WASHINGTON, D.C., is today as much a site of national pilgrimage as it is a seat of government. For schoolchildren disembarking by the hundreds of thousands each year along the Mall, and for millions of other Americans and foreign visitors, to travel to Washington is to seek some kind of communion with the secular civic religion that is embodied in its temple like buildings and the democratic institutions they enshrine. Viewed from the top of the Washington Monument, the sepulchral monuments to past presidents and to wars won and lost, the massive government buildings, museums, foreign embassies, and the taut axis of republican power formed by the Capitol and the White House, shape a cityscape that emanates both national self-confidence and imperial grandeur like no other in the world.
It was not always thus. At the dawn of the last decade of the eighteenth century, few questions agitated the new country’s leaders as much as the site of its permanent capital. The very idea was deeply controversial. A driving impetus for revolution had been the inspiring republican vision of frugal citizens devoted to individual liberty and the mutual good governing themselves through popularly elected and incorruptible legislators whose power overshadowed weak executives. By the 1790s, as the nation recovered from war and began to flex its economic muscles, this idealized republican vision came under assault from the new and unpredictable effects of rapid urbanization, big money capitalism, and the obvious efficiency of a more centralized government. To many Americans, all these issues congealed in a fear of cities as menacing nurseries of social disorder and corruption. Worse, the idea of a permanent capital evoked repellent memories of opulent European courts, with their overbearing monarchy, entrenched aristocracy, and oppressive pomp.
Since the Revolutionary War, no fewer than thirty competing sites had been proposed, from New York’s Hudson Valley to the Ohio frontier. Some asserted that the capital ought to be at the country’s demographic center, others at its geographical center. Partisans of a more northerly site argued that since Canada was doubtless destined eventually to become part of the nation, the capital ought to lie to the north. Advocates of western expansion retorted that it should be established across the trans-Appalachian frontier. Easterners who believed that the West would inevitably secede someday, demanded a capital near the Atlantic. Philadelphians and New Yorkers maintained that for the ‘conveniency’ of transacting public business it made the most sense to place the capital in an established city. Spokesmen for less populated areas decried the baleful influence of a large commercial and wealthy city on the public councils. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, promoted the low prices of its food and firewood. Baltimore’s proponents argued that it was invincible against foreign attack. Delaware lobbied for Wilmington. Lewis Morris of New York offered his private estate in the present- day South Bronx. Some Northerners favored Princeton, but Thomas Jefferson complained that it suffered from a ‘deficiency of accommodation, exposing ye attending members to the danger of indignities & extortions.’ Annapolis, Jefferson conceded, had ‘the soothing tendency of so Southern a position on the temper of the S. States,’ but most Virginians declared that locating the government there would favor Maryland’s commerce at their expense. At one point Congress actually decided to alternate nomadically between Annapolis and Trenton, prompting one disgusted correspondent to grumble in the New York Daily Gazette of legislators ‘who talk of moving from place to place with as much indifference as a set of strolling players.’ One of the less likely sites was the valley of the Potomac. If not the wilderness or swamp that legend has sometimes suggested, it appealed to few but the Virginians. By 1790 the leading candidate was somewhere in rural Pennsylvania.
The epic of the capital’s invention opens a window on the Founding Fathers as they struggled over what the nation was supposed to be, throwing them into stark relief, like figures caught in the flash of lightning. Washington, D.C., was born from one of the most intense political struggles in American history, one shaped by power politics, big money, the imperatives of slavery, ferocious sectional rivalry, and backroom dealing—as well as by idealism and single-minded determination. The story of its creation is thus a kind of national parable, embodying the central contradiction of America, persisting even today, between noble intentions and the sordid realities of power. The capital was more than just a big construction job. It was also an attempt—indeed, a desperate attempt—to create a massive symbol that would embody the spirit of a nation that barely yet existed, and which many of its Founders feared might not long survive. ‘It might be compared to the heart in the human body,’ Georgia Congressman James Jackson urgently asserted in 1790.
"It was a center from which the principles of life were carried to the extremities.’ Greater than a mere city, the proposed seat of government was the first national capital to be established by a republic in modern times. As such, it was meant to be a sacred repository of republican values, a new Rome, ‘the mistress of the western world, the dispenser of freedom, justice and peace to unborn millions,’ in the anonymous author’s expressive words. The project was stunningly ambitious for a nation with an empty treasury. The Founders believed they were initiating a ‘new millennium’ in human history: the capital thus stood at the center of what they saw as a new spiritual world, incarnating in stone the mythic culmination of—again as Jefferson put it—"the world’s progress toward its present condition of liberty.’ Even its ground plan was designed as a physical expression of the nation’s destiny. Each street suggested a ray of light emanating from the Capitol and radiating outward toward every part of America. At one point, it was even proposed that a prime meridian of longitude be established through the Capitol’s dome to replace that of Greenwich, sanctifying both the building and its city as the central node in a new cosmic order.
The city’s founders intended the completion of the capital to be seen by the world as a measure of the young nation’s strength. Failure, consequently, would reveal fatal weakness, emboldening enemies who, as Americans saw it, encircled the frail republic like hungry wolves. Hostile Britain ruled the seas, occupied Canada, and refused to relinquish strategic forts in the Northwest Territory. New Orleans and the trans-Mississippi country were held by unfriendly Spain. Everywhere along the Appalachian frontier, settlers trekked relentlessly beyond the authority of the federal government, provoking Indian nations into unwanted conflicts that the ill-funded and underdefended republic could not afford. Far away in the Mediterranean, North African corsairs plundered American shipping with contemptuous impunity. European intellectuals mocked the republic as a half-baked jumble of ‘radicals and rye coffee, slavery and green peas, bugs and statistics.’ The new capital would offer proof to the outside world that the United States was here to stay. It was to be the nation’s paramount unifying symbol, the brick-and-marble embodiment of its ideals and aspiration. For the time being, this unique role was filled by the most trusted man in the United States: President George Washington. Americans were painfully aware that his life was rapidly ticking away. He was fifty-eight years old in 1790, elderly by the standards of the time, and his health was a constant worry. ‘While we had a Washington and his virtues to cement and guard the union, it might be safe; but, when he shall leave us, who would inherit his virtues, and possess his influence?’ Congressman John Vining of Delaware publicly worried. ‘Who would remain to embrace and draw to a centre those hearts, which the authority of his virtues alone kept in the union?’ The president was a man facing a complex moral crossroads. Tired and unwell, he claimed to crave retirement beneath his ‘vine and fig tree,’ as he liked to put it, but he felt driven by his own quest for immortality to shoulder the bur-- den of leadership that the country had thrust upon him. He believed profoundly in the republic, but possessed an almost mystical, and less than selfless, desire to advance the interests of his region.
In 1790 Congress made Washington personally responsible for bringing the new capital to completion. He was given ten years to make the chosen site habitable. The prospects for success were dim indeed. Virtually from the start, the project was hobbled by scandalous financial manipulation, and a degree of incompetence sometimes suggestive of a modern banana republic, not to mention the reluctance of officials to move to what many regarded as a ‘barbarous wilderness.’ That it actually succeeded astonished many of its main actors. If Washington failed to complete the project within the prescribed deadline—and it seemed for most of that decade that he would fail—the capital might well revert to Philadelphia or someplace else new, a prospect with immense consequences for national stability when the division between North and South, free and slave, was beginning to shape the politics of the country.
More than any other single place, Washington, D.C., embodies the lofty aspirations of the United States in physical form. But it also stands as a monument to the most disturbing truths in our racial history, for embedded in the story of its creation is the central role that slavery’s protectors and enslaved African Americans played in the formative years of the nation. Slaves driven by white overseers cleared the land for the new federal city, felling trees and uprooting the stumps that clogged the future routes of streets and avenues. More slaves, hundreds of them, rented by the federal government by the month and year, laid foundations, baked bricks, quarried stone, stirred mortar, sawed lumber, and erected the walls of the grand new temples to American liberty. Without them, the federal city could not have been built. For two centuries, their presence, and their sacrifice, was largely left out of the story of the capital’s creation, as if they had never been there.
Some of the players in this decade-long drama are well known, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, although they may seem at times like strangers when seen through the unfamiliar lens of the capital’s creation. Others are less so, such as the city’s flamboyant planner, the ill-fated Peter Charles L’Enfant; the idealistic William Thornton, designer of the Capitol, who was better known in his day as the impassioned promoter of the first scheme intended to solve the nation’s ‘race problem’; Benjamin Banneker, who charted the passage of the stars from Jones’s Point and left his own distinctive imprint on the story of the capital’s creation; and the buccaneer speculators Robert Morris, John Nicholson, and James Greenleaf, whose ambition nearly destroyed the federal city before it came into being.
The invention of Washington, D.C., is in part a soaring story of national aspiration, in part a cautionary tale of the first great land-grabbing boondoggle in American history, and in part a grim record of slavery’s buried history. It is much more than the story of the mere physical construction of a city where none existed before, though that is dramatic enough, with its byzantine web of financial scandals, personal betrayals, and political cliffhangers. Ultimately, it is an epic tale of the often faltering, sometimes delusional, and ultimately triumphant quest to create the first great physical symbol of the nation’s identity.
Excerpted from Washington: The Making of the American Capital by Fergus M. Bordewich. Reprinted by arrangement with Amistad Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright May, 2008. Also published in the Wall Street Journal May 2008.