WHERE IS everybody? August wasn't supposed to be this way. Still, in 1789, when Congress met in New York City, those opposed to making a site on the Potomac the new nation's permanent capital never failed to fault the climate. It was "not only unhealthy" during the summer, "but," argued Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, "destructive to northern constitutions . . . . Vast numbers of {north}eastern adventurers have gone to the southern states, and all have found their graves there. They have met destruction as soon as they arrived."

Back on the Potomac, boosters began a campaign to convince the nation that no place in America was healthier. Even after back-room deals settled the matter, the campaign continued and proved so successful that by the end of the 1790s, the City of Washington, the 700 or so houses spread over 4,000 acres between the river and today's Florida Avenue, was deemed a boon spot for rusticating away the hot summer.

In 1800 the Georgetown Centinel predicted that for years to come, no city in the world would afford a more pleasant residence in the months of July and August.

"The intense heats of the season," it explained in a July article, "actually remind us of the immense superiority which the City of Washington will enjoy, even when it shall become populous, over every other city, perhaps, which ever existed, in its numerous open grounds and the noble spaciousness of its streets and avenues. These are advantages in point of health and pleasantness which come home to the feelings . . . ."

Not everyone fell for that. The newly arrived Treasury secretary, Oliver Wolcott, assured his wife that the landowners of Washington were insane. But there was method to their madness. Since 1789, when Sedgwick worried about instant death for northerners who ventured south, several northern cities, including New York and Philadelphia, had suffered through yellow fever epidemics. In 1793, 1797, 1798 and 1799, the federal government fled its temporary home in Philadelphia to escape the disease, which ravaged the city from August to November. In those four years some 10,000 Philadelphians were said to have died from the fever. The mosquitoes' role in spreading the disease had not been discovered. What passed for science then blamed bad air.

As death tolls mounted, the promoters of Washington broadcast to the nation that their city was "remarkably healthy." A report on a census taken in the capital in August 1793 boasted that there had not been a death in the city in six months -- and that most of the 820 citizens were new arrivals. Indeed, "the climate agrees with their constitutions, and they enjoy in this city equal if not superior health to what they have experienced in any part of the continent."

Agents trying to steer English emigrants to the city warned them that Philadephia "in point of climate was very unfriendly to an European constitution." Even Americans "avoided the dreadful spot." Washington's climate however "is grateful to Englishmen, and seems to invite them to partake of its salubrity; if we may judge of the uninterrupted state of health they enjoy after once feeling its invigorating influence."

In the summer of 1795, when there were a number of deaths in the city from malaria, crews at the Capitol were so sick that brickmaking stopped. City promoters simply did not publish a census that year. And no one else took much notice because a handful of deaths from malaria was commonplace in the United States as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as the Mississippi. William Cranch, a young lawyer from Massachusetts who came to the city, assured his worried mother that while some had the "bilious fever" and many had "the fever and ague, the number of deaths has been remarkably small . . . ." Citing the fall fevers as far north as Newburyport, Mass., not to mention yellow fever in Baltimore and New Haven, Cranch thought the federal city rather healthy. In 1800 he would tell his aunt, First Lady Abigail Adams, that the city was "without any comparison, more healthy than Philadelphia, New York, or even Boston, and infinitely more agreeable."

Cranch happened to be working for a man who owned many lots south of the Capitol along New Jersey Avenue. Born in England, Thomas Law had made his fortune as an East India Company bureaucrat along the Ganges River. He was no stranger to heat and humidity. Future town boosters might deem April the best month to feature on the city's calendar, but Law promoted August. On Aug. 17, 1796, he hosted a dinner for President George Washington in his newly completed house at the foot of New Jersey Avenue not far from the Anacostia River. A guest who missed it was envious and assured Law that "it is happy for you to be out of large town this season for the heats are intolerable in Philadelphia and here {Baltimore}."

In August 1799, Law dashed a note off to George Washington bragging about the poets, actors and artists visiting his New Jersey Avenue salon. Congress and the federal government moved to the city in 1800, and Law outdid himself in trying to dazzle all with a gala August. He had the best theater troupe in the nation on hand to give performances in a hall fashioned out of an unfinished hotel at 8th and E Streets NW. He got the Marine band to play outdoor concerts.

Thanks to Law's pro-August propaganda, no bureaucrat or congressmen came to the city expecting to die, not even Theodore Sedgwick who was then speaker. Unfortunately there was barely enough housing for the newcomers. The city had open spaces purifying the air, but some boarding houses had four men sleeping in one small room. And then July and August proved to be the hottest in living memory. General James Wilkinson, a native Marylander who had served in the Mississippi Territory, exclaimed that "the heat here for a few days past has exceeded my experience, and unhinged all my faculties rational and sensual." What really spelled the doom for Washington's gala Augusts was the arrival of politicians. The men trying to sell city lots no longer controlled the social season. President Thomas Jefferson had an aversion to spending the months of August and September "on tidewater." That eliminated New York, Philadelphia and Washington, where the tides ran up past Georgetown. In his eight years in office, Jefferson left the city in late July, not to return until October.

Law ran out of gas anyway, and not surprisingly. Too much entertaining in August always takes its toll. He had rowed too many ladies out on the still waters of the Anacostia River. His wife, Martha Washington's granddaughter, had charmed too many men with her seasonable de'colletage. In August 1803, he had to go to England to raise money to save his foundering Washington investments. She was seen too frequently in the company of Marine officers. When he returned in 1804, they separated. She wanted a farm. He dropped out, for a few years, in New England. August in Washington has never been the same.

Bob Arnebeck's book "Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790 to 1800" will be published in January by Madison Books.