WHILE MILLIONS of tourists visit the American capital to get in touch with history, Fergus M. Bordewich believes that parts of Washington’s story are still untold. His new book, ‘Washington: The Making of the American Capital,’ portrays a nascent city wracked by fiscal malfeasance and legislated by back-room machinations. Mr. Bordewich also explores the unsung contributions of slaves who did everything from baking bricks for construction to clearing trees for the former pasture’s development. ‘Slavery was embedded in the city’s magnificent buildings that now symbolize American democracy,’ he says.
ON MARCH 29, 1791, President George Washington set out on horseback to get a first-hand look at the densely wooded area along the Potomac River that would become the site of America's capital. A surveyor had found the place unimpressive, noting that "for near seven miles on it there is not one house that has any floor except the earth," but Washington pictured a city of wide, tree-lined avenues, majestic buildings and monuments worthy of a great republic. His vision would eventually be realized but only after a long, torturous struggle.
On that March morning, Washington was joined by Peter Charles L'Enfant, the French architect. Fergus Bordewich sets the scene in Washington, his captivating narrative of the capital's creation: "They made an imposing picture, these two tall and commanding men in a country of short people, heavily cloaked against the raw weather, sharing visions of the metropolis they intended to spread across the scrubby plain, animatedly talking of obelisks and squares, philosophical academies . . . and streets that radiated like sunbursts from the stately centers of government."
L'Enfant boldly predicted that, within a decade, the capital's population would reach 600,000. But he was as unrealistic as he was visionary. A year later, he would be fired, and the capital project would face the first of several brushes with bankruptcy. Five years later, little more had been accomplished but the cutting down of trees to make room for the city's main thoroughfares.
How did the federal district, as it was called, come to be situated on the Potomac in the first place? Like so much in America's history, race and regionalism played a part. Mr. Bordewich begins his narrative in New York City, where Congress, meeting in temporary quarters, is deadlocked over what to do with the massive debts that the states incurred during the Revolutionary War. A compromise is reached: James Madison, a Virginian, will support a proposal made by Alexander Hamilton—to let the federal government assume all state debts—if Hamilton, a New Yorker, will support the creation of a capital in the South. The deal was brokered over dinner at Thomas Jefferson's Manhattan townhouse at 57 Maiden Lane.
The deal sent shockwaves through Congress. Philadelphian Benjamin Rush saw the move as an ill- conceived power grab by the pro-slavery faction, writing in horror to Vice President John Adams: "Negro slaves will be your servants by day, mosquitos your sentinels by night, and bilious fevers your companions every summer and fall." To mollify the Northerners, Congress voted to make Philadelphia the temporary capital for 10 years. If the new city on the Potomac was not ready by 1800, Congress would vote on another location, possibly Philadelphia, a horrifying prospect to pro-slavery Southerners.
With that, Congress gave President Washington full authority over the project—but no funds. A lottery was tried but failed miserably. A capital commission tried selling off prized building lots, and a group of three speculators—led by Robert Morris, the legendary financier of the Continental Army—jumped at the chance, agreeing to buy a staggering 42% of the district's property at a fire-sale price of $1.2 million. But after years of delay and financial trickery, Morris and his partners failed to come up with the money and ultimately ended up in debtors' prison.
By 1795, George Washington's dream capital teetered on the brink of collapse. "The commissioners," writes Mr. Bordewich, "had less than $7,000 in their treasury. They had nothing to show for the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the Capitol, except muddy trenches and a shoddily built foundation."
What to do? Eventually the work of building the capital, Mr. Bordewich says, fell to "men who were hired out to the commissioners and their agents, and who were rewarded with nothing but bread, sardines, and salt pork. The capital would become, at least in part, a slave labor camp." While Congress and the president worked in the temporary capital of Philadelphia, where slavery had been abolished and a vibrant community of free blacks was taking root, slaves were building much of the new capital.
Over time, Washington persuaded Congress to finance the project and marshaled all his resources to get it back on track. "No man," Mr. Bordewich writes, "would expend more energy and political stock on the capital than he did, immersing himself in the minutiae of hiring and firing, the construction of roads and bridges, and even the pettiest financial questions."
The old general would die in December 1799. A few months later, Washington, D.C., would welcome the federal government. At the time, the city was basically a swampland with two grand buildings: the still incomplete capitol and the White House. But it was open for business, and it had made its deadline. Mr. Bordewich observes: "In spite of everything—in spite of the tainting inflection of slavery, the financial fakery, and the unfulfilled promises—the capital was a success, even of epic proportions."
It is hard to argue with such an assessment, although one wonders what L'Enfant and Washington would think of their capital today. As they walked around the area in 1791, they envisioned much of what the city would become. But they could not have imagined that its grand avenues would one day be choked off with the security checkpoints, permanent street closures and concrete barricades that scar the cityscape today. Washington may still be a unifying symbol, but it is also a symbol of something else entirely—a fearful America in a dangerous world.
Mr. Karl is senior national security correspondent for ABC News.