THE EARLY REPUBLIC was ‘a crazy quilt of state jurisdictions,’ writes the author, teetering on the brink of financial default and anxious about whether the new constitutional system would work. New York was capital by default, but the selection of a permanent site became a burning question. Seen by the world as ‘a measure of the young nation’s strength,’ the capital should be a ‘Metropolis of America,’ not only the seat of government, but also the nation’s greatest port and center of commerce—and of course completely unlike opulent European courts.
Philadelphia was such a city, but it was a hotbed of abolitionists, freedmen and Quakers. Thanks to the constitutional compromise that considered each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of population counting, the South had a disproportionate say in where the capital would be located. Backdoor machinations by Treasury Secretary Hamilton and slaveholding Founding Father Madison over dinner with Jefferson resulted in a deal for a permanent national home on the banks of the Potomac.
President Washington coordinated fundraising and construction (deadline 1800) and found in French-American engineer Peter Charles L’Enfant someone who shared his lofty vision of an imperial city. Bordewich skillfully depicts the personalities involved, including William Thornton, who designed the Capitol, and surveyor Andrew Ellicott’s African-American assistant Benjamin Banneker. The author’s considerable knowledge of America’s racial history helps him paint a comprehensive portrait of the momentous task achieved by black laborers, who could not share in the glory of the city they were building. A work of admirable, if digressive, breadth, examining the endurance of the nation’s dream, even after the British pillaged Washington in 1814.