Thursday, January 19, 2017

Seat of Empire: Insecurity and Grandeur 1841 to 1861

Seat of Empire
A History of Washington
Chapter Four

Insecurity and Grandeur: 1841 to 1861

The Capitol in 1846 
Perfected just as George Washington had envisioned

John Sessford never explained why he annually reported the number of new houses built in the city. He was a Scot, trained as a printer in Newcastle, England, who emigrated to America. He was working as a printer for the National Intelligencer newspaper in 1802. He was hired as a messenger at the Treasury department and rose to become a clerk in the Office of the Fourth Auditor which kept tabs on the Navy department. That explains why in the welter of  housing statistics, he often touted evidence that ships built or docked at the Washington Navy Yard needed fewer repairs to their hull than ships built elsewhere. Meanwhile, he and his wife raised nine children. They did their part to make the city grow.

Sessford grouped his data by ward. The city had six. He shared his data with commentary in the National Intelligencer, and he also printed his "Annal" as a broadside that could be saved, studied, and perhaps inspire. 

He also noted the growth of the federal government buildings in every ward and every new church built. So perhaps he sensed that he was in the middle (he lived just off Pennsylvania and 12th NW) of a city about to boom in a most wondrous way. Its magnificent distances made the typical organic growth of a city unlikely. So Washington would would grow in separate parts, with houses flocking around government offices and churches, and soon all would merge making a city to rival Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City. In 1840 those cities had populations of 93,665, 102,313, and 312,710, respectively. Washington had a population of 23,634.
Clearly the census of 1840 challenged Washington to grow, but the election of 1840 didn't. It was time, once again, for retrenchment and reform in Washington. (Sessford didn't miss a beat: economize as Jefferson did by dry docking all the navy ships for repairs at the Washington Navy Yard!) The victorious Whig Party ran against 12 years of Democratic Party extravagance and corruption which had been fueled by the abusive exercise of presidential power. William Henry Harrison, promised to serve one term; promised less use of the veto; promised that neither he nor any federal official would try to influence elections; promised to preside and not dictate, and most importantly, promised that, unlike Jackson, he would not dismiss his Secretary of the Treasury or any federal officers overseeing the government's gold. He who wielded the sword should not have power over the purse.

Yet the Whig Party also needed be of service to its friends. Washington was the cradle of the party. Its leading editor, the National Intelligencer's William Seaton, was just elected mayor of the city. Harrison had served a little over two years in the House and a little over two years in the Senate. Few prominent politicians at that time had spent less time in Washington. He had found glory in the Northwest Territories, today's Midwest. Before retiring from public life to his farm in North Bend, Indiana, in 1830, he had been US minister to Columbia for a few months before being replaced by President Jackson.

Fortunately for the city, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster advised Harrison. In his two hour long Inaugural Address, he noticed the city. After securing "a free and safe exercise" of federal government functions, congress's laws for the citizens of Washington "should be adapted to their peculiar position and wants and be conformable with their deliberate opinions of their own interests." That meant stop sending petitions to abolish slavery in Washington and charter the city's banks.

The latter imperative was the key. The banks needed a charter to authorize them to provide credit and currency. As the bankers' petition to congress put it, the city suffered because: "our currency, through being deprived of the circulation of our own banks, is of the most varied and fluctuating description; that trade and business languish; that laudable enterprise is unduly checked; that honest industry is deprived of it legitimate reward;... there has been meted out to us a measure of severity which no State Legislature has extended to its constituents."

Sessford's statistics had been used by a bank opponent during congressional debate: the number of houses built in the city had been increasing even without chartered banks.  Senator James Buchanan, a Democrat, suggested a compromise, a small chartered bank to satisfy the needs of a place where so little business was conducted. But that was said before Harrison took office. Beginning March 1841, Whigs controlled congress too. 

The success of log cabin and hard cider campaign raised fears of a riot by Harrison supporters who might drink too much of the latter. But by 1841 lessons had been learned that minimized the cost of change. Despite the largest crowd yet flocking to see an Inauguration, order reigned. At the Capitol there was a line of soldiers, "shoulder to shoulder" within the crowd, and having the hero of the day riding a white horse made it easier for many to sate their curiosity and leave without stampeding the White House. 

Harrison's Inauguration at Capitol in 1841

John Quincy Adams saw the crowds and procession from his window. He had recently exhausted himself arguing before the Supreme Court for the freedom of the slaves who had commandeered the slave ship Amistad.

Adams noted in his diary that "the weather before and on the inauguration day was soft and springlike." The day after, snow carpeted Washington and then sleet and rain. On April 1, the former president went to the White House where four physicians well known to Adams were consulting on the president's sickness described as "bilious pleurisy or typhoid pneumonia." Harrison died shortly after midnight on the 4th, a month after taking office.

Modern doctors now insist he died of typhoid fever and point to "the sewage [that] simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for 'night soil,' hauled there each day at government expense." However, the whole basis of American medicine in 1841 was that the environment caused diseases. Doctors did not know that germs caused disease. They associated gastrointestinal diseases like typhoid with noxious air generated by corrupted ground and water. They relied on their sense of smell and sight to detect the cause of diseases. Once identified city officials tried to remedy problems. Doctors associated lung diseases with cold air and bad weather.

John Quincy Adams had lived in the White House for four years. He did not speculate on why Harrison got sick, only reported on the unusually damp and cold spring .In 1841, Washington had considerable open spaces and given spring rains likely all of the water courses near the White House were flowing and fresh. The White House at that time was in a quasi rural area. Only the area between 12th Street NW and the foot of Capitol Hill resembled a city with about 10,000 people or 40% of its residents living there. The other 60% were spread throughout the remaining expanse of the city.

A view from 12th and K NW looking toward the crowded part of the city

From Sessford's Annals we know that the city cleaned up nuisances including sewage in the canal as best as it could. He often certified the city's good health.

At the time doctors were not concerned about the water politicians drank. Dr. John Sewell, a disgraced "grave robber", moved to the city and restored his reputation by lecturing congressmen on the evils of drink. In 1841, he unveiled his drawings of the internal organs made during his autopsies of habitual drunkards. (Despite the ballyhoo about hard cider, during the campaign Harrison revealed that while he once distilled alcohol on his North Bend farm, he soon stopped once he understood the evils of drink.)

Harrison's death caused forebodings but not of night soil. The long funeral procession went from White House (Adams still called it the Palace) to a vault in the Navy Yard to hold the body before shipment to Indiana. Adams noted that "a multitude of all colors" followed the procession. He had great foreboding of the new president  John Tyler: "a political sectarian of the slave driving Virginian Jefferson school, principled against all improvement.... with talents not above mediocrity."

John Tyler: the first accidental president and first to be burnt in effigy outside the White House

Harrison had ordered, at Clay's behest, a special session of Congress, and it convened in May 1841. The House was quickly tied up over the gag rule. Despite Harrison's plea to let the citizens of the District of Columbia alone, abolitionists still sent petitions demanding that congress abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, led by Clay, the Whig majority in the Senate abolished Van Buren's treasury system and passed a bill establishing a new Fiscal Corporation, i.e. national bank. The House concurred, and keeping the spirit of the presidential campaign alive, Whigs paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate. This was a brave show of public glee because by then it was well known that Tyler did not like the Bank.

Clay hoped that Tyler would let the bill become a law without his signature. But meanwhile the opposition press had  turned the tables on Clay who for eight years had led the chorus calling Jackson a dictator. They began calling Clay a dictator. Hadn't he ordered the special session of congress in order to make Harrison do as he was told. Clay protested that the session was needed to save the ruined country. President Tyler didn't see it that way and balked at being Clay's puppet. He vetoed the bank bill.

This was doubly cruel to local Whigs. The Bank was to have been in Washington. On the mid-August night after the veto, some Whigs engaged in "riotous and tumultuous behavior" outside the White House, reportedly burning the president in effigy.

The better sort of the city of both parties were shocked by the riot. A meeting of concerned citizens quickly convened at City Hall and made resolves: "That this conduct merits and has received the indignant reprobation of all the orderly and well-disposed citizens of Washington, without respect to party." The meeting also expressed appreciation for Tyler who "is well known to us, and who for many years as a member of Congress, manifested the greatest zeal in the promotion of the best interests of the District of Columbia and City of Washington, he is eminently deserving of our regard and gratitude, and that we view any attempt to outrage or insult him in this city as an outrage and insult to ourselves."

The meeting also urged the formation of "an active, efficient, and vigorous police... to prevent violations of the peace, to maintain order and decorum, and to bring to condign punishment the perpetrators of such outrages." To justify federal support for the police, they could also protect public buildings, public records, public officials, representatives of foreign nations and "a large number of strangers are ordinarily collected, [and] entitled to the protection of the collective power of the nation...." A year later, after enough members could demonstrate their knowledge of ancient history and fretted over the formation of an Imperial Guard, congress created a 15 man auxiliary guard to enforce order and supplement the watchmen at the public buildings. Those at the Capitol mostly kept unwanted blacks away and kept order among hack drivers, most of them black.

On September 11, 1841, after Tyler vetoed another bank bill that tried to answer his objections to the first, all but one member of his cabinet resigned. The turmoil paralyzed the government which was not good news for the city. Having promised retrenchment and reform in Washington, just as Democrats did in 1829, the Whig congress stopped any new public building and began finding waste and abuse.

A House committee took aim at Jackson's new Treasury building. It paid witnesses four dollars a day to attend meetings and reveal that "there was a great want of system, and that they were carried on among scenes of confusion and disorder, arising from private bickerings, mutual resentments, and personal quarrels, amongst the superintendents and workmen."

Commissioner of Public Building Noland retorted that "there were a few complaints made... and might have been expected when there were so many employed, and of many nations; but these complaints were of so trivial a nature as to scarcely to be noticed." He blamed the "loafers, spies and secret informers, anxious to testify against any person connected with the public buildings to whom they or their friends owed a private grudge."

Another House committee went after the Capitol gardener for extravagance. That worthy had learned his trade in Europe and had been improving the grounds for a decade. He shot back: "I have upwards of 100 acres of lawns and domains, besides trees and shrubbery of various descriptions, under my charge, with only12 hands to keep them in order, and not even a foreman allowed to assist me. And as soon as I teach a hand, and make him useful and handy, he goes off where he can get higher wages; for he only gets from me $1 per day, and finding himself, averaging not more than $25 a month. Private gentlemen about Washington are willing to give such hands from $30 to $35" plus room and board.

The city's stonecutters petitioned for continued employment. If history was any guide, they would always be in demand. A House committee decided their fate was entirely in the hands of future contractors because it was always cheaper to hire contractors to do public work. 

To be sure, congress did not shirk every expense. Greenough's statue of George Washington finally arrived from Italy with another $5000 added to the cost in order to get it from Annapolis to the Capitol. The artist did not come with it but sent instructions: "That at the distance of 30 feet from the pedestal in front, the fold of skin above the navel may be visible, and not hidden by the knees. If that fold be hidden at that distance, my work is sacrificed."

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a Mr. Grant came up with a way to light the outside of the Treasury building by burning birch bark and filtering the resulting flammable hydrogen gas through a tank of water and to the top of  a lamp. It was cheaper than coal gas and House committee members were able to read a newspaper 50 feet away.

Some other work could not be put off. The Potomac Bridge washed away again during a spring freshet. Congress authorized $45,000 in repairs which was not enough to solve the problem. The bridge had to be rebuilt so embankments wouldn't force all the water into one channel and wash away that portion of the bridge over the channel every spring.

Pennsylvania Avenue, especially that section between Brown's and Gadsby's hotels, 7th and 3rd Street NW, could not handle all the hack traffic without rutting. The macadam of Pennsylvania Avenue had also been eroded by water flooding down the gentle hill to its north, and banks of mud threatened it. But Congress ignored a proposal for a gravel center strip flanked by two parallel strips paved with small oval stones. A western congressman wailed at money wasted on an ornamental mile of road when snags in the rivers "of the Mighty West - a national highway charged with the freight of an empire in extant," were not cleared.

The Whigs did fulfill their promise to give the District's banks new charters. Whigs who had mercilessly investigated the Jackson and Van Buren administrations could not deny Democrats a chance to investigate their suspicions. Democrats argued that the local banks could not be trusted, that they would suspend payment again. Democrats were sure that banks cheated the poor and enriched themselves by discounting the depreciated currency the poor were forced to use to pay rent and other bills. The banks' profits went to their rich stockholders and to finance real estate transactions that enriched bank officers.

So the local bankers had to run the gauntlet. However, all six banks refused to reveal who owed them money, but half of them listed all their stockholders. All revealed their real estate holdings. Only Van Ness's Metropolis bank, the Democrat's pet, had much to reveal, but thanks to the general decline in property values from the real estate bubble after the war, several properties could be shown to be a loss. At the end of the special session, congress gave the banks charters until July 4, 1844. The law closely regulated how they issued notes, none under $5, and made loans, none over $10,000.

The law didn't regulate Corcoran and Riggs, private bankers near the White House, who made the sharp investments in bonds and real estate for the local wealthy. Sessford counted 216 new buildings in 1841 and 295 in 1842.  The new building followed the same pattern of the last twenty years. Almost all new house were west of the Capitol and most centered around 7th Street. He also noticed a "new class of building," four story brick houses. But there were relatively more wooden houses built, 213 in 1842. Thank Corcoran and Riggs for those fourth stories.

But despite the Whigs' longing for internal improvements and bank loans, they were not about to let the cat out of the bag and lose the next election. In March 1842, Sen. Henry Clay orchestrated his retirement. Before he left, he presented resolutions to save the country. But while they urged his American System of higher tariffs to protect industry, even with increased revenues, he still insisted on cutting government expenses in Washington and in the diplomatic corps. We didn't need a minister in Vienna. He even wanted to cut back expenditures for the navy. His friends in Washington which included most naval officers made no protest. Who else could beat Van Buren in 1844? What better way to do that.then by extolling the virtues of retrenchment?

Two Englishmen upstaged Clay's departure. According to John Quincy Adams, the excitement generated by the American tour of Charles Dickens and his wife transcended Lafayette's triumphal 1824 tour. At the same time, Lord Ashburton came to negotiate Maine's boundary with Canada. One had to see and hear Dickens. Just knowing that a British Lord had deigned to come to the city was enough to swell the city's pride. He even rented a house on Lafayette Square. Secretary of State Daniel Webster did the same for neighborly negotiations about the far away frontier. (Bankers in Boston and New York contributed to a fund to keep Webster, who was somewhat of a spendthrift, solvent.)

While Dickens did not address congress as Lafayette did, he spent most of his time in the Capitol. When he wrote about his American travels in 1850, he disparaged both houses and duly noted their spit stained carpets: "...Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,.... The stranger, who follows in the track I took myself, will find it in its full bloom and glory, luxuriant in all its alarming recklessness, at Washington."

He was nonplussed by being constantly asked what he thought of heads, i.e. skulls, of the legislators. Not much, and he didn't flatter any by mentioning their names in his memoir. He had pressed American authors to get congress to force American publishers to recognize international copyrights. They tried and failed and Dickens never forgave congress.

Told by many that the president was incompetent and disliked, Dickens made a brief and favorable pen sketch: "at a business-like table covered with papers, sat the President himself.  He looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with everybody—but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his manner was remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and agreeable.  I thought that in his whole carriage and demeanour, he became his station singularly well." Dickens attended one Tyler's crowded levees but avoided dinner at the White House.

Dickens left a good impression and couldn't avoid a farewell dinner in his honor at Boulanger's on the lower end of Pennsylvania Avenue across from the hotels. The chef was a Belgian trained in Paris who had worked in Jackson's White House.

Tyler didn't let his being disliked cramp his use of the White House to entertain. While his wife was terminally ill, his daughter-in-law, who had been a professional actress, hosted White House social functions. She honored the marriage of the Monroes' granddaughter by inviting the old Washington elite to dine, including Dolley Madison, now a 73 year old widow, who had moved to Washington. John Quincy Adams, who despised Tyler, enjoyed the "dancing in the now gorgeously furnished East Room, and an elegant supper."

Shunned by the Whigs, Tyler decided to build his own political party. Not for nothing could visitors like Dickens not get over the amount of tobacco juice spat onto White House carpets. More than the usual palaver took place between Tyler and his many visitors. Those left on the outside derided the process with the exaggeration characteristic of the time, "all the chips, shavings, and sweepings of office, down to the lowest clerkship, the posts of messengers and watchmen, were brought into market and bartered for support at the next election." That said, the administration newspaper lamented that even after Tyler's purge, "out of six hundred clerks in the departments, scarcely fifty real Tyler men are to be found."

Since Jackson taught the nation the evils of the president ordering up buildings, it was up to congress to create new jobs by the tried method. In 1843, the visionary Democratic congressman Zadock Pratt returned to congress, along with a Democratic majority. He had just supervised construction of a 224 foot single arch bridge to help serve his tanneries in the Catskills. The Speaker made him chairman of the House Committee on Public Buildings. Pratt set out to solve the acoustical problems of the House chamber with the help of the army topographical engineers.

They came up with a $300,000 extension of the House wing to contain a new chamber, and room enough for the 57 standing committees of the House and Senate. The current configuration of the Capitol, for all its 60,000 square feet, could only accommodate 40. But for the moment Congress did nothing and Pratt left the stand pat city, never to sit in congress again.

Even a government seemingly paralyzed can give a boost. After the summer long 106 day special session in 1841, congress sat for 269 days from December 6 to August 31,1842, the longest session to date, besting the war sessions of 1798 and 1812. Both parties and Tyler's supporters in congress competed to trim government waste in Washington, but they filled the boarding houses and hotels as never before. Of course, the short sessions still ended on March 4.

Although congress might do nothing, it had tariffs to adjust every four years and money to spend usually in the waning moments of every session. The new railroad brought the rest of the country closer. In 1846, a senator described how that worked: "when a bill was introduced, Wall Street had notice of it, if necessary, in 15 hours, and in 15 hours more the cars brought a delegation from Wall Street to regulate the details of the bill." Well, it wasn't that easy. The railroad station was at 2nd and Pennsylvania so lobbyist still faced a climb up Capitol Hill.

Drawing of view from train station with Capitol shimmering above

Lawyers were also on board the trains from New York. The Supreme Court, still meeting in the Capitol, decided in 1844 that while corporations were chartered by a state, by virtue of their having stockholders in other states, suits against them were federal cases. The court's case load tripled.

There were influence peddlers permanently on the scene. In offices near the hotels a growing tribe of resident agents learned how to work the system often by ignoring current controversial issues and milking old ones. Most of the bills passed by Congress were so-called private bills which rewarded claimants, often long after wars and other untoward events dealt them a cruel hand. Between 1834 and 1838 Congress paid out $1,581,776.88 in private claims. There were 19 "agents for the prosecution of claims" advertising in the 1846 guide to the city.

Well connected Washington residents sought security in the insecurity of others. Deposed Postmaster General Amos Kendall became one of Washington's two dozen claims agents. Kendall learned about the business the hard way. One of his governmental decisions elicited a $120,000 claim by disgruntled contractors. To get Kendall's acquiescence so congress would pay the claim, they offered his wife a bribe through Peggy Eaton, since back from Spain. Kendall had written John Eaton's defense of his wife. He now decided she was guilty as charged. But she got a handsome commission when the contractors won their claim,

A Brady photo of Amos Kendall who came to city as a newspaperman and became very rich
This ethic of facilitating any cause for a fee even took the luster off idealism in the city. Mrs. Eaton tried to broker a $1,500 deal to buy a Florida slave's freedom. But at local auction houses the prices slaves fetched kept rising. Even the underground railroad fueled the local economy. Thomas Smallwood, a local free black, claimed to have helped 400 slaves escape in 1842 and 1843. Northern idealists like Charles Torrey, editor of the Albany New York Patriot, funneled money to him to pay the sometimes exorbitant payments that men of both colors insisted on getting before they would help. That, and the vigilance of the new auxiliary guard, prompted Smallwood to move to Toronto, Canada, loath to return for "another contest with slaveholders, and treacherous colored persons, ...[in] that mock metropolis of freedom, and sink of iniquity." Solomon Northrup, the free slave from New York who was kidnapped at Gadsby's, jailed at Robey's on Maryland Avenue in sight of the Capitol, would have agreed about the mockery of freedom.

Meanwhile, the American Colonization Society with an office in a building on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue near 3rd Street NW sent freed slaves and free blacks to Liberia where they found their own free country. History has not been kind to the society. It was largely overseen by politicians from both the North and South, including Clay and Tyler. It was run by white preachers most from the north. In the 1840s, no scheme was more open about its methods, principally raising money in churches throughout the country, and problems, too many emigrants died with violent fevers.

But the society salved consciences. It was a legatee in the wills of many heaven bound slave owner. Other heirs invariably challenged the wills. Bequeathing cash to the society was bad enough, freeing slaves on condition that they go to Liberia seemed preposterous when they could be sold for ready cash. (In the confusion of currencies in the 1830s and 1840s one should include black bodies.)

A "tinman," (one who did tin and sheet iron work) lived and worked five blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue from the society. He bequeathed real estate worth $6,624 to the society. Its secretary was thunderstruck and wrote in the annual report: "We knew not that we had such a friend in Mr, Ault." He did not have slaves to free on condition they go to Liberia. Very few African American in Washington moved to Africa. Perhaps Ault  thought they all should. If so, that was a bad sign. From the birth of the city, its building contractors had integrated blacks in their work crews.

In each succeeding census African Americans counted for about a quarter of the population. Until 1830 that number was roughly equal between slaves and "free coloreds." As the latter outnumbered the former, whites became more uncomfortable with blacks in general. In the 1830's Rep. Fairfield, a Democrat from Maine, wrote to his wife sharing regards to her from boarding house servants. In the 1840's Sen. Fairfield shared with her the relief he felt at the British minister's dinner. All the many servants at the Lafayette Square house were white. He did not have to smell "odoriferous" blacks.

Local blacks found sympathy and friendship from abolitionists who came to help John Quincy Adams battle the "gag rule" which prevented abolition petitions from being read in the House. Whites in the city tolerated the abolitionists. For one thing, funded by Northern charities, they paid their bills. That went a long way in a city with so much dodgy currency. So many moved into Mrs. Sprigg's boarding house that it began to be called "Abolition House," and became the busiest on Capitol Hill. Mrs. Sprigg, a widow of a congressional clerk, got into the spirit of the name by replacing her hired slave servants with free blacks, all this despite the owner of the house, Duff Green, being from South Carolina and a close associate of John C. Calhoun.

One abolitionist preacher who came to do research for congressional speeches found that while publicly accused of being a "fanatic," privately, slave holders were not unfriendly. It was easy to be fooled by Southern politicians who extended their tradition of gracious hospitality, until they run you of town, to the nation's capital. Plus abolition was a useful foil for Southern orators.

Adams was suspicious of every move Southern leaders made. When Tyler began adding firepower to the navy, Adams, whose family had been battling the anti-navy sentiments of Virginians for years, suspected Tyler wanted a stronger navy to ward off the British while extending slavery to California. Tyler had Secretary of State Webster explore getting British acquiescence to a scheme to get Mexico to settle American claims by giving up the harbor of San Francisco. The navy was soon chomping at the bit. Thinking war had begun, Captain Thomas Catesby ap Jones seized Monterrey, California, for a day.

A navy officer noted at the time that "a cruise of a few months in Washington tells more than a three year cruise at sea in an officer's favor." President Tyler befriended Captain Robert Stockton, who had first gained fame by putting a pistol to the head of an African king and securing the independence of Liberia. Stockton supported Adams in 1824, Jackson in 1828, and Harrison in 1840, so why not Tyler in 1844 especially after the president let him develop a super cannon to protect American harbors.

In February 1844 Stockton dazzled Washington with the Princeton, his new hybrid ship of sails and steam. It was made under supervision of the Swedish inventor John Ericsson who Stockton brought to New York. Ericsson designed the engine and two cannons. He brought one with him from England that Stockton called the Oregon. Stockton had an American foundry make its twin that he called the "Peace Maker." Both could hurl shot over two miles. To congressmen invited on board, Stockton capped the roar of the Peace Maker with his own histrionics, quoted by one of the newspaper correspondents on board: "It's nothing but honest gunpowder, gentlemen; It has the strong smell of the Declaration of Independence, but it's none the worse for that. That's the kind of music when negotiations fail." A few days later when he gave another demonstration, the Peace Maker exploded killing seven including the navy secretary and new secretary of state.

There was an immediate court of inquiry, but even the resident army ordinance experts absolved the navy of any blame. The other cannon on the Princeton, a virtual twin but made in England, had proved reliable, and it would not do to claim American manufacturing was inferior.

The stunned city was reassured and soon horror gave way to gossip. After the explosion, Tyler, by that time a widower, comforted one of the victim's daughter, twenty year old Julia Gardiner of New York. She proved to be the most successful practitioner of the Washington pastime of finding a powerful husband. She had rejected the proposals of a young navy officer, three congressmen and a 57 year old Supreme Court justice. She knew a woman had to be careful. She was shocked at the number of men from New York that she saw on Pennsylvania Avenue in arm with women who were not their wives. Already interested in her, the tragedy cinched Tyler's decision and after a suitable interval of mourning he married her in New York on June 26, 1844.

Meanwhile, in May three nominating conventions played out in Baltimore. The newly invented telegraph, that, after a long struggle, Congress supported to the tune of $30,000 with a line running from the Capitol to Baltimore, kept the city in touch. Clay's nomination was never in doubt; Calhoun sabotaged Van Buren's nomination but James Polk, who Van Buren wanted as his running mate, won on the 9th ballot. When word of Polk's nomination came to the crowd of almost a thousand mobbed around the telegraph, someone yelled out "Three cheers for Clay!" The crowd roared. To the same call for Polk, a few boys cheered. In 1845 inventor Samuel Morse joined with Washington insider Amos Kendall, and they both began making money.

Morse's telegraph: an early form of Twitter
(The telegraph office was in the Post Office and open 7 hours a day, with the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse in charge; it cost a "quarter of one cent for each telegraphic character" sent to Baltimore at the other end of the line.)

Despite winning that straw poll, Clay lost the election. Many in the crowd cheering Clay might have remembered his rakish early days when the 34 year old congressmen was elected Speaker. During the 1844 campaign Democrats didn't forget. After Clay lost the election in November, the Whig newspaper in New York City rued that "our great leader has been... constantly held up to the people as a debauchee, gambler, blasphemer, virtual murderer,..."

On August 20, Tyler dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Polk because he wanted the immediate annexation of Texas. Clay had wanted Texas in the Union in 1819 and still did, but not at the cost of a war with Mexico. Since Mexico had declared war on Texas, its rebellious state, if Texas joined the union, the US would be at war without congress passing a declaration of  war.

Official and unofficial Washington easily shrugged off Clay's defeat and entered the excitement of the moment. With Polk and expansion, the nation's capital had to expand too. Banker William Corcoran who once worked for the Democratic Party's enemy, the Bank of United States, finally embraced the party of his Irish father and bought Texas bonds.. 

By virtue of endorsing Polk because of his stand on Texas, Tyler did not think of himself as a lame duck president, nor did his young wife. She strained to impress (with the help of a flattering stories written by a New York Herald reporter.) On September 12, the blackface troupe Ethiopian Serenaders performed at the White. Her ball during the social season with 2,000 invited and 3,000 attending was said to be the greatest White House entertainment to date

Julia Gardiner Tyler. 

Her eclat, Julia thought, helped a resolution annexing Texas squeak through during the closing days of Congress, though the blessing of president-elect Polk had much more to do with it. Throngs packed the Senate to savor and enjoy the historic moment. Stockton sailed in the Princeton to Galveston to notify the Texans.

Meanwhile, John Sessford shined a somewhat favorable light on the seemingly stagnant Tyler years in the city. In his annual census of housing, he added a box of data showing that from 1840 to 1844 more houses were built, 1368, than the ten years from 1820 to 1830, 1033, and between 1830 to 1840, 893. However, 1011 of the houses built in the last four years were wooden which was about twice the number of wooden houses built in each of the previous two decades.

Then Washington faced the reality of Polk. Though he had served in Congress off and on since 1825, and two terms as Speaker, he was the kind of Democrat who voted on principal against distributing wood to the city's poor during a brutally cold winter. In his first annual message, Polk ended the almost annual tradition of the president recommending some improvement for the city. He had no ideas and then the president who would go down in history as the Great Expansionist presided over the shrinking of the federal district. Even as he pondered pushing the nation's boundaries to the north and south, he marred the diamond shape in which was set the Seat of Empire.

In 1846, responding to the petitions of Alexandria merchants, congress gave all of the District south of the Potomac back to Virginia. Virginian congressman Robert Hunter, a former Speaker who chaired the House District committee, muscled the retrocession bill through congress. Not foreseeing the Pentagon, he argued that the Virginia portion of the District would never be needed to accommodate the federal government. Most congressmen, who were nagged every session with legislation for Alexandria - the legal code had still not been modernized, only saw it from Potomac steamers.

George Washington's step grandson, who reigned at the Custis Mansion in Arlington overlooking the city, dined with Polk, gave a long reminiscence of the Great Man. He probably could have stopped the desecration of Washington's vision for the federal district, but he didn't.

Fearful of Virginia's more restrictive laws, leaders of Alexandria's 1,600 free blacks protested, but no one heeded them, nor the letter to the National Intelligencer warning of guns on the heights Arlington trained on the White House. Southern leaders did not give the least intimation that they were firming up the northern border of their future country.

In the midst of this urge to downsize and with a president content to ignore the city, congress tried to figure out what to do with an Englishman's $515,169 estate willed to the United States government "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." John C. Calhoun thought the money should be returned since such an institution would enhance federal power. After six years of dickering, in 1846, a law was crafted by former president Adams to limit presidential involvement and congressional oversight. No money would be needed from congress, since the law earmarked the $242,129 of accrued interest for a building for museum galleries, lecture halls and a laboratory. A director and programs would be supported by the annual interest.

This allowed the politician appointed as regents, nine of the fifteen, to be paragons of culture and science. Four of the six public members came from four different states, and the two from Washington, who being permanent residents, were most important. Two graduates of the military academy were the local leaven for culture and science, and one of them, Gen. Joseph Totten, was the chief of army engineers. To visually separate the institution from suspicious western congressmen like Andrew Johnson, who thought that the money better be dumped in the Potomac since only confusion was diffused from Washington, the regents had James Renwick of New York design a Gothic style "castle" of brown stone that would not be mistaken for one of the neo-classical government departments.

Smithsonian in 1863: neo-Gothic showing some towers to domes

Polk tolerated these developments though when Mayor Seaton convinced the regents to put the building at 10th Street along the Mall, instead of 14th Street where Polk wanted it, the president confided in his diary that the mayor wanted to benefit property owners near the central market on 7th Street. It was regrettable, Polk confided in his diary, "that any citizen of Washington" had anything to do with it.

Only one local embellishment excited Polk, an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845. Clark Mills, a self taught sculptor born in the north who began his career in Charleston, was given the commission. The government had learned to distrust the more famous American sculptors in Rome.

Like the still unbuilt monument to Washington, the Jackson statue was to be financed by private donations but the organizers did not, as the Washington Monument Society did, limit donations to $1 raised by a nationwide army of canvassers who took a percentage. That society had collected enough money, $60,000, to begin building then for two years Sen. Benton blocked the monument accusing the society of not accounting for all the money collected.

Sixty-four year old Thomas Hart Benton was the mouth of the Democratic party, scourge of banks and speculators and guardian angel of Western settlers in Oregon and California. With his large family, he lived just off Pennsylvania Ave. NW between 3rd and 4th, near the hotels. He had an ear for gossip and intrigue and tried to counter Calhoun's plots to destroy the Union. No Democrat could excite the masses like Benton and not a few thought he was destined to be president.

With Jackson's death in 1845 and Clay's defeat in 1844, both parties were rudderless. Like Harrison before him, Polk promised not to seek a second term. It was the 1820's all over again with most of the potential candidates in Washington. Former senator Silas Wright had just been elected governor of New York, a move that had assured Polk's election That political necessity to leave Washington prevented the return to the politics of the 1820s. Even another Mrs.Hay to regiment society and leaven political ambitions with social punctilio would not have helped.

The parlor was passe. Men cabaled in restaurants. Plus in the 1840s, men's clubs spread like a cancer. Odd Fellows and Red Men vied with the Masons. Even the temperance movement was very much a male crusade. Congress had its own temperance society (which many mentioned with a wink) and there were several temperance "divisions" in the city so that almost every night of the week the Temperance Hall on C Street, part of the Temperance Hotel behind Gadsby's, was busy.

These fraternal movements were not unique to Washington, nor were political clubs, but ambitious men in Washington had to play a complex game. Leaving the Senate to run for governor was not uncommon because rival factions in the senator's party back home threatened his hold on office. Even bureaucrats' job security depended on politics back in the state they came from. Only immigrants like Sessford could devote themselves entirely to the city.

To be sure, during the social season, one still staked his claim to greatness by hosting the grandest ball. Secretary of State James Buchanan had a party at Carusi's Assembly Room that packed in 1500 guests. The secretary was a bachelor and he was forever surrounded by giggling. As a friendly Sen. Fairfield put it in a letter to his wife: he is "an old bachelor, you know, and the girls almost plagued him to death."

Fairfield did not bring his wife and family to Washington except for one special session. Such was Benton's command of Missouri that he raised his family in Washington.But Benton didn't gain influence through social evenings and balls. He was too much "Bullion Benton" barking at banks to thrive in the city's gracious social rituals. He was known for his "broadsides" in congressional debate. Letters about private meetings with him often began by noting he was "friendly," i.e., he did not blast the writer out of the water as he was wont to do in debates. Although he thought of himself as carrying on Jackson's work, Jackson never debated and had disarming suavity and sensibility.

Like Jackson before him, Benton had causes and callings. He expected California to be his Battle of New Orleans. He arranged for his son-in-law Lieutenant John Fremont to lead a small detachment to Oregon and California to encourage settlement by Americans. As it turned out, the coming war did anoint the next two elected presidents.

The prospect of war with Mexico didn't worry anyone, least of all the commanding general of the army Winfield Scott. He was a gourmand of high repute. He had married up and his wife, who had a bronchial condition, spent much of her time in Rome. He often ate out and in 1845 reportedly became "ten feet tall" in the eyes of Whig senators plotting to win the White House in 1848. (the real Scott was 6' 5" tall.) And that happened before the war with Mexico. Benton advised Polk to move Scott to the northern border as there was no need for a commanding general of the army in Washington.

As late as April 1846, many in Washington did not think there would be a war. Insiders knew that a fix was on.  The US Navy had returned Gen. Santa Anna to Mexico from his Cuban exile with the understanding that he would accept the Texas border and sell California.

There was more nail biting in the city over the country's claim to Oregon. When Polk didn't fight for the 54' 40" line, even a black hack driver was disappointed. On a hot day, the white driver of the British Minister's carriage demanded that the black hack driver surrender the shade under a tree outside of the Post Office. That worthy retorted that he paid the city $10 for the right to drive his hack and while Britain might have cheated congress out of Oregon, it couldn't cheat hack drivers out of their rights.

In April a circus came down from Philadelphia and attracted crowds for a week. "There were between three and four thousand people there and among them many members of congress and much of the elite of  the city." A month later the city organized the first National Fair which featured products fostered by protective tariffs. A huge 600 foot long temporary building made of rough lumber and covered with cotton fabric housed goods from all states. William Seaton, the city's Whig mayor, attested that congressmen of both parties supported the endeavor. The fair lasted for a month and 60,000 people attended. (The Democratic controlled congress soon passed a bill to lower tariffs.)

Local manufactures and artisans hogged the spot light from far flung states that were only given a two months notice of the first Great National Fair

There was a modest display of military goods. The U.S. Army arsenal at the end of Greenleaf's Point sent over a "percussion cap charger." From Philadelphia, William Pinchin brought down "splendid military caps, spears, holster tips, infantry and dragoon trimmings, breast and waist plates, epaulets, etc. etc." (The excitement of the National Fair was not forgotten. In 1853 the prospectus for the First Exhibition of the Metropolitan Mechanic's Institute argued: The City of Washington possesses certain advantages for holding such an exhibition,... As the seat of Government, the leading men of all parties, of all pursuits, and from every portion of our vast continent, congregate here..., Nowhere in the country could an exhibition be more likely to contribute to the permanent and wide-spread reputation of works of superior merit, or to render greater service to the cause of American labor.)

Santa Anna didn't keep his end of the bargain. Then Gen. Zachary Taylor won a stunning victory at Buena Vista against overwhelming odds. That ignited a Taylor for President boom. A cabal of Whig congressmen including freshman Abraham Lincoln fanned the flames.The road to the White House took a long detour through Mexico. Soon enough Major Gen. Scott, who outranked Taylor, was "reveling in the Halls of the Montezumas." Polk tried to make Benton a lieutenant general but  congress wouldn't create the rank.

Victory inspired illuminations and cheering throngs in Washington. There was also a rush of men to  the city. Former Gov. William Seward of New York, who opposed the war and was in town to argue before the Supreme Court, wrote back to his wife:
Washington was in harmony with itself. The Windows of one of the greathall-rooms were hotly illuminated. Music broke forth upon the night air. Lovers of pleasure were abroad on their wanderings, and the hackmen and horses were winning the rewards of their toilsome attendance. The city is full of candidates for military commissions, and their partisans. I was shown into a room where a cot awaited me, which stood between two beds, each of which had an unknown occupant.
There was private stress. Victory did not come without a cost; 13,000 soldiers didn't return. Clay and Webster, who both opposed the war, both lost sons. Benton's son-in-law did return, but to face a court martial. Mrs. Fremont, Benton's daughter Jessie, returned from California first.

Jessie Fremont was a familiar to Washington as Peggy Eaton had been, but possessed more charming frailty than beauty. She was the exact opposite of her overbearing father. She visited Polk to get help for her husband but knowing that Polk was no Jackson, who felt duty bound to help a lady in distress, she took along someone more attractive to men in Washington in the 1840s. She took the already legendary guide Kit Carson to plead for her husband but to no avail, though Polk enjoyed a long talk with him about the West. (Judging from his diary, the Bentons wearied Polk. John Randolph Benton, the senator's 19 year old son, barged into the White House and demanded that he be commissioned as a lieutenant. Polk never saw such a rude display. T. S. Arthur who would soon write of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room was next in line to see Polk. He saw the rascal leave and saw that he had been drinking.)

During time of war, Washington is not a field for glory, but one can make money. William Corcoran handled the government war loans. Thanks to friends in the administration, Corcoran got government money several months before it was actually needed to pay troops and contractors. He used the money for his private speculations. He saw that the government would need to hire more auditors and they would need to rooms to work in. Since 1800 the federal government had rented private houses for government offices. Corcoran built a five story office building at 15th and F Streets NW.

However, it took a Philadelphia speculator, William H. Winder, to come to town and show what war meant to city. He built on 17th and F, also 5 stories, but much bigger than Corcoran's building. The Winder Building fronted 209 feet on F and 101 feet on 17th. It housed 130 office rooms, was fireproof and supported by steel girders. (The government bought it in 1854.)

A few blocks away hotels were both built and also made by joining existing houses. The Willard brothers used  the latter approach at 15th and Pennsylvania to fashion a 130 room hotel. A Mr. Fuller built a 72 room hotel at 12th and Pennsylvania.

After noting those improvements, John Sessford added: "The contemplated establishment of a Cotton Factory, if carried into execution, would be of great benefit to the city." There was such a factory in Georgetown "making cloth of superior quality." It had been built on the site of flour mill that burned down in 1844. Sessford didn't note where the Washington cotton factory would have been.

Nor did he discern qualitative changes among the welter of statistics beyond noting that the basement of Winder's new building was faced with marble. He missed what Corcoran was really doing. He was the city's first genuinely wealthy man, on a par with those of Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Local bankers had grown accustomed to getting a rough reception when they needed help from congress. A Western congressman mocked a president of one old chartered banks for "having a coach and four grey horses, with several liveried servants as outriders" when, as a congressional investigation showed, the banker was bankrupt and his bank insolvent.

Corcoran silenced the mockery of Washington bankers. He bought the mansion Webster had rented off Lafayette Square. Corcoran hired James Renwick to change it from Federal style house to an Italian palazzo.

Corcoran's mansion shows off a new style

When he represented Maine in the House, John Fairfield didn't amount to much. Then as governor of Maine he faced off against the British and asked Van Buren for 50,000 to defend the nation's northeastern border. He returned Washington as a senator and became chairman of the naval affairs committee. Along with Benton, Buchanan and other Democratic party luminaries he dined with Corcoran. "I had not seen such gorgeous furniture in Washington," he wrote to his wife, "Nor have I seen such a splendid dinner served up."

Being a coming man in Washington had its hazards. Too many offered to help. For years Fairfield nursed a knee that would swell especially during the social season. Draining the knee only gave temporary relief. Navy doctors offered braces; an inventor demonstrating an electric stimulating machine before a congressional committee gave Fairfield treatment that provided some relief. Then Dr. William Magruder who had an office near the White House heard of the plight of the crippled senator. He guaranteed that if a weak sulfuric acid solution was injected after the knee was drained and left there for after painfully stinging 12 hours, the knee would never swell again. Fairfield died three hours later. 

Eighty-one year old John Quincy Adam had the perfect Washington death, collapsing at his desk in the House chamber the day before Washington's birthday and dying the day after as he lay in the Speaker's chamber with his wife by his side. Both houses adjourned. The president ordered all federal offices in the city closed for two days. In August there was a humbler death in the White House. An old free black man named Smith who Polk hired to make fires in his rooms died after a lingering death. Other servants cared for him and Polk paid $20 for his funeral.

Many northern congressmen, Adams among them, had feared that the war was fought to take slavery beyond Texas. They tried to make appropriations for the war contingent on barring slaves in any territory won by the war. They also renewed the battle to end slavery in the District of Columbia. Calhoun organized private meetings of Southern congressmen to protect slaveholders. His rallying cry was the the South was under attack.

Calhoun was considered a "madcap" even by some fellow southerners. Aging rapidly in his battle with tuberculosis, when not on the Senate floor he was nursed by one of his Southern colleagues at Hills boardinghouse which had been the temporary Capitol after the British invasion in 1814.

"Madcap" Calhoun

Southerners were not alone in their dedication to Liberty. For ten years city Democrats had been trying to widen the suffrage for city elections. City Whigs, 550 of them, petitioned congress to keep property qualifications. After the war, the march of democracy could not be stopped. New England congressmen, led by Horace Mann, even shamed Congress into providing free public schooling in Washington. Then the Whig elite got Congress to tie school financing to a poll tax of one dollar. (The Whigs still lost office in the 1852 municipal election.)

Americans fancied that they had proved their country great, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (And Polk offered to buy Cuba from Spain.) However, there were invidious comparisons of the American capital with Mexico City. When the Marines raised the flag over the Halls of Montezuma, Mexico's National Palace, they laid claim to a building with 675 frontage feet compared to the Capitol's 352. The huge cathedral across the square had a tower 204 feet high, almost 60 feet higher than the Capitol dome. A dispatch from an American correspondent described the situation: "The principal square is the pride of Mexicans and the admiration of travelers. It has an area of 12 acres - the whole paved with most beautiful marble.... But it's the public buildings after all, that form the distinguished characteristic of this majestic city. The Cathedral fills one whole side of the great square, the Palace another...."

Senator Benton decided the scheme to raise money for building a monument to George Washington was not a plot by Whig speculators. The society in charge scheduled a grand cornerstone laying on July 4. It would rise 600 feet by the advertised plan, much higher than the cathedral in Mexico City.  (But it would take time, rising only 18 feet above the ground at the end of 1848.)

Before that Glorious Fourth, abolitionist pulled a trick on the city. Historians do not find a parallel between the American victory over Mexico and the revolutionary fervor that swept Europe in 1848. Contemporaries did. A southern senator harangued a crowd in Lafayette square, celebrating another victory for Liberty, the fall of King Louis Philippe of France in February. That night 77 slaves almost escaped to freedom on a coasting sloop named the Pearl.

When the slaves were reported missing in the morning, one of the black hack drivers who brought the slaves to the 7th Street wharf, a vacant mile away from the rest of the city, identified the sailing ship used for the escape. Thirty men on a steamer were soon in hot pursuit of the Pearl.

Waterfront in 1839

The capture and return of the slaves, and the three white men from Philadelphia who tried to sail them to freedom, led to rioting against local abolitionists. City leaders with the help of President Polk managed to prevent any lynch law, and saved the offices of the city's new abolition newspaper, the National Era, from being leveled.

Suddenly surprised that some of its slaves wanted to escape to freedom, the city's whites became more uncomfortable with the increasing numbers of "free coloreds." Slaves were easy to account for; some of the would be escapees on the Pearl were sold to slave dealers to be retailed in the deeper South. (The owner and captain of the Pearl languished in prison despite an array of northern legal talent and a flamboyant slave owning local lawyer defending them.) It was much more difficult to account for free blacks unless it was after 10 pm. Then any person of color could be arrested.

For almost 30 years Sessford's Annals only divided the city's population by ward. In his Annal for 1849, he included the census totals since 1800 broken down by whites, slaves and "colored free." Not until the 1830 census did free blacks outnumber slaves, 3,139 to 2,319. In 1840 the number of slaves dropped to 1,713 and free blacks increased 4,808. Sessford provided those statistics without comment. In his Annal for 1850 he broke down the census numbers by ward. Most free blacks, 1757, lived west of 15th St. NW. Most slaves, 556, lived on Capitol Hill. No matter the growth in white population to 29,999, and its increase in ten years by 13,156, the black population grew roughly in the same proportion, so that 1 in 4 residents were black. The number of slaves increased over the decade to 2,110.

Sessford didn't raise any alarm and duly reported when "colored" churches were built, eventually counting nine both brick and wood. The city was booming as never before. Between 1840 and 1850 the population of the country increased by about 35%. The population of the City of Washington increased by 71% to 40,001. So why raise flags about the number of blacks? In 1848 the Washington Gas Company founded by an ex-mayor, an Indiana congressman, a House clerk and a few Yankee transplants who could see the future.

Not a few whites came to the city, both men and women, to help African Americans and they found them receptive and able. But more whites came to the city for other reasons and those who stayed  easily assumed the attitudes of old Washingtonians and laughed at the idea of bettering an inferior race. The American Coloniation Society with headquarters in the city preached to local blacks their advancement in all fields was blocked by white prejudice. Still, only one signed up to go to Liberia.

While splits over slavery divided both parties, the Democrats suffered most from the formation of the Free Soil party that ran Van Buren for president. As a consequence, Lewis Cass lost New York and Zachary Taylor became president. Washington had cheered his victories and forgot Mrs. Cass's many lavish parties. But what did Taylor know about the city? He had been stationed in Washington briefly during the Adams' administration as a member of an army board on recruiting.

Polk upstaged him by having gold from California to accompany his last State of the Union message. William M. Gwin, a former congressman from Mississippi, and Jessie Benton Fremont were soon on board a steamer ship headed around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Gwin and Jessie's husband would soon come back as California's first two senators.

They missed a good parade. As a soldier Taylor did not stand for show and ceremony. Scott was "Fuss and Feathers"; he was "Rough and Ready."But a hundred horsemen from the local Rough and Ready clubs surrounded his carriage as he rode to the White House.

Although a southerner, Taylor had no particular stand on the expansion of slavery. Once again it was up to congress to strike a compromise. Henry Clay returned to the Senate.

To his series of bills to end the debate over slavery and save the union, he added a halfway measure to satisfy 18 years of petitions to congress. He proposed a law to abolish the slave trade in the District but not slavery itself. Mayor Seaton assured Clay there was only one slave trader left in the city. Robey's notorious slave pen was no longer used. He was probably referring to a man named Williams who owned a three story brick house, painted yellow, that was just south of the Smithsonian set back off 8th Street SW in a grove of trees. Most of the slaves to be shipped south were kept in a wooden house nearby. A Baltimore slave dealer chained and shipped the 20 Pearl slaves who were sold by their masters.

But any restriction on property rights bristled Southern senators. With the support of many in the city, they tried to tack on provisions strengthening the city's ability to exclude free blacks and better punish "slave stealers" like the owner and captain of the Pearl. (They were still in jail because they couldn't pay an archaic fine for transporting slaves, multiplied 77 times for each slave. President Fillmore eventually pardoned them and supporters hustled them out of town.) Clay pleaded for such amendments to be put in another bill, and he got his way. Free blacks in the city already had to register with the mayor, providing proof of their freedom. That cost $50, and for all members of a family, and they had to have "sureties" from five white residence totaling $1000. Any unknown black in the city had to prove that he or she was free, or had been hired out to work in the city by masters in Maryland or Virginia. However, slaves owned by congressmen or transients were exempted.

Democrats came and went but the city loved Henry Clay 

The compromise debate that riveted the city for nine months was the last dominated by the three great men of past, Calhoun, Clay and Webster, who easily stole the limelight with memorable speeches to crowded galleries. Too weak to speak, Calhoun handed his speech to another senator to read.  Every move into and out of Clay's room at the National Hotel was the stuff of gossip. Most important was his meeting with Webster, who agreed to work for a compromise.

Generally speaking anyone who compromised to save the Union was lionized by locals, including most reporters. Jane Swisshelm was an exception. She came from Pittsburgh where she published her own anti-slavery weekly She persuaded other papers to take her letters from Washington and got permission to sit in the Senate press gallery. But she cast a wider net for her copy and reported that   Webster had mistresses who were "colored women - some of them big black wenches as ugly and vulgar as himself. These will openly run store bills on his account." Other newspapers picked up the charge. Swisshelm had no evidence save rumors shared by whites from the north who had trouble accommodating themselves as easily as Webster did with free blacks. His famous cook Monica Carty did buy food for his table on his account. He employed a black female nurse when he and his wife were ill and gave her a valuable ring as a momento. He also bought the freedom of  Paul Jennings who had been the Madisons' slave.

Webster the "voluptuary"

Reporters were generally even handed in their mud slinging. Jefferson Davis called them a "set of scavengers who hang over the Senate, and pounce upon every southern man who advocates rights and principles." Their scheme was "to invent or gather slander." He accused the "vilest Hessian of his class" of  "receiving money to abuse myself and other southern men." That was Francis J. Grund, educated in Vienna, Austria, who emigrated in 1827 whose "letters from Washington" appeared in New Orleans and Philadelphia newspapers.

To drown out gossip, congress inundated their constituents with facts and figures, from the name and salary of every federal employ, to reports from Army fact finding missions to the Indian tribes in the acquired territories, and what amounted to guides from the new Department of Interior (housed in the Patent Office building) on how to get federal land grants. The printing contract for all those reports made one Washington printer a very rich man. In 1856 ----Wendell would build a printing plant northeast of the Capitol four stories high, 240 feet long and 60 feet wide

Jefferson Davis, was at President Taylor's death bed in the White House and heard his last words: "Apply the Constitution to the measure, Sir, regardless of the consequences." Davis interpreted that as another reason to seethe when Fillmore signed the Compromise bills that Taylor may have vetoed. At the funeral the mass of men and women, of all colors, had kinder thoughts as they watch Old Whitey prance behind the funeral bier of his master.

The circumstances of Taylor's death provides more symptoms for that surprisingly large genre of literature on the death of presidents. In this case modern doctors and scholars take the Washington community of 1850 to task for not having discovered the germ theory of disease and merely blaming a hot sun and eating too much fruit for Taylor's death. In December 1850, President Fillmore lamented the death of Taylor at the beginning of his first annual message to congress. Almost at the end of it, he suggested that "nothing could contribute more to the health, comfort, and safety of the city and the security of the public buildings and records than an abundant supply of pure water...." Congress had already appropriated $500 for army engineers to study the problem, and for the moment congress did nothing more.

Once the Compromise bills were signed, Washington celebrated. The admission of California as a state and making New Mexico a federal territory meant more senators and representatives. Gwin and Fremont were already in the city. The US assuming Texas's debts meant Corcoran got a $400,000 pay out for his Texas bonds. Corcoran forgave Webster $10,000 in overdue notes, which he would probably never repay anyway, and sent him a check for $1000. The Fugitive Slave Act only forced the rest of the nation to send alleged runaway slaves, even those who left the South years ago, back to their owner which the city had been doing for many years to Virginia and Maryland slaves who tried to hide in the District of Columbia. (Ironically, the controversy over the fugitive slave law helped return Solomon Northrup to freedom. Sen. Soule of Louisiana who demanded the return of fugitive slaves from the north, was shamed into seeing that Northrup was returned to New York.)

The Compromise did not resolve the slavery issue for abolitionist, and those in the city prospered, and not only by attacking Webster. On June 5, 1851, the National Era began publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin and its national circulation steadily rose with each installment. The last was in the April 11, 1852, issue.

After the Compromise, even Webster foresaw a bright future. President Fillmore made him secretary of state, again, so he wouldn't have to face the angry legislators of Massachusetts, and could plot to succeed Fillmore.

During this second stint at State, there was no Ashburton next door. Webster was back in his Louisiana Avenue house convenient to the Central Market where he liked to shop. He dealt with the Austrian minister Hulsemann by sending stirring notes and letters from his State Department office. Taylor had sent a spy to help the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth and a US Navy ship brought him from imprisonment in Turkey. Lecturing autocrats on Liberty was Webster's long suit and he did it without also promising money to Kossuth. Such a stance had to help his chances for the presidency.

Americans always supported revolutions against kings. That not a few immigrants came to America after repression of failed revolutions added to the country's fervor for Liberty. Adolf Cluss, a member of Marx's Communist League in Germany, got a job as a draftsman in the Coast Survey bureau in 1849. In time he would become the city's leading architect.

During the great Compromise debate all other business was on hold. Then in the end-of-session rush. to pass appropriations, without debate, congress put up money to improve and beautify the city. Old shibboleths fell by the way side, as the government appropriated money to grade and pave two roads other than Pennsylvania Avenue, and improve the Mall.

1853 plan for Pennsylvania Avenue (not built)

Without debate, Jefferson Davis also sneaked in an appropriation of $100,000 to "extend" the Capitol under the direction of an architect appointed by the president. Davis was not only a war hero wounded at the Battle of Buena Vista. He had ideas about the city and was the third West Point graduate appointed to the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

In Washington, being a southerner and a racist did not disqualify a man from playing a leading role in an organization dedicated to scientific research. Joseph Henry, a Princeton professor of natural history, brought down to run the Smithsonian had scientific evidence that Negroes were an inferior race. More to the point of glorifying the city, Davis brain-stormed with Corcoran, who proposed to build and give to the government stately houses for cabinet officers and their families to reside in. And not far from them a triumphal arch was to be the western gateway to an extensive and shady park on the Mall, designed by Andrew Jackson Downing. The design included a Spanish style paseo on the Mall where Davis could canter his horse.

Jefferson Davis in 1853 when he set out to remake the Capitol and Mall

 A design for the Mall, not built

Downing died in a steamboat accident and the Mall project stalled, though shady walkways soon relieved the meadow near the Smithsonian.

When congressmen came back for the short session in December 1850, they sifted through the entries of a design competition for the new Capitol. In a committee report Davis favored a design made by Robert Mills, who did the Treasury building. Davis somewhat apologized for the huge new extension  since it eclipsed the "sacred" design that George Washington had approved. Davis didn't apologize for the price tag submitted by Mills: $1,291,000. That the new extended Capitol would out distance the National Palace in Mexico City by almost a hundred feet remained unsaid,

There had not been any building of note on Capitol Hill for over twenty years. Even the railroad company was attracted by the promise of renewed building. Without the usual studies and debate, the railroad depot of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed and a new one built higher up the hill on the east side of a new bridge across the Tiber. Sessford thought all the improvements of surrounding streets were handsome and that property values would rise at the low end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

New train station at New Jersey and C NW

Since 1820 building for private residences had mostly been north of Pennsylvania  Avenue and west of Capitol Hill. Seventh Street NW was the city's business street. Hotels collected most visitors and many a congressman up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Boarding houses north of the Avenue, as well as Sen. Benton's house off 3rd and C Streets, filled a corner made by the Avenue and Capitol Hill that had once been in bad repute as too near low ground. The canal cured that. Even the long sessions of congress lasting until the middle of August did not lessen the popularity of that corner. (For men, at least, most women and children were sent to country air.)

When Congress adjourned in March 1851, Fillmore and his cabinet were left to peruse submissions from several architects. They turned their back on Mills, a Democrat, and chose Thomas Walter, a Whig, whose last major project was a neo-Classical Girard College for Orphans in Philadelphia. On July 4, 1851, the cornerstone was laid with Webster's oratory:
Fellow-Citizen, - I greet you well; I give you joy, on the return of this anniversary; and I felicitate you, also, on the more particular purpose of which this ever-memorable day has been chosen to witness the fulfillment. Hail! all hail! I see before and around me a mass of faces, glowing with cheerfulness an patriotic pride. I see thousands of eyes turned towards other eyes, all sparkling with gratification and delight. This is the New World! This is America! This is Washington! and thiw the Capitol of the United States! And where else, among the nations, can the seat of government be surrounded, on an day of any year, by those who have more reason to rejoice in the blessings which they possess?
No opening salvo of a bombastic Fourth of July oration better captures the joy of being there in Washington.

With the advice of President Fillmore, Walter hired Samuel Strong who had supervised construction of streets in New York City. After Strong spent the initial $100,000, congress finally got a chance to debate the expansion. One critic complained that the present Capitol was "large enough for all Constitutional legislation, though [not] for the purpose of a grand consolidated empire." Referring to the proposed extension as an architectural atrocity akin to a Mexican hacienda, one senator amended a new $500,000 appropriation so that only $100,000 would be spent to restore the site, filling the huge hole that had been dug, and paying off the laborers recruited to come to the city.

(From 1792 to 1798 about half the workers recruited to come to the city were slaves hired from their masters. From 1817 to 1828 many of the day laborers hired were slaves. Since then mechanization and immigration relieved Strong from the temptation of hiring slaves or even hiring free blacks. Only laborers working for local and Maryland contractors involve in supplying building materials might have been African Americans. The mayor issued licenses for various trades but blacks could only be licensed to drive hacks or carts.)

On the morning  of December 24, 1851, the congressional library, then in the Senate wing of the Capitol caught fire because of a faulty chimney flue. Sen. Cass insisted that Baltimore and Alexandria be notified by telegraph. He feared the whole Capitol would be engulfed in flames. But local fire engines, the Columbia, Perseverance, Union and Anacostia got water from half frozen fountains around the building and  put out the fire. A week later the building was back on mission, hosting the Hungarian revolutionary Kossuth. The fire reminded congress about the need for a more copious water supply for the city and the soon appropriated $5000 for surveys and estimates.

The library fire gave architect Walter the opportunity of setting the tone of the Capitol expansion by rebuilding the library with gilded iron. Washington felt the first effects of the California Gold Rush.

At the end of the year, Sessford sang the praises of 1851, from a new Gas Works south of the canal to new bricks buildings north of it. In the first ward near the White House, Corcoran's partner Riggs joined the four story club, and not far from that a "commodious brick church has been erected by the colored people of the Methodist denomination." New buildings in the Second War along the Avenue east of the White House included a foundry, gas fitting and plumbing shop, hardware store, printing house and carriage maker. In the Third Ward at the foot of Capitol Hill old two story wooden buildings had been pulled down and new three story brick buildings replaced them.

On the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, Brown's hotel had a new front and new neighbor, Todd's, a five story hotel with a marble front and an elegant colonnade entrance. Evidently this was an effort to anticipate the coming Neo-Classical elegance of the Capitol extension. The far side of town made its mark too, a new 200 foot long building at the Navy Yard with a 140 foot high chimney to house rolling mills for copper. That chimney was higher than the Washington Monument which had reached 104 feet.

Other than the Naval Observatory on a hill west of the White House, congress put new federal buildings in the middle of the city. But two projects materialized that needed to be outside the city. Gen. Scott told congress to care for veterans with money Mexicans paid him to prevent the sacking of their capital. Banker George Riggs sold his 350 acre farm with a "cottage" about two miles north of the Capitol for the site of a "soldiers' home."

Succumbing to the persuasion of mental health reformer Dorothea Dix, Thomas Blagden, the grandson of the supervisor of the masons at the Capitol from 1795 to 1826, sold his farm two miles east of the Capitol to be the site of a lunatic asylum. Congressmen well knew how the city attracted crazy people. Self professed George Washingtons and Napoleons that haunted Pennsylvania Avenue were relatively harmless. The serious case were sent to an asylum in Baltimore.

Future presidents would also find a quiet place at the Soldiers' Home. Gen. Scott was not one of them. Both parties held their conventions in Baltimore. After a labor 44 ballots long, Democrats spawned a "dark horse." New Hampshire governor Frank Pierce was a war hero and also very friendly to the South. Volunteer regiments had  solved the Democrat's generals' gap. Pierce rose quickly to the rank of brigadier general with two horses shot out from under him along the way.

The Whigs labored for 48 ballots and finally decided to put the Compromise behind them and nominated General Scott, a thorough Whig of the old military school and an old Virginian with doubts about slavery.. Either  Fillmore or Webster could have won the nomination if their forces united, but orders from Washington from the President and Secretary of State were not obeyed. Neither men had tended to their homes states.

The new Whig Senator from New York, William Seward, had no use for Fillmore, and tried to control patronage in New York. Webster's replacement in the Senate, Charles Sumner, was a very moral bachelor elected on the Free Soil ticket and sent to Washington to attack slave holders. Being young and handsome Southern women enjoyed his company and invited him to their social functions. Verna Davis recalled that he told her all about "the Indian mutiny, lace, Demosthenes, jewels, Seneca's morals, intaglios, the Platonic theory..." and "quite an interesting resume of the history of dancing." That said, Sumner admitted that he couldn't engage in social repartee with the ladies.

One might think that freshman senators would board near the Capitol until they figured out the city, but the lifelessness of Capitol Hill was so evident that Seward boarded on F Street near 7th ,and  Sumner near 14th. Plus, in the 1850s the wealth of the nation grew far greater than the demand for real estate in the capital. Sen. Hamilton Fish of New York bought a large house on H Street between 17th and 18th NW. 

Congress's long session lasting to August sparked a tradition of acrimonious debates and investigations of the presidential candidates. Scott's noble gesture for old soldiers prompted Democrats to call for investigating how much money the government sent to Scott in Mexico and how was he spent it. The Senate also asked a committee chaired by Sam Houston, a Democrat, to look for corrupt practices by the Whig administration elsewhere. He cast his net all the way to California light house contracts, but hit pay dirt right next door. The committee amassed evidence that Strong, the superintendent of the Capitol extension, had immediately ingratiated himself with local Whig politicians before the June 1852 municipal election and told the men he hired how to vote.

He had also made sure workers from New York went home in late October to vote for the Whig ticket. To no avail, Pierce beat Scott with a sizeable majority.

Jackson terrified; Van Buren alarmed; Polk beat Clay ;but the city finally got used to Democrats. Pierce raised hopes and elicited sympathies; His only child died in a freak railroad accident a few months before Inauguration. Plus back in June, the city had elected John Maury mayor. He was Virginia born, slave owning, and a philanthropic banker who took over at the Metropolis bank when John Van Ness died. No other local Democrat had such Whig-like credentials.

Both Clay and Webster died during the campaign. The former died in th National Hotel, the latter at his Marshfield, Mass., home. The Whig party died with Scott's defeat. Agitation over slavery made the city's middle class shift slowly toward the Democratic party.

On December 10, 1852, Frederick Law Olmstead checked into Gatsby's Hotel. He would one day be the nation's foremost landscape architect. But from 1852 to 1857, the 30 year old journalist was on assignment to report on the reality of slavery in the South. He stayed in Washington briefly and didn't pay much attention to the slaves there. He focused mainly on the shabby treatment he got from the manager at Gadsby's and three Irish clerks. He understood that 2000 visitors coming to the city in part explained the poor service but...

He went to the nearby Central Market and found that "the majority of the people were negroes, and, taken as a whole, they appeared inferior in the expression of their face and less well-clothed than any collection of negroes I had ever seen before." But then "the white men were, generally, a mean looking people, and but meanly dressed, but differently so from the negroes." He also thought poorly of the oxen there.

Outsiders almost always denigrated the shiftless locals. At the same time, locals found the city  moving almost too fast. Trains and steam boats delivered building materials that soon littered the Capitol grounds and steam lifts and cranes fed those materials much faster to masons than the hired slave laborers had done in the 1790s.

Engineers never missed a chance to impress politicians. John Ericcson returned in 1852 with another ship powered by a caloric engine quieter than steam. In February 1853 he demonstrated the new engine by having both President Fillmore and President-elect Pierce riding up and down on its pistons. (While not exactly the high point of Fillmore's term, his life soon took a turn for the worst. His frail wife caught a cold at Pierce's inauguration and died of pneumonia in Willard's hotel on March 30.)

Success in the election did not prompt Sam Houston to hold fire on Whigs. His committee summoned and examined witnesses who testified that foremen, including Strong's brother took a hefty cut out of wages. Masons were actually paid $1.75 day instead of the $2.25 that was the agreed wage. Others testified about stolen building materials, kick-backs from contractors to Strong, plots to burn nosy senators in effigy, and Strong's musing on how anyone could work with government contracts and not become rich.

The most amazing testimony came from Samuel Champion, foreman of the blacksmith and machine shops who had worked for architect Walter for years. He exonerated Walter while detailing how Strong demoralized the workers with cliques of special hires, men mostly from New York who got special treatment. Champion compared Strong to the evil character Father Rodin in a Eugene Sue novel The Wandering Jew. Evidence surfaced that Strong got a $10,000 kickback on a brick contract and Walter fired him on November 22, 1852.

If Whigs tried to make the Capitol their project, Democrats had a riposte. On January 16, 1853,  20,000 attended the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square. It was financed by private donations the sculpted by Clark Mills who had been raised in New York State but started his career in South Carolina. He brought his slaves to Washington.

Meanwhile, to protect his home base, Jefferson Davis had resigned from the Senate to run for governor of Mississippi. After he lost, he campaigned for Pierce in the South. In March, just as Houston's committee was finishing its work, Davis got his reward: secretary of war. Under Fillmore, the Commissioner of Public Buildings and the Superintendent of the Capitol Extension were in the Department of Interior. Davis had the new president put the Capitol extension under the War department. Davis ordered Capt. Montgomery Meigs of the Army Corps of Engineers to superintend the job. The previous secretary of war had just ordered him to take charge of the aqueduct project.

In the wake of the Compromise Acts of 1850, which he voted against, Davis joined what was called the "resistance"and in many speeches in Mississippi advocated secession if Northern "aggression" continued. Yet, he bristled when called a dis-unionist. A synopsis of one of his speeches explained:   "since he was sixteen years of age, he had served the federal government. For twelve years he had borne arms for the country, for five years he had served in the councils of the nation. Whatever had been his course of life, all he had done had been for the service of the United States." Ergo, he made sure the Capitol was built right.

Meigs relieved Walter of any responsibility for contracting and hiring workers. He replaced Strong's henchmen and kept the likes of Samuel Champion eccentric though he might be. Using engineering skills that Walter lacked, Meigs changed the two buildings' designs to accommodate a "scientific" system of ventilation and heating. Walter wanted the two legislative chambers to take advantage of windows. Meigs put the chambers in the middle of the huge buildings to allow secret passageways to the floors of each house so members could avoid lobbyists.

Walter took the position, not atypical in Washington, that changes to his design in no way impugned his claim that he designed the buildings. Meigs let Walter retain the title and salary of Architect. Big mistake. Historians give Walter all the credit, doubting that an engineer trained at West Point knew about architecture or art even though not a few of the world's great murals were of battle scenes.

So while Walter made and polished designs, Meigs dealt with the hundreds of men attracted by the project and he fortunately left a diary. The number of men employed by Meigs and contractors he hired varied from 300 to 700 men. That  swelled the the number of  houses on the Island and north of K Street, the so-called Northern Liberties. A new newspaper, the Washington Star, waxed  poetically about what had happened to fields where men and boys used to shoot plover, snipe and larks.

The 1854 article is a bit of exaggeration. Sessford counted around a hundred fewer houses in 1854, 20% less than the year before. He was more excited about the 27 public schools with 37 teachers and 2,065 "scholars" (all white) at a cost of $17,733. The Washington Monument was 170 feet high, almost high enough to be "a great object of attraction." The Smithsonian grounds had been landscaped and it lecture hall improved. The only individual builder to rate a mention by Sessford was Gilbert Venderwerken who built "extensive stables" east of the Capitol, horsepower for the omnibuses that ran the length of Pennsylvania Avenue.

 drawing of a DC omnibus

Sessford did not write about national and local politics with its retrenchment and reform cant. He understood that the city's growth was paced by the logic of L'Enfant's Plan. Sessford's matrix of statistics can be understood without speculating on the upshot of pistol shots being fired at Irish and German voters in the Northern Liberties near the new market at K and 8th Street during the June 1855 municipal election.

While in retrospect we know that none of the compromises solved the problems of slavery, many contemporaries thought otherwise especially after Pierce won in what for that day could be considered a landslide. Not a few expected another Era of Good Feeling thanks to Pierce modest charm. Instead politics, especially in the East, turned crazy. Thanks to a famine in Ireland and revolutions in the rest of Europe, the pace of immigration had picked up and the Native American Party came of age, morphing into the American party and proudly calling itself the "Know-Nothing Party." The excitement generated by the party perplexes historians who know that slavery was the issue that should have been on everyone's mind.Instead the Know-Nothings one all but one elective office in the Massachusetts' state government.

 Know Nothing Party flag

The Know-Nothing party stood for freedom, but as in freedom from control of the Roman Catholic church, and as in the freedom to impose you Protestant values on everyone else.

Amelia M. Murray, a 59 year old British botanist and lady in waiting to Queen Victoria, toured North America and spent a month in Washington, arriving in December 1854. She had already seen much to the north and was more taken with Detroit. She stayed at Willard's and enjoyed but did not partake in the almost nightly dancing.She noted the that four "negroes" provided the music playing piano, hautboy, violin and violincello "playing in excellent time and with sufficient taste and time."

She was struck by ladies "all in demitoilette," i.e. less formal than usual evening dress, but not in the "absurd flaunty style" seen in New York. Two years later, a young preacher, Moncure Conway, who did not shy from Washington's society balls, noted "Nearly every lady was dressed in white, decolletee to an extent now rarely known in America off the stage." (But don't misconstrue such liberties. Despite his buying  big house with an eye to entertaining, the wife of Louisiana senator Judah Benjamin was socially ostracized. Not because she was Jewish like her husband, but because from a rich creole family, she had fallen before she married, lived in Paris, and returned to Washington only to make a show.)

Once in the South, Murray's letters to Lady Byron, the poet's widow, brilliant mathematician and an abolitionist, addressed the issue of race. Sen. Hamilton Fish of New York assured her that "the black people die out and become extinct in one or two generations after the attainment of freedom and amalgamation with whites. This seems to be a universal law." She met Southern lawmakers but spent much of her time with the city's scientists at the Naval Observatory and Smithsonian. There were no congressional debate on slavery while she was there. Congress was trying to digest an influx of newly elected Know Nothings. Back at Willard's she spotted the Know Nothing, even women. She could easily discover them by "their crude unintelligent style of conversation." To her regret, she didn't hear a congressional debate on slavery. She did hear the lone Catholic member of congress defend his religion before the six dozen or so members who were Know-Nothings.

The Know Nothing party swept won the mayoralty of Philadelphia, Baltimore and then Washington. But what turf wars there were in Washington did not lead to expulsions or lynchings, no Catholic seminaries were burned down, no battle royals between gangs or their leaders as in other cities. In the city of magnificent distances where everyone could hide, the only turf worth fighting for were offices, jobs and monuments. In 1852 the Pope offered to send a marble stone to be placed in the Washington Monument. Donations of stone were encouraged and given due publicity, which, in this case the Know-Nothing noticed. The stone finally arrived in 1854 and while stored on the grounds, it was stolen and dumped into the nearby Potomac River on the night of March 6, 1854. No one knows nothing about who did it.

The city was cognizant of what was happening in the far away territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 gave slave owners a chance to take over states north of the Missouri Compromise line that since 1820 promised that there would always be more free than slave states. That enraged abolitionists as much as the Fugitive Slave Act. That rage forced local Washington authorities to continue be on their toes.

In April 1855, police raided a meeting of blacks in the basement room on D Street and 10th NW that they rented from a white man. They had the regalia of a secret society but the only literature confiscated was a bible and Seneca's morals. There was also a subscription list to raise $650 to buy the freedom of a enslaved woman. Subscribers included Sen. Seward and Rep. Giddings. The latter was the leading abolitionist in congress. One slave got six lashes and three of the free blacks were sent to the workhouse. The other 20 men were fined and released. It was against the law for blacks to meet in secret.

Reprehensible that may be, but the curfew and laws prohibiting blacks playing any games of chance, forced them to channel their energy and genius into black churches. Thanks to that, the March 26, 1856, issue of the National Era could characterize the "behavior and good order of the colored people" in Washington by noting that they raised the money to build churches valued a $39,000 and more than 1,000 black children were in "Sabbath schools." 

Of the two men controlling the most jobs in the city, Pierce and Meigs, the latter handled the Know Nothings more magisterially. Told that Benjamin French, the boyhood friend he made Commissioner of Public Buildings, had been seen taking the initiation rites of the Know-Nothing party, Pierce ignored French's explanation that he had recanted. He replaced him. That forced the stalwart Democrat, a fixture in the city for 20 years, to become a claims attorney in order to make ends meet. Then he joined the new Republican Party. The meetings of which, according to the son of one participant, were held in secret.

Presented with affidavits that Samuel Champion was a Know-Nothing and fired Democrats in the blacksmith shops at the Capitol, Meigs accepted Champion's word that he didn't. Two years later he attended the blacksmith's funeral. There was no preacher. A fellow worker read scripture and Meigs wondered if they were starting a new sect. He gave his eulogy of Champion in his diary "always a queer man, running mad upon mesmerism and Know-Nothingism and such things. Though he was a good workman and an honest man."

For all its whiff of corruption, Washington did attract that type of man. In his diary, Meigs gloried in God's giving him direction of the Aqueduct. Getting a $1,000,000 appropriation does that to man. He didn't see the hand of God in ex-senator Benton's house burning down for lack of water. The Senator was there working on his memoirs. He had opposed slavery in the West which ended his political career in Missouri The appropriation passed days after the fire.

Politicians did not necessarily think of the Aqueduct as a holy cause. Meigs turned a deaf ear to their importuning for special friends. So Whigs who had nominated generals Harrison, Taylor and Scott for president kept trying to amend appropriations to ban army officers from supervising civilian projects, especially the Capitol extension and dome. The Know- Nothings joined the anti-Meigs movement. Its newspaper claimed that Meigs preferred to hire foreigners because "military men can kick and damn them with impunity."

Foreign workers were not necessarily pliant. Stone workers. Meigs noted in his diary, belonged to a "society... composed of 19/20 foreigners and which ostracizes all who don't join it." It also went on strike at any unequal treatment. As for the many Italian artists he hired, like Brumidi, they would work for daily wages while American artists backed by politicians and society women from Boston, New York and Philadelphia expected large fees for each sculpture or painting.

All West Point graduates were engineers who, when there were no wars to fight, worked on public building projects through out the country. They were also paid based on their rank not on the scope of their responsibilities. The architect Walter was paid $4500. Meigs was his boss but made only $1500. In 1853 congress gave the thousand or so government clerks in Washington a slight raise to $900 for trainees, and three grades of clerks at $1200, $1500 and $1800 with six head clerks getting $2,200. Meigs made end meets for support his growing family because his mother-in-law, Commodore Rodgers' widow, paid the rent on their house near Lafayette Square and his father, a Philadelphia doctor, sent him a few hundred dollars a month.

 Col. Meigs

In 1854 Walter hit on an idea that Meigs immediately embraced: the Dome. Since it would replace the old dome and sit between the two old wings of the Capitol, the dome needed its own appropriation. Engineer Meigs planned the dome's ribs, and relied on the informal group of local engineers and scientists to help convince a few doubting congressmen that the weight of the dome would not crush the stone of the old buildings.

Suddenly Secretary of War Davis got cold feet and preferred merely finishing the extension and keeping it under estimates -- was he thinking of running for president? New York's Sen Seward argued for the magnificent Dome would help cement the Union.

The New York legislature had just elected Seward to his second term. Having first come to the city in 1849 with a Whig president, he did not settle in. A cabinet appointment would require a large house or he might be sent on a foreign mission. So he rented a small house on F Street near 7th. In 1855 his re-election meant he was a leader of the new Republican party. Men would beat a path to his door. He leased a house for three years built by a naval officer at 21st and G Streets. His son later wrote that it was near "a few other substantial and comfortable residences, belonging to Washington families," and the Russian ambassador was nearby. Looking to the west toward Georgetown "there was a dreary waste of muddy unpaved roads and vacant lots."

As the Dome slowly grew to the heavens, and the many interior rooms in the extension were gilded by artists, there were facts on the ground that molded the new Capitol's character more than all the vaunted stone and iron. In 1856, to the surprise of congressmen when they returned to the city, iron tracks crossed Pennsylvania Avenue at the foot of Capitol Hill. That allowed horses to pull cars of the northern and southern railroads across the avenue, four trains a day.  No one alluded to that as helping to cement the union.

Surprisingly, congress let the tracks stay even though they took pleasure in being wooed and yet never deciding essential things like the route of the transcontinental railroad or who would get the government contract to carry the mail from New York to San Francisco across the Isthmus of Panama or Nicaragua. Commodore Vanderbilt whose steamers needed a few miles of strategic tracks to speed passengers to and from California, saw to it that his son-in-law soon won a seat in congress. Docking his yacht off Greenleaf's Point to entertain congressmen was not enough.

Then in 1856 the city had to again adjust to violence in high places. The weapon of choice was not always the pistol. Most congressmen carried one and revolvers were conveniently for sale at Campbell and Coyle on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue near the hotels. In the midst of a long battle to elect the Speaker, Rep. Albert Rust of Arkansas took exception to a slur against him in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. He slapped and punched the editor on the Capitol grounds and then when Greeley followed him, while protesting that he was not a fighting man, Rust caned him on Pennsylvania Avenue.The cane splintered and he slugged Greeley on the back of his head.

Fortunately, the city's social season went into full swing. Although it was an election year and the host of the first grand ball, former grocer and bank director George Parker, was a Democrat, the press reported on the ball without political overtones. The thousand guests danced to new music from New York played by "Esputa's fine band." (He was probably the "fiery Spaniard" who distressed young John Phillip Sousa not Espuata Jr. who taught him music on 8th Street.) Then downstairs the revelers dined on treats provided by Gautier.

"The gayeties of the evening were not confined to the Fourth Ward," continued the Washington Star report. "Dinner parties were given by the President and Secretary of War, while there was a fashionable ball at Mrs. Dr. Wood [Former President Taylor's daughter,] on I Street. This evening is to be a large party given by Mrs. Clem Hill, and next week the gay throng are invited by Mrs. Gen. Webb and Mrs. George Pennington, besides the balls at Willard's and Brown's."

None of their husbands were running for office. There was no Buchanan ball at Carusi's. He had left the city in 1853 to serve as the US Minister to Britain. Pierce sent three Southerners to represent the country in the three principal European countries, and they met together at Ostend and signed a  manifesto more or less demanding that Spain sell Cuba to the US. Then all three returned to the US. Buchanan would gain the White House; Soule and Mason would return to the Senate..

Back in the violent capital, on May 8, 1856, Rep. Philomon Herbert of California shot and killed Thomas Keating, an Irish waiter at Willard's hotel. The latter's witnesses including his brother and the French cook at Willard's, heard Herbert call Keating an "Irish son of a bitch" after he told the congressman it was too late to get breakfast. Herbert's witnesses, including another congressman, saw Keating throw a plate at Herbert prompting the other congressman to come after him with a chair. Then when Herbert and Keating began to fight, the latter's brother and the cook joined. And after having been beaten almost to the floor, Herbert fired the fatal shot. The case eventually was heard before a Judge Thomas Hartley Crawford, a former Democratic congressman. Herbert wiggled out of the charge of his being a bad example, by citing a notorious street fight between the editor of the new Washington Star newspaper and the Washington correspondent of the New York Times, both men were Republicans who had written attacks on Herbert.

Then Sen Sumner's "Bleeding Kansas Speech" led to another caning, this time with one made of gutta percha that didn't break. On May 22, 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks wanted to confront Sumner on the Capitol Square and sat in wait with a colleague on a beautiful May noon just before the Senate convened. If Sumner had passed by that way, he could have at least run away. So Brooks found him at his desk on the Senate floor just after business ended. He waited for ladies to leave and caned  a defenseless Sumner almost to the point of death.

The north was electrified with disgust and rage; the South jubilant. Sen. Seward was appalled that the Washington newspapers, all but one, sided with Brooks. It was an "affair" not a crime. Sumner had insulted Sen. Butler, Brooks' second cousin and a Southern gentleman could not sit idly by after that. Moncure Conway, himself a Southerner, was shocked that "fashionable society was making Brooks a hero. After his trial in the municipal court, which inflicted a moderate fine, he was received in the corridor by numerous ladies with kisses."

Conway did not quite take to Washington. He was perhaps the one prominent man who raised a controversy over slavery who then walked away. He could have gloried in it. For every parishioner who left the church, another joined. (There were no African American in the congregation of the rather high tone Unitarian church.) None of the ladies who left were unkind personally. But rather than ride the wave of controversy as so many in Washington did, he advocated dis-union as the only way to avoid war. Conway left for a post in a Cincinnati church.

There was a third position on the issue of the day. "As in all places where many strangers congregate," one proud local lectured, "there is a peculiar degree of independence of feelings and habits. The citizens unconnected with Government become so accustomed to see the scenes of political strife acted over during each succeeding administration, that they have mostly acquired the habit of regarding them with comparative indifference; they are consequently peculiarly free from sectional prejudices." Of course.that was the highbrow way of supporting the South and the continuance of slavery in the District.

Sumner had another whipping boy in his speech, Sen. Douglas of Illinois, who along with Butler authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas took it in stride. He could not get the Democratic nomination without supporting the right of slave owners to take their slave where ever they want. He married the daughter of a Mississippi plantation owner. He refused a wedding gift of slaves which would have been a political liability, but when his wife inherited the plantation he wound up managing it, from afar, getting 20% of its profits.

His wife died in 18-- and ---- years later he married a granddaughter of Dolly Madison which meant she had the pedigree to lead Washington society. So Douglas had a row of houses built on I Street, all three suitable for entertaining in grand style.

An outbreak of a stomach ailment at a pre-Inaugural meeting of Buchanan's cabinet at the National Hotel, where the drains were stopped up by a severe cold spell, almost dispatched the future administration. But nothing could stop the Buchanan administration on its intended mission: replace the Democrats Pierce appointed, with Buchanan Democrats. However, standing in the way of redirecting the money going to contractors building the Aqueduct and Dome was Sen. Jefferson Davis's high regard for Capt. Meigs. Buchanan would waffle for three years before replacing Meigs so Secretary of War Floyd could get a Capitol contract for a dentist friend in his home state of Virginia.

It is proper to picture Lincoln beleaguered by sectional strife and Washington heat repairing to the cottage at Soldier's Home across the shady northeastern boundary of the city. But Buchanan beleaguered by too many loyal mouths to feed, and the heat, went there first.

Cottage at the Soldiers Home where President Buchanan escaped the unhealthy White House

Back in the city's hot, and dusty, summer streets, another game played out. In the 1858 Senate debate on increasing the night guard in Washington, Hale of New Hampshire blamed Judge Crawford's leniency for the city's crime wave. Part of it was certainly due to the Know-Nothings. They followed their sporadic violence, and municipal election day bullying in 1855 and 1856 with a full scale riot on election day June 1857. Marines came from the Navy Yard to stop the intimidation of supposed foreign and Catholic voters at a working class precinct around the Northern Liberty Market north of city hall by "Plug Uglies" from Baltimore. The "raw recruits" were provoked into firing into a crowd gathered around an old cannon dragged to the polling place killing fourteen. The Marines clearly overreacted. Both officers on the scene denied giving the order to fire.

The Senate bill authorized the President to hire 100 men at $2 a day to control election day violence. Some objected that only sent another politicized mob to fight the election bullies. Others rejoined that was better than calling out the Marines. Others blamed the trouble on the dismissal of Capt. Goddard, a Whig, as the chief of police, by the new Democratic mayor Maury.

The principal reform was a bigger night guard appointed by the President and under control of the mayor and Secretary of the Interior. The mayor argued that not only did he not have enough men to patrol the vast distances of the city, but there were now alleys in many squares where the poor lived.

Sen. Seward cited the "assassination" of a Treasury clerk in the early evening. Sen. Douglas thought "life is not safe in this city at present.... A very prominent citizen told me that he saw two men shot down near his own door.... No man is safe, no man dares go to his neighbor's house. He is liable to be shot down without provocation, and without notice." (Captain Meigs saw method in the madness. His foremen were warned that a new secret organization alarmed at Know-Nothings getting jobs was going to shoot them. A few weeks later one foreman survived an assassination attempt and his assailant vanished in the night.)

 Police were accused of abetting the criminals. Two men were attacked by a policeman near the Capitol and the policeman on duty refused to identify him. Sen, Wilson of Massachusetts saw a man with a Bowie nice apprehended after an assault and taken to a policeman who then let him go 

Sen. Andrew Johnson assumed the familiar role of castigating the expenditure of money for the residents of Washington. He even tried to amend the bill to commence a study of giving all but the public buildings back to Maryland. But something had to be done. Brown of Mississippi agreed with Hale of New Hampshire that city officials were "utterly incompetent."

The 1858 municipal election occurred during the debate. The Anti-Know-Nothing candidate won and then Mayor Barrett became a Democrat. He immediately hired a 100 man police force to save the city from any more invasions from Baltimore. When a notorious rabble rouser, who had effected his magic in cities across the north, came to address the grievances of Washington's dispossessed, he was greeted by the authorities and run out of town.

In 1859 and 1860 congress adjourned in mid-June. The long sessions to the end of August had kept newspapers busy covering the appropriations filled with last minute payouts. (Meigs claimed that improved accoustics in the new chambers accounted for the speedier dispatch of business.) Newspapers compensated for the absence of congress by providing more detailed coverage of local crime.

When African Americans were involved, newspapers noted that they were "col'd." But free blacks were mainly arrested for disorderly conduct and petty thieving. They victimized the transients in hotels and boarding houses. The Naylor Gang, a group of legendary white thieves, lifted the silver and valuables from established citizens. When one if it leaders, 24 year old named Croggin, died while in jail, it made the news.

The Washington Star did sometimes report on the almost constant harassment the police and night guard gave to free blacks. They would obey curfews and procure passests, but police would insist the passes did not come from the right official, and fine them anyway. But facing a Democrat president and mayor, the Star's reports changed little. The highest concentration of blacks were in the alleys in squares just north of Lafayette Square where real estate values were the highest.

Of course, when the white elite killed, everybody paid attention. In 1859 Rep. Daniel Sickles of New York, known as a rich playboy, murdered Philip Key, a local attorney and son of Francis Scott Key, as he approached Lafayette Square. Mrs. Sickles had just revealed her affair with Key. The lurid admissions of Mrs. Sickle's on the stand shocked the community. "Filth filth" Mrs. Jefferson Davis reported to her husband, and also that her neighbor, a widow, joked that she could have easily done the same but would have never told. Accepting his claim of temporary insanity, a jury acquitted Sickles, to the cheers of the community.

The likes of Mrs. Jefferson Davis dominated Washington society. "There was, on the part of the North," Mrs. Clay, an Alabama senator's wife wrote years later, "a palpable envy of the hold the South had retained so long upon the Federal City, whether in politics or society...." Although northern industry generated far more wealth than southern cotton, and northern congressmen were dismissed as venal men in the pay of northern industries finagling for protective tariffs.

 Mrs. Clement Clay

"People [were] mad with rivalry and vanity," Mrs. Clay recalled antebellum entertaining. California's Sen. Gwin, who once represented Mississippi, spent money at the rate of $75,000 a year. Sen. Brown and Rep. Thompson, both from Mississippi, spent almost as much. Georgia Sen. Toombs's daughter bragged that her family spent $1,800 a month, or $21,000 for the session. Another Adams, Charles Francis, who made money as a lawyer for the new railroads, was elected to congress, but Southerners ridiculed his social gatherings as too serious about politics.

Not quite outshining that Southern wealth were two Northern ladies, Harriet Lane, the niece and White House hostess for the bachelor president, and Mary Abigail Dodge, who worked for the editor of the abolitionist National Era.

In 1859 Sam Ward, the son of a New York banker, got his start as a Washington lobbyist. Friends in the Democratic party got him hired as a translator for a mission to open Paraguay to American commerce, i.e. right the wrongs done to some freebooting American speculators. Ward shared the mission head's instructions with the Paraguyan president and was secretly paid to represent Paraguay in Washington. One of the naval ships sent on the mission was the Harriet Lane. Back in Washington, Ward more that doubled his secret fee by getting Paraguay a better than expected deal. He celebrated with a trip down the Potomac, a "pic-nic" and Harriet Lane was the special guest. Needless to say, Ward dined with her uncle frequently.

Abigail Dodge became a sensation in Republican circles. Benjamin French, ex-House clerk, ex-Commissioner of Public Buildings, ex Pierce Democrat, described her in his diary:
She is an oddity too. Hair worn like a boy's... Features decidedly homely - cross-eyed - but the handsomest set of natural teeth I ever saw in the jaws of any mortal…. I never remember to have seen a person from whose lips flowed, as without an effort, such a continuous stream of bright thoughts, clothed in beautiful language.
She wrote newspaper articles under the pen name Gail Hamilton mostly promoting abolition which the old Democrat found unsettling even though he hailed from New England. He was also a member of the Unitarian church and was glad to see Conway leave.

There were other rivalries other than slave/free and native/immigrant to distract the community. By the time when the extensions were linked to the old Capitol, Meigs and Walter were no longer talking to each other. The team all but finished the job within five years broke apart in a well publicized spat.

Less hired slaves were needed because machines did the heavy lifting

The lower paid army officer bristled that the architect got credit for all the good things, principally the still unfinished Dome, while he was criticized for innovations in engineering and decoration. Large chambers without windows and flowing Italianate murals in pastel colors troubled not a few. To prove that he was the prime designer of all the good things, Walter took control of all the working drawings he could get his hands on. Meigs responded by writing his name on all drawings he recalled amending.

Both houses of congress joined the debate primarily on the issue of art. Any resolution to return to the old House chambers with its poor acoustics was met with laughter. Only the fog horn speakers who could dominate debate there wanted to move back,  The use of Italian and not American artists gained traction. Sen. Jefferson Davis defended Meigs. He recalled taking members to the new Agriculture Committee room where every member endorsed the frescoes and decorations. Sen. Sam Houston ridiculed not only the Italians but also Thomas Crawford the principal sculpture who died shortly after completing the statue that would top the Dome. Davis rose to his defense.

Corridor in new Senate wing, done with fine Italian craftsmanship

Secretary of War Floyd told Meigs that congress should sit as the old Saxons did, on logs in a clearing in the forest. He was aching to award contracts to friends. Buchanan finally gave in. Meigs left so ungracefully that Floyd had him assign to repair the in the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys.

One can hardly blame Floyd. Sensing his imminent sacking, Meigs had his name chiseled on the stones used to build the aqueduct.  His paranoid reaction to how little money he had made for supervising the expenditure of millions was a measure of how easily others were getting rich. The city was rife with corruption.

Inspired by a coterie of southern congressmen who cashed in with some notorious claims arising from Georgia's and Texas's storied past, in 1851 a local dentist concocted a fraudulent claim for losses in Mexico, only to put a bullet through his head after he was tried and convicted. The more humdrum claims on the government were pressed in ways that now seem exotic. Edward Pendleton, the Virginia born gentleman who ran the city's premiere gambling casino, the Palace of Fortune, on Pennsylvania Avenue, became, until his death in 1858, the city's premiere claims agent.

In such a milieu, respectful citizens found road blocks to their making a profit. The scion of  two old Maryland and Virginia families, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, used capital raised from his being part owner of the Willard Hotel to start the Metropolitan Railroad. He asked Congress for the exclusive right to lay iron for horse drawn cars on Pennsylvania Avenue and other streets. They would be quieter than Vanderwerken's omnibuses clattering over the macadam. But the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad held exclusive rights to run a railroad to the city. It objected and rallied its many friends in Congress.

The city got some revenge. Out-of-city corporations might buy their way in, but industries discovered a use for the city that gave an aura of importance to an office tucked upstairs above street level stores on Pennsylvania Avenue, The American Pharmaceutical Association, formed to market safe and effective drugs, opened an office and asked for a charter.

In the last decade of its publication, John Sessford's Annals began to seem out of date. They chronicled building, not influence,. Increasingly thicker city directories were published that included the Annals but also the names of important people and institutions. Still, in that last decade, the city began to show pride in Sessford's raw uncontroversial data.

In 1858 the editor of the National Intelligencer wrote “Our readers are accustomed to look with interest for the annual Statistical Table prepared by the venerable John Sessford, who has himself grown up with the city, and who has watched its progress with paternal solicitude.”

In 1860, the “resident of the city for nearly sixty years” was hailed for seeing “broad acres of hill and dale, of wood and water” become a city “of magnificent structures, public and private, and capacious and beautiful thoroughfares – a city proverbial for its health, and for the intellectual attractions which render it worthy of the fame of its great founder.” The memory of Sessford  would be embalmed “in the hearts of thousands long after he shall have passed away from the scenes of the earth.”

He died in 1862. His reports never noted who was president, never mentioned a senator, nor a head of a department, not even the secretary of the treasury for whom Sessford worked. The only name he mentioned in his last two annals was W.W. Corcoran. Sessford lauded his new Art Union opposite the War Department with its handsome brownstone and lofty interiors, no mention of the architect Renwick. He noted the progress on the Dome, the new Post Office and what water pipes had been laid. Having been auditing the Navy department for four decades, he had a special regard for the Navy Yard, but not much was happening there. The last ship launched from it was the Minnesota, a "steamship of war" on December 1, 1855. 

The Potomac and the canal, now dismissed by historians as an open sewer, were almost as much a pet of his as the Navy Yard. No else celebrated the Coltman and Duncanson grain mill on Ohio Avenue.  

He was not always a booster. He greeted the new board in charge of building the Washington Monument by accurately predicting that work would stop and not soon resume. He criticized the city for lowering property taxes that financed improvements in each ward. 

Then there were the churches. Perhaps as he entered his 80th year, he was more mindful of them. Perhaps the national crisis made church goers more mindful of them. Anyway, he listed the improvements to the Mission Church on P between 14th and 15th; To the Presbeyterian church on 9th st above G;  the Baptist on north E; the Metropolitan Presbyterian Free church fronting E; and the Catholic on 2nd SE. Then there was the new Presbyterian Church on New York Avenue and preparation for a "new Southern Church" at the corner of 9th and E.

No "colored churches" had been built those two years before the war. However, the Colonization Society built an impressive building at the corner pf 4 1/2 and Pennsylvania Avenue, made with colored stone and boasting a wrought iron balustrade. A new guard house for those police who terrorized African Americans was built nearby.

Sessford also didn't put pageantry in his annals, even when the parade of the Japanese delegation that arrived in the city in May 1860 began at the Navy Yard. Over 80 men, many with swords and strange hats, entertained the city for a week. 

That same week, the Republican Party convention in Cincinnati nominated Lincoln. Washington expected Seward to be the nominee but celebrated all the same. Since Jefferson's election in the House of Representative, political events sparked demonstrations in the city from serenades, to parades and bonfires. The Log Cabin campaign of 1840 markedly increased the enthusiasm of such reactions and to celebrate Lincoln's nomination, the local Republican Association out did themselves with serenading and speech making. Sen. Hamlin, the VP nominee, was in the city. Then as they massed on 8th Street, Democrats rushed down the hill from F Street and cleared the street.

The municipal election follow three weeks later with fighting in the 4th ward, as usual. But this time it was between Democrats and Republicans. The Republican candidate's house was stoned, and a Republican was wounded with a pistol shot. The Democrat, Barrett, won re-election  but there was so much fraud, the Republican Wallach vowed to go to court. Cries went out for congress to provide more police protection. Instead congress cut the appropriation for the District of Columbia. Then rumors of an assassination attempt on Sen. Sumner prompted Republicans to arm themselves with pistols. But the current session ended a week later. National leaders left.

Meanwhile the Democratic party split on sectional lines and ran two candidates. Only Douglas tried to bridge the divide by campaigning in the South. With only 39% of the popular vote, Lincoln still won enough Northern states to win the presidency. As they had promised before the election, upon  coming to Washington for last session of the 00 congress, the representatives of the six "cotton" states left the city, convinced that all the good people in Washington knew they were right to secede and regretted their going. As he ordered 650 troops to the city, the commanding general of the army, Winfield Scott, principally feared that southern sympathizers would drift into the city and that half of the Washington militia might support them.

Others thought the attack would be home grown, made by a newly formed "National Volunteers" organized by Democrats to counterattack a feared Republican assault on private property. Instead the volunteers burned down the Republican party headquarters in the city.

Columns began going up at Capitol expansion just as Jeff Davis left town

Tensions in the city eased when politicians tried to effect the old compromise magic for which the city was famous. When Congress remained stalemated hopes were placed on a national "Peace Conference" of 132 delegates from 21 of the 33 states who convened at the Willard Hotel. Unfortunately there was no Washington to chair the conference. It fell to John Tyler.

Clay's successor, Sen. John Crittenden, set himself up as peace maker and proposed amendments to the Constitution which made explicit the right of southerners to own slaves and travel with them even into lands acquired in the future. The Buchanan administration was still conniving to purchase Cuba as a future slave state. The conference endorsed Crittenden's amendments, and sent them to Congress with the fanfare of a one hundred gun salute arranged by General Scott. There was a flood of petitions from the North urging compromises to save the union, but Republicans in Congress refused to tie the hands of the incoming administration. The short session ended when Lincoln was sworn in.

In France, a revolution in 1848 could be played out in the streets of Paris. But Paris represented France. The streets of America's capital remained peaceful as the union divided. The country had a representative government operating in a city that represented nothing but subservience to the whims of its governors. A city, that in sixty years had only become a pale reflection of the country for which it served as the capital, momentarily lost the very union it was meant to symbolize and cement.

Then the capital's empty expanses filled up again as twenty thousand people thronged the city for Lincoln's Inaugural. As it had more or less done with every new president since 1801, the National Intelligencer marveled that the Inauguration was "in some respects the most brilliant and imposing pageant ever witnessed in this Capital."