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 one contemporary observer called a mere swamp "producing nothing except myriads of toads and frogs (of enormous size)," a district that was strategically indefensible, captive to the politics of slavery, and a target of unbridled land speculation—our nation's capital? In Washington, acclaimed and award-winning author Fergus M. Bordewich turns his eye to the backroom deal making and shifting alliances between our Founding Fathers and in doing so pulls back the curtain on the lives of slaves who actually built the city. The answers revealed in this eye-opening book are not only surprising and exciting but also illuminate a story of unexpected triumph over a multitude of political and financial obstacles, including fraudulent real estate speculation, overextended financiers, and management more apt for a "banana republic" than an emerging world power.
In this page-turning work that reveals the hidden and somewhat unsavory side of the nation's beginnings, Bordewich, once again, brings his novelist's sensibility to a little-known chapter in American history.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Washington The Making of the American Capital
By Fergus Bordewich
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Fergus Bordewich
All right reserved.
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 . . .
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Table of Contents
Prologue The Question of the Capital 1
Chapter 1 The New Machine of Government 11
Chapter 2 Dinner at Jefferson's 31
Chapter 3 Potomac Fever 53
Chapter 4 A Cloudy Business 81
Chapter 5 The Metropolis of America 103
Chapter 6 An Alarming and Serious Time 125
Chapter 7 Irresistible Temptations 149
Chapter 8 A Scene of Distress 175
Chapter 9 The General's Last Campaign 201
Chapter 10 The Capital of a Great Nation 229
Epilogue Summer, 1814 259
Selected Bibliography 341
What People are Saying About This
A splendid and eminently readable account of both the seamy and idealistic impulses that placed our nation’s capital where it is, and an excellent reminder of the importance of land speculation in our political history from the very beginning to today.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bordewich¿s narrative about the ¿making¿ of Washington DC is quite an engaging read. Evidencing a strong critical demeanor ¿ occasionally bordering on angst ¿ the author covers the agendas and foibles of such figures as L¿Enfant, the commissioners, the speculators, and the Founding Fathers as the Potomac deal developed. Also significant is the laudable focus on the central role of African Americans ¿ free and enslaved ¿ in the building of the city. There¿s such an emphasis, in fact, that I¿m surprised this doesn¿t at least inform the book's subtitle. The inclusion of a Benjamin Banneker portrait ¿ Mt Rushmore-like ¿ alongside three of the white dudes that show up on our currency is the only tell-tale sign of Bordewich¿s serious presentation of the issues around slavery, Philadelphia¿s abolitionist milieu, and the impossibility of DC¿s realization without such forced labor. To balance his focus on this oft-ignored contribution (which, unfortunately must cope with an obvious dearth of archival documentation), Bordewich openly portrays the bumbling incompetence, graft, and/or self-interest that tended to undermine the supposed noble intentions granted to many of the original movers, shakers, and (literally) Big Wigs involved. It¿s very entertaining - I could easily imagine our contemporary political elite repeating this near-fiasco today (if only they could figure out how to collect taxes from billionaires).My only disappointment (as is typical, through not reading the book jacket description) is that ¿ after recently reading a biography about L¿Enfant ¿ I had hoped that this book would cover a longer period of Washington¿s development. I somehow thought that Bordewich would conclude with Marion Barry¿s pipe or something. But alas, the timeline is exactly the same; tons of attention to the first ten ill-fated years with a quick segue to Grant¿s decision to finally fund this damn thing once and for all. Nonetheless, this is certainly a terrific story of our Capital¿s origins.
In this book Fergus M. Bordewich chronicles the early history of the nation's capital of the U.S.A., highlighting the political struggles, sectional rivalry, backroom dealing, and big money that led to the 1790 establishment of Washington, D.C. The author discusses the people involved in the city's construction, including engineer Peter L'Enfant, African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker, and he does write about the slaves who did a majority of the heavy labor. If it was the author's intent to just write about the original choice of placement, the difficulties and corruption that took place to give the U.S.A. the capital they have now he did a good introduction and that is what I rated it on. As to the actual construction and completion of the nation's capital this book is just a look at the beginning with mention of how the completion came to be. It is a shame that the author's polemics could not have been left out of this writing.
If you've ever wondered how and why some very improbable and unwelcoming terrain on the Potomac came to be chosen in 1790 as the site for the nation's capital, this is the book for you. I approached the reading of this book with a lot of enthusiasm. I was honestly interested in learning more about the capital and how it came to be. I can't say I was disappointed with the information I received. The book is full of interesting pieces of history that paint a sometimes bleak and pessimistic canvas of our nation's founders. I was disappointed to learn some things about some of our founders. I was surprised at other times. But I was never disappointed.I was, however, slightly disappointed with the narrative itself. It wasn't bad but it also wasn't as engaging as some books I've read (1776 comes to mind). The information was there and the stories were there but I felt like I was working when I read about them. It wasn't an easy read.Still, though, I do recommend this book to anyone with a real interest in the American Revolutionary period as this book contains a lot of little tidbits you aren't likely to find anywhere else.
I had a particular interest in this book because I was born and raised in Washington. I expected some discussion of Pierre L'Enfant's design (and L'Enfant comes off very badly herein). To my surprise, This book lays bare the disgraceful fact that slavery was a huge reason behind the placement of the capital, and that information alone is worth the read. Apparently the famous statement that "all men are created equal" (from the Declaration of Independence) did not truly apply to all men, as George Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm ("All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"). This is a very dense read, but I feel that it is worth the effort for every American who wants to learn more about their country's history.
As a white male American with roots in the South dating back to 1610, when my great, ........ grandfather arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, as well as a person with Ivy League credenitals all the way to the Ph. D. in American history, I found Bordewich's book to something that I literally could not put down until it was read from cover to cover. Talk about filling-in the cracks, from L'Enfant's real role in the design of the nascent country's capitol city, to the suggestion that had the location not been in one of the slave states, the country's Civil War might well have happened much sooner, and with a very different outcome. As Dr. Larson's comment on the book jacket reads, "Every American should read this book." Amen
That is how many times I have attempted to read this book, and each time becomes more painful than the last. It's as if you accidentally entered into an argument with the author and he is repeatedly attempting to ram his opinion down your throat. I get it. You don't think George Washington was that great. I understand that slaves played a huge role in the building of our nations capital. However, do you have to go on a tangent about it for 10 pages every time you casually mention the name of someone who was a slave owner?!? If you are going to advertise your book as a history of our nations capital perhaps you should consider writing about that.