington and their cargoes are the property of citizens of the United States and that they are navigated principally by inhabitants of the United States and are bound on a voyage to the Northwest coast of America" 9/24/87

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Obstinate Mr. Burnes

I am sorry the negotiation I have endeavored to carry on with you, should be considered in the light of speculation for my private views - the truth is, I have no object, but a public one - I think it of the utmost importance to Georgetown that the President should fix on the situation offered him from this Neighborhood for the Federal City - and I think the only chance of his so doing will be, by making the offers as unexceptionable as possible.
For the Love of Goose Creek

There is no portrait of David Burnes. The men in the photo above standing in front of the Burnes cottage south of the White House  just prior to its demolition in 1896, probably had no idea personally of what he looked like or what he was like. Burnes died  in 1799.

But they probably knew the stories: the crusty old Scot balked at George Washington's pressure to sell his land for the new federal city. When confronted by Washington, Burnes stood up to him: "I suppose you think people here are going to take every grist that comes from you as pure grain, but what would you have been if you hadn't married the Widow Custis?" So the great reporter Ben Perley Poore handed down what he recalled his Georgetown born mother telling him.

In further retelling Burnes spoke in brogue and a bit spicy at that as he reminded Washington of how he had been enriched by the "Wid'er Custis and all her niggurs!" (Burnes himself had a handful of slaves.)

In a March 28, 1791, letter to Thomas Jefferson about the land dealing, Washington referred to the "obstinate Mr.Burns" even as he joined with other land owners in selling to the government all the land wanted. When George Washington called someone "obstinate", it stuck.

When I began research for  my book Through A Fiery Trail: Building Washington 1790-1800, I assumed that all the major archival repositories containing family papers of the original proprietors of the land which became the capital had been examined and relevant material long ago published. To my surprise it seemed that no one had examined the Van Ness-Phillip Family Papers in the New-York Historical Society which contain the papers of Gen. Van Ness's wife's father David Burnes. 

I found a "copy" of a letter Burnes wrote to Washington on February 26, 1791, that seemed to explain his obstinacy. Because no letter from Burnes is in Washington's papers, that copy has been ignored by the editors of the most recent edition of the Washington Papers that includes letter sent to Washington, even though there is another letter in Burnes' papers suggesting that his letter was sent and received.

One of Burnes' descendants, Barb Price, following my directions and got a good photo of  Burnes' letter and put it on her blog. (I did my research before the digital era.)

In the letter Burnes explains that he was resisting the offers of speculators who he feared were secretly buying up property that he and other proprietors had agreed to sell to the government.

Goose Creek 26 Feb 1791
I presume to address you with great deference on a subject in which I think my own character and reputation and interest involved. Reports have been circulated here that some designing speculative men have been making you offers for the property which I among others gave up to you on certain conditions stipulated in a paper which we all signed giving you the power to make any advantage therefrom towards erecting the Federal City and I am the more induced to believe that speculation is in view from an offer which I have lately had for a further part of my property on the specious pretext that it will be necessary to give it up to complete your designs should you fix on the ground we have already offered you for the purposes aforesaid. To convince you that I do not withhold that farther part of my property from your application of it to the uses designed I am willing if it is your desire to add a further quantity of my land not exceeding 79 acres at any price not under 15 pounds per acre that you may please to nominate or I will agree to take every third lot of the said for the percent (?) of ground.
David Burnes

One assumes that if Washington wrote a letter replying to Burnes, it would have been cherished by the Burnes Family. But it is likely he didn't because in these land deals he was playing his cards close to his chest. Washington well knew the "designing" speculators that Burnes referred to since Washington had made them his secret agents. 

On February 28 he wrote to those agents:

Gentlemen: If you have concluded nothing yet with Mr. Burn's; nor made him any offer for his land that is obligatory; I pray you to suspend your. negotiations with him until you hear further from me.

On March 2, Washington wrote again to "authorise the renewal of the negotiations with Mr. Burns agreeably to former powers, at such time and in such a manner as, in your judgments is likely to produce the desired effect."

Since Washington was in Philadelphia, his stopping and re-starting negotiation with Burnes had nothing to do with meeting him. Washington arrived in Georgetown to finalize a deal with the land owners on March 28th. Washington also likely did not received Burnes' letter before he wrote to his agents on February 28 and March 2. In 1791 they did not have overnight delivery between Goose Creek and Philadelphia.

But on March 11 one of Washington's agents, the Georgetown merchant and speculator Benjamin Stoddert, wrote to Burnes and addressed the fears he expressed to Washington about speculators buying up all the land already promised for the Federal city. 

It is clear that Stoddert knew what Burnes wrote to Washington as he wrote to Burnes:

I understand you have heard I was concerned in an offer to purchase of the President the whole of the land he might fix on....

Stoddert probably learned about the letter, or saw the actual letter, when the man Washington appointed to make a plan for the new city, Major L'Enfant, arrived in Georgetown on March 9.

Stoddert reduced the complexities of the situation to a simple proposition: stop being obstinate and I will pay you 1,000 Pounds, roughly $2800, tomorrow -- 100 Pounds in cash the rest in secured personal notes. In addition he will still get the 25 Pounds an acre everyone else is getting for selling their land.

11 March 1791
I am sorry the negotiation I have endeavored to carry on with you, should be considered in the light of speculation for my private views - the truth is, I have no object, but a public one - I think it of the utmost importance to Georgetown that the President should fix on the situation offered him from this Neighborhood for the Federal City - and I think the only chance of his so doing will be, by making the offers as unexceptionable as possible.
All those who hold lands have agreed to an extension of their offers, except yourself - but their agreements would be of little consequence unless you also agree - for these lands cannot be taken with out yours, as the President no doubt, would choose to make Good Creek one of the boundaries if he accepts the upper situation.
Thus thinking - permit me to make you one more offer, which I promise you shall be the last I will trouble you with - the offer is this - I will give you L1000 if you will agree to let the President of the United States take one hundred acres more of your land, then you have already offered, on the terms of your former offer. I mean the L1000 to be yours whether the President accepts of one foot of your land or not - if he should accept of the upper situation, I should expect he would not let me be a loser, but this will depend entirely on himself and if he should not accept, I should certainly lose the L1000, and you would gain it without losing an acre of your land and if he should accept you certainly could not be a loser, as you would get full L25 per acres; for the 200 acres. L100 of the L1000 I will pay you in cash - for the remaining L900 I will give you my bond with such security as you should approve, payable in 12 months.
Your own candid consideration of the offer herein made, must satisfy you, that I can have no private view in making it - the fact is that I think fixing the Federal City on the Eastern Branch, would destroy Georgetown in which I have a good deal of property that would thereby be rendered of little or no value - and I think that unless the offer from this side of Goose Creek should be much better than those from the Eastern Branch, that Carrollsburg will carry it. It is to prevent so great an evil to Georgetown that I am induced to make you such an offer - for I think with 100 acres more of your land than you have already have agreed to give up - and with what Pearce and Waring have agreed to give up, the offer from this side would be much better than any that could be made from the Eastern Branch.
I understand you have heard I was concerned in an offer to purchase of the President the whole of the land he might fix on - I can only say that I never had a serious thought of the kind - and never will be concerned in such a purchase, even if the President should ever consent to sell which I am sure he never will do - and I consent that this letter may remain evidence against me.
If you should think it in your interest to accept the offer, you must do it today or tomorrow as I cannot consent to be bound by it longer.
Benjamin Stoddert

Take a look at a map of what became downtown Washington to get a better sense of Burnes' reason for being careful, if not obstinate. Burnes owned the land flanking Goose Creek. His land north of the creek was relatively low and while his land south of the creek had more elevation that area was too out of the way for development. Two earlier attempts to develop a city in the area, Hamburgh to the west of Burnes and Carrollsburg to the southeast, plated land that was higher and more convenient to navigable water. Goose Creek was too shallow for a harbor and went no where of commercial value.

Add to those reasons the rumors in town that President Washington was either going to center the new capital city on the hills north of Carrollsburg facing the Anacostia River, then called the Eastern Branch, or on the high ground between Goose Creek and Georgetown. Burnes had every reason to believe his creek would only be a boundary line of the new city.

Burnes lived on his land. Several owners, like Stoddert, were only speculating.  Samuel Davidson, who owned land on higher ground north of Burnes, hoped the government would buy as much as possible, place important buildings there and thus make the lots he retained valuable. 

Burnes looked at it differently. He was the third generation of Burnes to live on Goose Creek. The Burnes, originally from Scotland, had been competing as farmers and battling over land boundaries with a clan of very wealthy Catholics just to the east. He wanted to retain enough of his own land to build his manor house. Notley Young, about as old as Burns, lived on the other side of the peninsula formed by Goose Creek and the Potomac and had a manor house and upwards of 265 slaves.

Burnes's son was 19 years old about to be sent off, I believe, to study law in Baltimore. He had a daughter Marcia who was 9 years old. Burnes was one of the older land owners and would be 60 years old when the government was scheduled to move to the city. What money he made off the new city would make a fortune for his children, except that Burnes wanted to build a manor house on his land, not in Georgetown as Stoddert and Samuel Davidson would do.

At meetings in Georgetown prior to President Washington designating the area as the site for the future capital, the land owners agreed to a scheme that would let the federal government buy all the land it needed for public buildings, streets, and parks. Plus the government were survey all the remaining land into building lots and reserve not more than half of those lots for itself. The original land owners could sell the other half of the lots. What the government made would help finance the construction of the public buildings. What the land owners made would make them wealthy men for how could building lots in the nation's capital not be valuable?

As it turned out, Washington decided to buy far more land for the city than anyone expected, an area as large as London. Rather than being on the edge of the new city, Burnes was right in the middle. The problem of shallow seemingly useless Goose Creek was going to be solved by Major L'Enfant, an engineer as well as city planner. Goose Creek would become a canal easing the way for barges from the upper Potomac and Ohio rivers to get around the tricky tidal reaches of the Potomac below Georgetown and safely to a deep harbor on the west shore of the Eastern Branch.

When Washington revealed the extent of the new city, Burnes should have been the happiest land owner at the meeting. He owned the land right in the middle of the city. There is no evidence that Washington had a kind word for Burnes. 

Washington was loath to hobnob with a man simply because he owned land in the federal district. That one of them, Uriah Forrest, had risen to the rank of colonel in the Revolutionary War and lost a leg serving under Washington at the Battle of Germantown, made it easy to accept a dinner invitation from him. In his diary entry about the dinner, Washington refers to the rest of the land owners invited as "others."
Not to be noticed by Washington had its advantages. David Burnes has been forever "obstinate." The reputation of only one other man involved in the development of the city was dealt a worse blow by Washington. Most historians can't resist denigrating L'Enfant for his "perverseness." 

Ironically, judging from letters between them, Burnes and L'Enfant had a great rapport. Burnes told L'Enfant about the manor house he wanted to build. L'Enfant offered to mark out a whole square for the house at the foot of 17th Street, south of the White House, and he thought public money could be spent to ornament the house and grounds. L'Enfant even offered to design the house. 

L'Enfant found no obstinacy in Burnes. He found a man as passionate about the land the new city would be built on as he was.

Thwarted by commissioners placed above him who visited the city about once a month, L'Enfant left the project in early 1792 and so did not carry out his promises to Burnes. He in turn struggled, as did all the land owners, to find some way to profit from their holdings as the commissioners mismanaged the development of the city.

Then Burnes' son died in 1795 and Burnes' himself became a sick man. He sold many lots in bunches mostly to speculators, those designing men, and amassed an estate of $50,000 cash plus he remaining land holdings. He died in 1799 leaving his widow quite comfortable financially and his 17 year old daughter a desirable match. She married a New York congressman and in 1816 the manor house was finally built, designed by Benjamin Latrobe.

Eventually like the original Burnes' home, it was torn down. But the photographic record of those homes gives the true measure of the "obstinate Mr. Burnes." He believed in Goose Creek and the City of Washington and tried to keep his family stuck in both, and succeeded better than the rest of the cast of characters who built the city.