Washington: The Making of the American Capital, by Fergus M. Bordewich, Amistad, 384 pp., $27.95
A familiar story about the creation of the nation’s capital concerns the deal that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked out with Alexander Hamilton: the city would be placed on the Potomac, where the Virginians wanted it, in exchange for their support for the federal assumption of state debts. No direct account of this bargain (which supposedly took place in 1790 over dinner at Jefferson’s house) exists, yet Fergus Bordewich, in his new book, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, chooses to narrate this episode in the present tense—the only present-tense episode in the book. Although this seems at first a dubious undertaking, Bordewich skillfully weaves into the telling a detail that underscores one of his principal arguments. In his scan of the room he takes in Sally Heming’s half-brother, Jefferson’s 25-year-old slave James, a “half-visible presence,” who “stands silently for the seven hundred thousand enslaved Americans whose future hangs in the balance tonight.”
He poignantly returns to this image toward the end of the book, when Jefferson is ascending to the presidency, walking to his inauguration at the Capitol in deliberate contrast to the pomp of his carriage-riding predecessors: “That long-ago afternoon in New York, a single enslaved servant had hovered over the table, like a ghostly asterisk marking the equivocal place of slavery in the deal that played out over dinner. Now . . . that silent presence had grown vast. Almost a million enslaved Americans walked with him.”
The city of Washington, built from scratch out of the marshy bottomlands of the mid-Atlantic, was planned from the very beginning as a living symbol of the Enlightenment, America’s unprecedented experiment in democracy laid out in three dimensions. The reality, of course, is much more complicated. Recent popular history books—such as Joel Achenbach’s The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West and Scott W. Berg’s biography of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Grand Avenues—have addressed aspects of this story. Bordewich, also the author of the impressive Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, examines succinctly and in a very accessible style how this “national temple to the secular religion of democracy” was actually created in “the shadow of slavery.”
Bordewich carries some dozen richly drawn characters through the narrative, many of whom will be welcome new voices to readers not already steeped in Washingtoniana. Familiar Founding Fathers make their appearance, though even the best-known figures, as Bordewich points out, “may seem at times like strangers when seen through the unfamiliar lens of the capital’s creation.” George Washington, for one, emerges as a micromanager; the capital’s success was inextricably twinned to his own honor and immortality. The three commissioners he picked to supervise the process were “old cronies,” members with him of the Potowmack Navigation Company who shared his vested interest in developing the city as the gateway to the West. Through all the failed land sales, and even as crops were being planted in streets that had been laid out the year before, Washington kept up a grim and determined promotion campaign. “In effect, he declared ‘mission accomplished,’” Bordewich writes (rather jarringly, as the term can’t be used now without association with our own benighted G. W.).
The essential facts of the story make it hard to believe that the capital actually came off. No federal funds were appropriated for the building of the city, which was supposed to succeed through private enterprise alone (Congress finally approved a loan bill in 1796). But there was a lack of investors, and the new city could attract no workers; the absence of skilled labor meant in the end that the capital became, “at least in part, a slave labor camp.” In 1791 there were 720 people in the district, 591 of whom were slaves. The pressure to keep the capital in Philadelphia mounted at an unbearable rate, and the president saw enemies at every turn. The tale unfolds against a backdrop of tremendous political instability within the United States and internationally. Bordewich briskly alludes to Barbary pirates, the French Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion, skirmishes on the frontier, and conflicts with England and France, and he connects how these events further complicated the construction and financing of the city.
Central to Bordewich’s story is the ambitious and easily wounded L’Enfant, who ended his days in penury, though his grandiose plan for the capital was ultimately given its due a century later. The polymath architect William Thornton turns out to have been much more than the designer of the U.S. Capitol and later the Superintendent of the Patent Office; he also busied himself resolving the crisis of slavery, hatching plans to emancipate the slaves and lead them to the west coast of Africa, to what he planned as a “model colony that would be a sort of African Philadelphia.” And the careening arcs of the three “buccaneer speculators” who were supposed to carry the district to glory and instead nearly destroyed it—James Greenleaf, Robert Morris, and John Nicholson—guide the reader through the dizzying parade of speculation schemes run amok.
Others appear more briefly, but with equal aplomb: the shy, brilliant African-American astronomer Benjamin Banneker working as a free man with the surveyor Andrew Ellicott; Samuel Blodget, “a sort of Donald Trump of the 1790s,” who “played Washington, Jefferson, and the commissioners like a pitchman hustling a crowd of hayseeds at a county fair.”
Finally, the city of Philadelphia, the temporary capital of the 1790s, Pennsylvania’s consolation prize for losing out on the permanent capital, also becomes something of a character in the book, perhaps the most vividly drawn one of all. George Washington conducts the business of the Oval Office out of a converted bathroom in a residence crammed with his family, the families of his secretaries, and his servants and slaves. During the calamitous year 1793, when the city was reeling from the arrival of boatloads of white refugees fleeing the slave revolt in Santo Domingo, the yellow fever epidemic struck, turning Philadelphia into a “vast, reeking charnal house.” Soldiers fired cannon all through the city in an attempt “to blast the miasma from the corrupted air.” (The crisis proved an unexpected boon for the city on the Potomac, which had been derided for its fetid climate but now all of a sudden seemed extremely appealing.)
In Philadelphia, the Quaker culture created a powerful abolitionist tone. The state’s gradual emancipation law of 1780 had banned the importation of slaves, though slave-holding visitors could keep their human property in the city for up to six months. (George Washington arranged with his secretary to ensure that his were rotated out of Philadelphia “under the pretext,” he explained, “that may deceive both them and the Public.”) To Southerners, placing the capital of the country in such a location was out of the question. “I would as soon pitch my tent beneath a tree in which was a hornet’s nest, as I would, as a delegate from South Carolina, vote for placing the government in a settlement of Quakers,” Bordewich quotes one congressman. Ultimately, this book argues, the problem of slavery, which dominated the 19th century and led to the death of hundreds of thousands in the Civil War, was already a pressing crisis by the 1790s and lies balefully at the heart of the creation of Washington. Philadelphia represents a myriad of roads not taken, raising questions about what kind of place America might have become had the deal gone down differently at Jefferson’s table.
Bordewich has done a remarkable job of marshaling his sources in a well-paced, compelling tale, making clear how much he owes to the scholarly labors of people like Kenneth Bowling and Bob Arnebeck, who have done so much to uncover the world of federal politics in the 1790s and the creation of the capital city. It is a talented storyteller who can take the “Receipts for Work performed” from the National Archives’s “Accounts of the Commissioners of the City of Washington, 1794–1802” and conjure up a description of a still-desolate federal city emerging from the forest: slaves baking bricks, schooners plying the Potomac with stone from the quarries at Aquia, and “draymen from George Town pilot[ing] wagons piled high with pigs’ carcasses along the muddy tracks that might one day be city streets, traveling at night to avoid spoiling the meat.” This is a vivid, vital account of the creation of the nation’s capital.