Making The March King
John Philip Sousa's Washington Years, 1854-1893
By Patrick Warfield
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
A Capital Boyhood
There is no truth to the rumor that John Philip Sousa was born in England as Sam Ogden and immigrated to the United States with luggage bearing his initials and destination: "S. O., U.S.A." This popular story, which continues to be heard even today, was the work of Sousa's most ambitious press agent, Colonel George Frederick Hinton. Never one to let a good gimmick go to waste, Hinton varied his tale as the Sousa Band made its way across America and around the globe. During the ensemble's travels he created musicians with names such as S. Oulette, Sigismund Ochs, and John Philipso. The goal, of course, was twofold. For some in the audience these names would evoke the musical pedigree of Europe, and for others they could serve as reminders that despite his royal designation, the March King remained one of them: the hard-working child of even harder-working immigrants. Along the way Sousa simultaneously became both musical genius and local son, and in his 1928 autobiography the conductor admitted: "This more or less polite fiction, common to society, has been one of the best bits of advertising I have had in my long career."
At the height of his fame—from the late 1890s to the early 1920s—Sousa was as much a theatrical entertainer as he was a musician, and in the former role he worked ceaselessly to manipulate both his audience and the press. As the band reached town, so, too, did the character of the March King, who happily continued Hinton's efforts to endear himself to local audiences by leading community ensembles, programming the works of resident composers, and complimenting the cultural sophistication of his hosts. Along the way, polite fictions could prove magnificently useful. In Sousa's many interviews the same half-truths, embellished stories, and moral parables appear time and again. This plethora of tall tales should not be terribly surprising: the March King was, after all, a character, and John Philip Sousa wrote the drama in which he played. From the beginning of his professional life to the height of his international fame, Sousa was a storyteller whose tales unfolded during the drama of a march, in the spectacle of a concert, and between the pages of his many books, essays, and libretti. Sousa the storyteller did not spring onto the podium at Manhattan Beach fully formed, however. Rather, his origins can be found in the musical life of the city in which his parents settled and where he was born.
BEYOND THE MARBLE
In 1790 a site just below the fall line of the Potomac River was finally selected for the establishment of a new American capital. The city would encompass two existing ports: on the northeastern side of the river was Maryland's Georgetown, and southwest, across the Potomac, was Virginia's Alexandria. These two small cities were ceded by their respective states, along with valuable farmland and some less desirable swamp, to form the ten-mile-sided diamond called for by the founders. By late 1800, John Adams was able to take up residence in the Executive Mansion and Congress could convene in the unfinished Capitol.
It was widely assumed that the site of the federal government would quickly develop into a center for American commerce, but difficulties were apparent almost from the start. In an effort to prevent the appearance of financial impropriety on the part of the Virginia property owner George Washington, Congress passed a law in 1791 that limited construction of federal buildings to the Maryland side of the river, effectively excluding Alexandria from participation in the federal government. The Organic Act of 1801 established a system of county and city authorities that further divided the district. Worse still, many of Washington's most prominent inhabitants were temporary residents with little attachment to the city and thus were slow to encourage its improvement. As the nineteenth century began, sewage from federal office buildings emptied toward the national mall to create a fetid marsh that threatened epidemics of dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. In 1815 the newly arrived Representative Elijah Mills would tell his family, "It is impossible for me to describe to you my feelings on entering this miserable desert, this scene of desolation and horror.... I can truly say that the first appearance of this seat of the national government has produced in me nothing but absolute loathing and disgust."
The decades before the Civil War placed further strain on the national capital. The economy of Alexandria, where residents were already feeling both geographically and politically isolated, was further threatened by calls for abolition in the Virginia State Assembly. The port was a major player in the American slave trade, and in an effort to neutralize more progressive voices, some residents lobbied for a return to state control. They were successful in 1847, just in time to avoid the Compromise of 1850, which outlawed the slave trade (although not slavery itself) within the now geographically reduced District of Columbia.
The census of 1850 revealed fewer than fifty-two thousand residents in the capital, and this number was further reduced during summer months when malaria-carrying mosquitoes encouraged many to flee for cooler climes in the Appalachian Mountains. Mid-century Washington was, in many ways, a city still unfinished. A stroll from the White House to the Capitol took one along muck-filled streets that turned into dusty paths in the summer's heat; livestock grazed in an open pasture where politics and economics seemed to have permanently stalled construction of the Washington Monument; and the grandeur of carefully planned avenues and federal buildings stood in stark contrast to the squalid row houses and scattered hotels they dwarfed.
Despite this fit of half-finished endeavors, however, Washington was the eighteenth-largest urban area in the United States. It was also growing fast: over the course of the 1850s, the population swelled by more than 40 percent to seventy-five thousand. The stability of the federal government helped the city weather the financial panic of 1857, and with the threat of war Congress sought to endow the capital with signs of impregnable strength and unshakable unity. Major improvements were made to City Hall and the Patent Office, and work began to enlarge the Capitol Building and construct its towering dome. Such gestures of grandeur were matched by more humanitarian efforts. The Soldiers' Home opened to needy veterans in 1851, and Dorothea Dix managed to establish the humane Government Hospital for the Insane in 1855. A new system began to provide running water to public fountains at the end of the decade, and soon thereafter it would start delivery to individual residences. Smaller but equally valuable improvements could be found in the installation of gaslights and street signs. All told, as the Civil War approached, Washington was a burgeoning city, growing in population, transforming farmland into urban spaces, and strengthening community ties.
THE SOUSA FAMILY
The city into which the Sousa family moved in 1854 was vitally optimistic, and their eldest son would find it a remarkable playground to be explored from his home in the southeast corner. But while Sousa may have been well acquainted with his geographic surroundings, he seems to have known very little about his own family prior to their arrival in the capital. The adult Sousa readily admitted that his father "never let us know—and if he told Mother, she kept her own counsel—just what his standing was in the Old World." In any case, he may have been correct in imagining himself part of an "illustrious line of ancestral Sousas," since the name dates back to the earliest years of the Portuguese Empire. Sousa was always happy to draw an abundance of familial connections before an eager press, making links to the sixteenth-century governor of Goa, Martim Afonso de Sousa, to a governor-general of Brazil, Thome de Sousa, and to the seventeenth-century historian Manuel de Faria e Sousa. John Philip even suggested that his own given name derived from Portuguese history because prior to that country's renewed independence in 1640, a Sousa serving as chief justice delivered opinions in the name of King Philip of Spain. The same jurist abandoned Philip after independence in favor of the new king, John. America's future March King thus claimed to have taken his name from the two early seventeenth-century monarchs of his ancestral homeland.
It seems clear that Sousa's paternal grandparents left Portugal for Spain sometime during the Liberal Revolution of 1820. His father, John Antonio, was born soon thereafter, probably in Seville in late September 1824. Antonio's path to the New World was a meandering one, and family stories suggest that he spent time in Italy before crossing the Atlantic as a translator for the British Navy. He may have seen military service in Brazil, and perhaps during the Mexican-American War, before finally settling in New York in the 1840s.
Sousa's mother, Marie Elisabeth Trinkaus, was born on May 20, 1826, in the village of Fränkisch-Crumbach, then part of the grand duchy of Hesse. She immigrated to the United States in August 1849 and shortly thereafter met Antonio, probably in Brooklyn. The two were married soon thereafter, and their first child, Catherine Margaret, arrived on December 6, 1850. A second daughter, Josephine, was likely born in late 1852.
As Sousa would later recall, "my mother was not the least musical," and the sounds my father extracted from his trombone and cornet were awful!" Nonetheless, Antonio managed to build a career as a musician, something he took to only "by chance, not for love of it, but as a means to make a necessary living." Antonio's reputation as a trombonist must have been reasonably good, for in March 1854 the commandant of the United States Marine Corps ordered Major John Reynolds to "enlist a Musician by the name of Antonio Sousa and send him to Head Quarters." The young couple and their two daughters arrived in Washington later that month.
Horse-drawn carriages would not provide regular service until 1862, and so Washington, like other cities its size, developed a geography based on neighborhood employment and housing. Shortly after arriving in Washington, the Sousa family found a home not far from the marine barracks where Antonio would work, and their address at 636 G Street SE placed them squarely within the Navy Yard neighborhood. Situated on the western bank of the Anacostia River (then known simply as the Eastern Branch), the area was well hidden from ships approaching from the Potomac two miles to the south. When the city was first laid out, this unseen corner proved an ideal defense for the new capital, and it soon became a center for American shipbuilding. The yard was burned in 1814 to prevent its capture by British forces, and as the river proved too shallow for modern shipbuilding, the facility was reconstructed to manufacture ordnance and anchors.
The city's mid-century civic improvements brought a heightened demand for skilled labor, and the Navy Yard soon became one of the district's best employers, a haven for black and immigrant workers. But in addition to these carpenters, bricklayers, and blacksmiths, the Navy Yard was also home to an unusually large number of musicians. The presence of these players can be accounted for by the nearby marine barracks, home of the United States Marine Band. When Antonio Sousa moved into the neighborhood to join that ensemble he was hardly alone, and one writer later suggested that the Navy Yard "was a sociable neighborhood, and a man was a man even though he played a saxophone. Of course, that's going pretty far."
In his new neighborhood the elder Sousa strove for assimilation. According to his son, Antonio "came from Seville, and was born in America some twenty-five years later." While the Catholic Antonio found a spiritual home at St. Peter's Church on nearby Capitol Hill, his Protestant wife sought to retain her Germanic heritage. In 1860, 20 percent of the district's free residents identified themselves as foreign-born. Numbering about seven thousand, Irish immigrants constituted the city's largest European ethnic group, with the German-speaking states contributing about half that number. Many of these immigrants—Irish and German—settled near the confluence of the Potomac River and Rock Creek in a neighborhood known as Funkstown (now Foggy Bottom). The area took its name from Jacob Funk, who in 1765 tried to establish a port capable of competing with Georgetown and Alexandria. Although his commercial endeavors failed, Funk's neighborhood, which he called Hamburgh, survived as one of the city's oldest settlements. Among Funk's first acts was the establishment of a church at the corner of what would later become 20th and G Streets. A new building was constructed in 1833, and it was here that Elisabeth Sousa found a German-speaking congregation.
In their house on G Street the Sousas suffered their first tragedy, the death of their younger daughter, Josephine, in November 1854. But it was also here that their first son, John Philip, was born on November 6, 1854. He was baptized by the Reverend Samuel D. Finckel at his mother's church on November 26, and soon thereafter the entire family began attending services at Christ Episcopal Church on G Street, just a few steps from their home.
Over the course of the next few years the Sousa family would occupy several properties, all within a few blocks of each other. Early in 1855 they moved west on G Street to a modest brick house between Fifth and Sixth Streets, and it was probably here that Ferdinand M. Sousa was born and died in 1857. In 1856 they had purchased but had not built upon a lot just to the east of the marine barracks. On April 30, 1858, Antonio purchased an L-shaped lot at the corner of Seventh and E Streets, where he built the home he and his wife would share until their deaths. It was also here that several additional children joined the Sousa family: Rosina (1858–60), George Williams (1859–1913), Annie Francis (1863–65), Mary Elisabeth (1865–1940), Antonio Augustus (1868–1918), and Louis Marion (1870–1929). Sousa was correct when he stated, "My parents were absolutely opposed to race suicide and were the authors of a family of ten children," six of whom survived to adulthood. John Philip does not seem to have been close to any of his siblings, and in his autobiography he mentions only his oldest sister, Catherine, who helped raise him.
A WASHINGTON EDUCATION
In 1983 the historian Neil Harris suggested that Sousa's biography seemed to have "no buried secrets" and "no squalid episodes to shock admirers or provoke defenders." This morally upright March King was also plainly evident to his contemporaries. Sousa's one-time road manager William Schneider remembered the bandmaster as "one trying diligently to be the most honorable man who ever walked on the face of the earth." This image of a scandal-free entertainer may well reflect reality, but truthful or not, such a wholesome reputation was clearly a carefully planned part of the March King's public persona. In Sousa's autobiographical statements, the roots of this idealized identity could be traced to his boyhood in the Navy Yard. Time and again, Sousa used his childhood to present a mythology of a youth well spent, one in which boys "toted a gun as soon as they were old enough to shoot" and the ability to "sit out all day in the sun fishing" was a requirement for obtaining social status.
In Sousa's stories he is often accompanied by his father, who along the way imparted bits of wisdom to his eager son. The resulting tales of sport, adventure, and parental bonding would later prove useful to creating a masculine, accessible, and upstanding March King. Indeed, Sousa's recollections of a happy and strenuous boyhood must have been well known to his fans, because they are repeated in his autobiography, in many articles, and in endless interviews. Along the way, nearly every adventure leads to some sort of moral epiphany, and the lessons learned were always the same: hard work would result in just success, while laziness was sure to be punished by failure. As a result, the youthful biography so well known to Sousa's audience was one in which the District of Columbia provided a vast laboratory of physical and moral development and in which a boy's father acted as his most important tutor. Sousa's Washington thus seems hardly a real place but rather a nostalgic world where a father could teach his son the value of physical strength, the worth of moral diligence, and the importance of striving ambition. Sousa had no trouble crediting his success to these very traits, and in 1921 he explained to his faithful readers, "One of the most necessary concomitants of adaptability, talent or genius is capacity for work, hard grinding and never-ending work." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Making The March King by Patrick Warfield. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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