Jonathan Yardley

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 18, 2008


The Making of the American Capital

By Fergus M. Bordewich

Amistad. 367 pp. $27.95

This city, which for many years has sat confidently if not downright arrogantly atop the world, came into being in circumstances that scarcely suggested it would ever reach such pre-eminence. Washington, D.C., was born against stupendous odds and great resistance, in what Fergus Bordewich calls "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." Thus "the story of its creation is . . . a kind of national parable, embodying the central contradiction of America, persisting even today, between noble intentions and the sordid realities of power."

The establishment of a national capital on the banks of the Potomac was narrowly and reluctantly authorized by Congress in the summer of 1790, with the stipulation that "the government's most important buildings -- a meeting hall for Congress and the president's mansion -- must be erected and the new capital made ready for occupancy by its officials no later than December 1800."

Time after time during the ensuing decade that deadline lay so far out of reach that the city to be known as Washington "more than ever seemed likely to become a symbol of collective failure, rather than heroic national purpose." Less than halfway through that decade, "the entire project rested on a quicksand of facile promises, rapidly dwindling funds, and unsecured credit." A "complete collapse" was a real possibility, in which the capital almost certainly would have remained in its temporary home, Philadelphia, for years if not forever.

The "intense political struggle" from which Washington emerged was, like so much else in the republic's early years, essentially sectional. The slaveholding Southern states were adamantly opposed to locating the capital anywhere north of Maryland. Slaveholding still was common in the North at the time, and the abolitionist movement had yet to emerge, but Northern sentiment was gradually turning against slavery, especially in Philadelphia, where many free blacks resided and where Quaker voices were strong. Slaveholders feared that, should the national capital be established in such an environment, Congress and the executive branch would come under intense pressure to limit or even abolish slavery.

Opposition in the North had less to do with slavery than with economics and geography. Powerful forces led by the financier and senator from Pennsylvania Robert Morris fought for a location in Pennsylvania, believing that the nation's capital was bound to be an economic engine wherever it was situated. There was also strong sentiment in the North against the climate of the Potomac region. The "eminent young doctor Benjamin Rush, a partisan of Philadelphia," expressed the feelings of many when he warned Congress that the Potomac was a place "where Negro slaves will be your servants by day, mosquitos your sentinels by night, and bilious fevers your companions every summer and fall, and pleurisies every spring."

Pennsylvania and its allies seemed to have won agreement to locate the capital somewhere along the Susquehanna River, but then a compromise struck by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison turned everything around. Hamilton, who as secretary of the treasury was trying to straighten out the young country's chaotic finances, wanted the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states. Jefferson opposed that step as an unwonted extension of the federal powers he so passionately detested, and Madison "had the votes to block Hamilton's assumption plan indefinitely." In a private dinner, the three found common ground:

"The sweetener was to be the national capital. Madison promised to provide at least three votes for Hamilton's assumption plan, guaranteeing its passage. In return, Hamilton agreed to urge his friends not to stand in the way of the capital's establishment on the Potomac. Twisting the knife of compromise yet deeper, the Virginians forced Hamilton to agree to favorably recalibrate Virginia's debt, ensuring that assumption would cost them nothing, and that they could also proclaim that they had won the capital for the South."

This decision made no one happier than the first president of the United States, the man for whom the new capital eventually was named. Not merely did George Washington want the capital on the Potomac, he also "was determined to place the capital close to the Eastern Branch, today known as the Anacostia River, virtually across the Potomac from his own estate at Mount Vernon." Washington believed that the Potomac was fated to be the essential connection between the Atlantic and the rapidly growing West -- he didn't know, or more likely didn't want to know, that for most of the year much of the Potomac is unnavigable -- and "he stood to make a great deal of money" from a capital on the Potomac, a useful reminder that the motives of the Father of His Country were not always pristinely patriotic. Still, his overarching concern was for the common good:

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