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Capital Stories
Washington was built largely by slaves and con men.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 18, 2008

WASHINGTON

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, 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:

"In Washington's scheme, the Potomac capital was endowed with unique potency. It was to be not just the seat of government, although it was that above all. . . . For most of a generation, Washington the man had been the living symbol of a national unity that transcended local jealousies and selfish interests. When he was gone, a new symbol that transcended one man's personal charisma must knit together the disparate people who called themselves Americans: Washington the city."

Still, it is not much short of miraculous that "Washington the city" as we know it emerged from the beginnings described by Bordewich. Because the country was just about flat broke and because, in any event, the supporters of the Potomac plan did not believe they could extract funds from Congress to build the city, they relied on private real-estate speculators -- chief among them the aforementioned Robert Morris -- to underwrite the project. Con man after con man descended on the Potomac, a few of them welcomed by the rather gullible George Washington, who was determined to force the capital into being and wasn't really all that picky about how he did so.

Money was an unending problem, and so was the work force. "Skilled workers were not interested in coming to the federal city," with good reason: In summer the heat and humidity were oppressive, and decent living quarters were nonexistent. As it developed, "slaves would be the salvation of the federal city. . . . There would be free white, and a few free black, wage earners who contributed their sweat to the creation of the capital. But much of the work that would make the city a reality would be done by men who were hired out to the [city] 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." Without these slaves, "the federal city could not have been built." Yet "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."

It is hardly surprising that Bordewich places such heavy emphasis on the role of the slaves. A freelance journalist and historian, he specializes in the history of American minorities . But what he does here is not revisionism in the name of political correctness; it is setting the historical record straight. The role played by blacks in the early development of this country has been scanted for more than two centuries -- in some instances blithely overlooked, in others deliberately ignored -- and is only recently being placed in proper perspective. Bordewich makes an important contribution to that undertaking.

One African American who contributed to the building of Washington actually has been acknowledged. He was the amateur astronomer Benjamin Banneker, whom Bordewich calls one of "the most remarkable men of his time." He assisted Andrew Ellicott of Maryland in surveying the federal district and, as Bordewich reports, eventually became the subject of "fanciful legends," among them "that he had helped to select and plan the Federal City." His "actual role was more modest," Bordewich says, but "it was rich in symbolic importance" as "a harbinger of the emerging class of men and women who were just beginning to invent the first free black communities."

Banneker is one of many fascinating characters who walk through these pages. They include Samuel Blodget, a young financier who "played Washington, Jefferson, and the commissioners like a pitchman hustling a crowd of hayseeds at a county fair"; Dr. William Thornton, a native of the British Virgin Islands, who "loved the United States with romantic abandon" and eventually worked closely with Washington; James Greenleaf, a charismatic con man who "looked more like a pampered schoolboy than a power broker" but who managed to drive Robert Morris into penury and prison with his manipulations; and Thomas Law, who "had come all the way from faraway India" and possessed what "the other speculators lacked: cash, a great deal of it." Bordewich does justice to all these people, demonstrating that the making of the capital is a story almost too incredible to be believed.

As he says, "The establishment of Washington, D.C., was, at least in part, rooted in fictions: that the Potomac was destined to become the high road to the West, that there was no better location for the seat of government, that land speculators could do for the nation what its elected officials would not, that executive privilege could shield Congress and the public from unpleasant truths, and that -- the biggest illusion of all -- slavery had little or nothing to do with putting the capital on the Potomac in the first place." Yet somehow there emerged from all this a place that became "a massive symbol that would embody the spirit of a nation that barely yet existed." As the year-round parade of tourist buses attests, it remains such a symbol today, despite the "political deceit, self-interest, and scheming ambition" that too often dominate its affairs. What George Washington would think of it now is impossible to say, but the hunch here is that he would like it just fine. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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