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Washington: How Slaves, Idealists, and Scoundrels Created the Nation's Capital

Washington: How Slaves, Idealists, and Scoundrels Created the Nation's Capital

by Fergus Bordewich

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Washington, D.C., is home to the most influential power brokers in the world. But how did we come to call D.C.—a place once described as a mere swamp "producing nothing except myriads of toads and frogs (of enormous size)," and which was strategically indefensible, captive to the politics of slavery, and the target of unbridled land speculation—our


Washington, D.C., is home to the most influential power brokers in the world. But how did we come to call D.C.—a place once described as a mere swamp "producing nothing except myriads of toads and frogs (of enormous size)," and which was strategically indefensible, captive to the politics of slavery, and the target of unbridled land speculation—our nation's capital? In Washington, acclaimed, award-winning author Fergus M. Bordewich turns to the backroom deal-making and shifting alliances among our Founding Fathers to find out, and in doing so pulls back the curtain on the lives of the slaves who actually built the city. The answers revealed in this eye-opening book are not only surprising but also illuminate a story of unexpected triumph over a multitude of political and financial obstacles, including fraudulent real estate deals, overextended financiers, and management more apt for a banana republic than an emerging world power.

In a page-turning work that reveals the hidden and unsavory side to the nation's beginnings, Bordewich once again brings his novelist's eye to a little-known chapter of American history.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Bordewich (Bound for Canaan) depicts how some improbable and unwelcoming terrain on the Potomac came to be chosen in 1790 as the site for the nation's capital. Bordewich likewise narrates the graft, inefficiencies and myriad injustices that went into the design of the new capital and the construction of the first state buildings. As the author emphasizes, slavery affected everything about the genesis of Washington: the politics of selecting a site that was nominally Southern to placate Jeffersonian Democrats; the construction of such buildings as the White House and the Capitol-projects that exploited slave labor. Bordewich also reveals the backroom politics wherein the conservative Northern Federalist Alexander Hamilton made a deal regarding federal fiscal policy and the siting of the so-called "Federal Territory." Bordewich is especially strong in painting portraits of such memorable characters as city planner Peter Charles L'Enfant as well as the brilliant black mathematician, astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who did essential work on the first survey of the city, along with various piratical speculators whose greed nearly sank the grand project more than once. In sum, Bordewich tells a fascinating tale, and tells it well. (May 6)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Bordewich (Bound for Canaan) and Standiford, each with his own emphasis and style, offer fresh perspectives on the early history of Washington, DC. Bordewich, a freelance journalist, offers a substantially more well-rounded and comprehensive story, explaining in satisfying detail how the city's site was chosen and how political scheming, personal conflicts, and greed almost doomed the project of designing and constructing a capital city from scratch. Two themes are woven throughout his narrative: the important but often overlooked role played by slaves and former freed slaves and the constant North-South debate at the root of the bitter dispute over the capital's locale; the chosen site bore both symbolic and practical importance. Bordewich introduces readers to the key players: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker, intractable and ill-fated architect and city planner Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the city's triumvirate of commissioners, and a host of pernicious financial speculators. Their contributions, both helpful and detrimental, are thoroughly documented. The convoluted political and financial details occasionally bog down an otherwise engaging work of popular history.

Standiford (director, creative writing program, Florida Intl. Univ.; Last Train to Paradise), who has published both fiction and nonfiction, gives us a work far more colorfully written but omitting or downplaying many important facets and details of the project. Banneker and slavery are all but overlooked, and the greedy and incompetent speculators get but scant mention in an entertaining but incomplete account. Yet Standiford has a novelist's gift forengaging, briskly paced narration, and his chronicle, as far as it goes, is scrupulously researched. He focuses on the early successes and eventual failure of L'Enfant, one of the more complex and fascinating characters of the era. The flamboyant Frenchman headed the city's planning and construction until his controversial dismissal midway through the project. Standiford explains how the architect's fiscal incompetence and, more notably, stubbornness and indestructible ego doomed a promising career. He also recounts the 1814 destruction of much of Washington, DC, by invading British soldiers, but his title is largely metaphorical as the bulk of his book concerns the tumultuous relationships between L'Enfant and his superiors. These two quite different volumes complement each other well. Both are recommended for public and academic libraries, but libraries seeking just one book on the early history of the city will be better served by Bordewich.
—Douglas King

Kirkus Reviews
Bordewich (Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, 2005, etc.) chronicles the painful creation of America's capital city. The early republic was "a crazy quilt of state jurisdictions," writes the author, teetering on the brink of financial default and anxious about whether the new constitutional system would work. New York was capital by default, but the selection of a permanent site became a burning question. Seen by the world as "a measure of the young nation's strength," the capital should be a "Metropolis of America," not only the seat of government, but also the nation's greatest port and center of commerce-and of course completely unlike opulent European courts. Philadelphia was such a city, but it was a hotbed of abolitionists, freedmen and Quakers. Thanks to the constitutional compromise that considered each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of population counting, the South had a disproportionate say in where the capital would be located. Backdoor machinations by Treasury Secretary Hamilton and slaveholding Founding Father Madison over dinner with Jefferson resulted in a deal for a permanent national home on the banks of the Potomac. President Washington coordinated fundraising and construction (deadline 1800) and found in French-American engineer Peter Charles L'Enfant someone who shared his lofty vision of an imperial city. Bordewich skillfully depicts the personalities involved, including William Thornton, who designed the Capitol, and surveyor Andrew Ellicott's African-American assistant Benjamin Banneker. The author's considerable knowledge of America's racial history helps him paint a comprehensive portrait of themomentous task achieved by black laborers, who could not share in the glory of the city they were building. A work of admirable, if digressive, breadth, examining the endurance of the nation's dream, even after the British pillaged Washington in 1814. Agent: Elyse Cheney/Elyse Cheney Agency

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Washington The Making of the American Capital
By Fergus Bordewich
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Fergus Bordewich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060842383

Chapter One

The New Machine of Government

"The climate of the Patowmack is not only unhealthy, but destructive to northern constitutions. Vast numbers of eastern adventurers have gone to the Southern states, and all have found their graves there."
—Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts

Federal Hall, home to the newly minted United States Congress, was inseparable from its designer, the picturesque Major Peter Charles L'Enfant, late of the Continental Army, architect extraordinaire, émigré, and a figure almost as recognizable to New York's elite as President Washington himself. For months, his tall, fastidious figure had prowled around the old city hall on Wall Street, examining its eighty-year-old brickwork, muttering to himself in French, or his syntactically challenged English, imagining—where others saw merely a tired old workhorse of a building—a blank canvas upon which to paint an architectural epic.

Few men were more in demand by the belles of New York than the celebrated L'Enfant. He was no one's idea of handsome, but his beaky face was more than compensated for by the Gallic panache that he brought to the glittery whirl of society. There was, it was true, a certain "haughtiness," an edgy volatility, to his otherwise impeccable manners, but people were willing to make allowances. Hewas after all, well, French, not to mention a favored confidant of the political luminaries who had come together here in the temporary capital on the Hudson. L'Enfant had grown up the son of a professional painter of battle scenes, in the incandescent glow of the court of Louis XV. Like his compatriot the Marquis de Lafayette, he volunteered to fight for American independence, arriving in 1777 with a shipment of guns and ammunition, a knack for making useful friends, and a most unmilitary education from the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. During the brutal winter at Valley Forge, he entertained his shivering fellow officers with his sparkling conversation and pencil sketches, winning the attention and later the patronage of George Washington and his aide Alexander Hamilton. Hypersensitive though L'Enfant could be, he proved himself under fire to be a soldier of considerable courage, when he was seriously wounded storming the British fortifications at Savannah: in later years, he would often have to rely on laudanum to control the pain. Imprisonment by the British further gilded his patriotic credentials, which would shield him again and again from the consequences of his personality.

After the war, having become a citizen and changed his name from Pierre to the more American-sounding Peter, L'Enfant developed a lucrative career as New York's most sought-after architect. He remodeled the interior of St. Paul's church, planned a vast (though never built) park that would have stretched from New York's present City Hall to Greenwich Village, and staged a famously extravagant procession on the eve of New York's adoption of the Constitution, featuring along with much other exotica, a pretty eight-year-old boy dressed as Bacchus, a contingent of furriers made up to resemble Indians in sweltering animal skins, and a model frigate—christened the Hamilton—mounted on wheels and firing salvos from its two cannon as it was tugged through the streets of Manhattan. Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, Alexander Hamilton, who was now the secretary of the treasury, soon afterward invited L'Enfant to design the country's first coins and medals.

However, it was L'Enfant's transformation of city hall into Federal Hall, the seat of Congress and an icon of patriotic spirit, that cemented his reputation as the architectural laureate of the republic. Already redolent with history—in 1735 the printer John Peter Zenger had been tried there in a case that became a landmark of press freedom, and in 1765 delegates from the colonies had met there to denounce the Stamp Act—the dowdy structure faced south down a gentle slope, diagonally across from the present-day New York Stock Exchange. New Yorkers fairly swooned at the stylishness of L'Enfant's redesign. He erased the old Queen Anne facade and in its place erected an architectural paean to classical Rome, whose fashionable motifs served as a universal visual code for Enlightenment idealism and republican politics. Where the two wings of city hall had flanked an open courtyard, he erected a lofty balcony framed by four austere Doric columns topped by a triangular pediment where, instead of the muscled gods of the ancient world, Americans found an image of their own native eagle from which radiated the rays of the sun, proclaiming the dawn of a new age. The interior was no less impressive. The twenty-two-member Senate met in a chamber on the second floor, adjoining the "machinery room," where models of inventions were displayed. The sixty-five-member House of Representatives, regarded at the time as the more powerful of the two bodies, occupied a richly decorated, two-story octagonal chamber that opened off the central vestibule. So proud were New Yorkers of the government's new home that one popular theatrical production dramatized a mock-up of Federal Hall descending from the clouds while an actor costumed as the "genius of Columbia" poetically hailed it as a sacred temple of liberty and virtue. (To be sure, there were a few dissenters: puritanical Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay regarded the "vamped up Jimcrackery and Gingerbread" of L'Enfant's design as an insult to Congress.)

New York was the country's temporary capital more or less by default, Congress having come to rest there in 1785 after repeatedly failing to agree on a permanent seat of government. By European standards, the city was little more than an overgrown town, extending barely twenty blocks north from the Battery before petering out amid swamps and meadows. The Revolutionary War and the long British occupation had taken a heavy toll: hundreds of buildings had burned, commerce had come to a halt, and many of the most affluent citizens had gone into exile. Fortifications still scarred the suburbs. But after years of stagnation, the city was now coming back to life. In the past five years alone . . .


Excerpted from Washington by Fergus Bordewich Copyright © 2008 by Fergus Bordewich. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of several books, including Bound for Canaan, Killing the White Man's Indian, and My Mother's Ghost, a memoir. The son of a national civil rights leader for Native Americans, he was introduced early in life to racial politics. As a journalist, he has written widely on political and cultural subjects in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, American Heritage, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Reader's Digest, and many other publications. He was born in New York City, and now lives in New York's Hudson River Valley with his wife and daughter.

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