American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States
Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
THE NATION'S CAPITAL
By FRANK A. VANDERLIP
MANY generations before George Washington, as the New World Romulus, paced off in person the metes and bounds of the Federal City, the powerful Algonquin tribe of American Indians had established their capital within the confines of what is now the District of Columbia. Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas, conducted, with his eighty painted chiefs, his savage councils of war, or peaceably smoked his calumet within view of the hill destined to become the site of the forum of the Republic. Nacochtank, afterwards Latinized as Anacostan by the Jesuit fathers who accompanied Lord Baltimore to Maryland, and now called Anacostia, a suburb of Washington, was the precise location of Powhatan's wigwam capital.
The first white man to approach the seat of government of these barbarian warriors was Captain John Smith, who sailed up the "Patawomeke" in 1608. The famous adventurer only partially explored the country, the principal item in the log book of his voyage being that he found the river "full of luscious fish and its shores lined with ferocious savages."
Sixteen years later there began to appear in British publications vivid recitals of adventure in the regions bordering the Patawomeke, and alluring descriptions of the "fair and fertile" domain surrounding the ancient capital of the Algonquins. These articles were written by Henry Fleet, a daring trader, who, in search of furs, and braving the perils of capture, had gone fearlessly as an uncommissioned ambassador to the council seats of the Monahoacs, the Monacans and the Powhatans, had established trade relations with these crude inhabitants and had roamed at will through their wildernesses. "The most healthful and pleasantest region in all this country" was his characterization of that portion of Maryland embracing the district to be chosen nearly three centuries later as the seat of our national Government.
The description of this region sent to England by the intrepid fur trader attracted, in 1660, a party of emigrants who founded homes in the Maryland forests and meadows, fought or bargained for advantage with the Indians, and soon reduced to ruin the rude huts of their primitive capital. Husbandry invaded their domains and corn and wheat crops were grown. It looked as if romance had fled to remoter forests, and that henceforth that portion of the New World now the capital city of the United States would be given over to the "homely joys and destiny obscure" of emigrant farmers and their heirs.
For more than a hundred years the only record these humble settlers gave the outside world was that they had found the soil productive and that their farms were bordered by a majestic river on which white swan floated in innumerable flocks.
It was reserved for the father of the American Republic to discover that from the time of the original occupation of the region this simple colony of wood choppers and ploughmen had cherished a reputed prophecy made in 1663 that this locality would, in the course of destiny, become the renowned capital of a great nation.
To Washington and Major L'Enfant, who in an antique tavern in Georgetown met the heirs and descendants of these pioneers to negotiate the transfer of property to the Government, the strange story was told that one, Francis Pope, in the year 1663, had had a vision wherein he beheld a stately house of parliament on what is now Capitol Hill. In pursuance of this dream he had purchased that eminence and had called it "Rome," and in further keeping with his sense of divination had given to a sluggish yellow stream at the base of the hill the name of "Tiber." Pope, it was asserted, died in the faith that the wooded hill he had christened would some day be crowned with a grand edifice devoted to the deliberations of a mighty empire. Some of the more irreverent settlers, dolefully observing the continued remoteness of Pope's uninhabited "Rome" from any possible capital, derisively substituted, it was claimed, the name Goose Creek for the Tiber and denied the hill the dignity of even a colloquial title.
The Tiber still flows on, but in the obscurity of a modern sewer.
The poet, Tom Moore, who stumbled through the bogs and over the "magnificent distances" of what pretended to be a capital city in 1804, turned the story around and pictured the founders of the city reveling in burlesque dreams concerning the future of the capital, and attempting to mimic the glory of Rome and give absurd dignity to Goose Creek by naming it the Tiber.
The original maps of the city, drawn by Major L'Enfant in 1790, give both names t o the stream, a n d there has come to light a much older document, proving the groundlessness of the poet's lampoon, and giving substance to the romantic tale concerning Francis Pope and his prophecy. It is his original abstract of title and reads as follows:
"June the 5th, 1663. Layd out for Francis Pope of this Province Gentleman a parcel of land in Charles County called Rome lying on the East side of the Anacostian River beginning at a marked oak standing by the river side, the bounded tree of Captain Robert Troop and running north by the river for breadth the length zoo perches to a bounded oak standing at the mouth of a bay or inlet called Tiber . . . and now laid out for 400 acres more or less."
Whether this nomenclature in the title attests the dream of this pioneer or was adopted by him in a spirit of whimsical humor may be left to the fancy of the reader, but the fact that. 237 years ago Capitol Hill was called Rome, and a stream at its base the Tiber, gives dramatic interest to the reputed prophecy. It is one of the several beautiful traditions that impart a romantic interest to the genesis of Washington.
The record of the complicated circumstances resulting in the final location of a site for the capital is one of the most fascinating chapters in American history. The Continental Congress was a migratory body. It had no abiding capital, the exigencies of war forcing it from city to city. During the stress of the Revolution it convened its sessions at Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton and New York City.
For four years prior to the capitulation of Cornwallis, Congress had held its sessions in Philadelphia, and the city seemed destined to become the permanent capital. Public sentiment favored such selection, for the Quaker City was indentified with most of the great and far reaching acts of the American colonies. There a document of human rights, unparalleled since Magna Charta, had been signed by a company of immortals, and there the Liberty Bell had pealed forth its joyous tones for f reed oin.
Notwithstanding the splendid sentiments favoring the retention of Philadelphia as the capital, there were statesmen in that day who opposed selecting a city whose immediate interests and political strength might influence and perhaps dominate the legislation that should be national. Paris had not yet risen to override France, but London had at times shown its mastery over Parliament and the King. Some of the public men, therefore, hopeful of establishing the capital remote from the concentrated power of a great city, favored the creation of a city that should be wholly under the control of the nation.
The project might never have been accomplished but for the mutinous uprising of a body of unpaid soldiers who attempted to compel Congress by force of arms to settle their arrears. In this extremity, the Executive Council of Pennsylvania was appealed to, but declined to interfere, claiming that the State militia could not be relied upon, as its members were largely in sympathy with the revolters. In the bankrupt condition of the Treasury, however, Congress had a sure defence, and the hopelessness of further sedition served to disarm the insurrectionary band. But Congress had learned its lesson and sought a more peaceful session at Trenton.
From this time, with Congress sitting in various cities until 1790, the question of selecting a permanent site for the capital became one of the most engrossing issues before the American people. New York offered public building free; Virginia and Maryland offered to cede districts ten miles square and to furnish additional subsidies as an inducement. The advantages of Philadelphia and Baltimore were ably advanced, while Germantown, Conogocheague, Wright's Ferry, Peach Bottom and other ambitious centres sent persuasive orators into the acrimonious forum to plead their respective claims.
Contumacy, satire, hatred, envy and unreason struggled with wisdom and patriotism for nearly a decade. It was conceded by all that the American capital should be fixed as near as possible to what would remain the centre of population, but as to the location destined to enjoy the distinction there was the greatest possible conflict of conjecture. Goodhue declared that it would remain in the North for countless ages, and that when it did shift it would travel toward the manufacturing districts of New England.
Stone of Maryland argued that as the tides of humanity followed, the lines of least resistance, they would flow into the warm and fertile South.
The vast domain to the westward was not taken into the calculations of statesmen predicting the course of empire. The profoundest philosophers of the latter part of the eighteenth century were unable to grasp the transformations soon to be wrought by the application of steam. They could not dream that subsequent generations would establish a teeming civilization in the distant and unmeasured solitudes. A century later, when the eleventh census was taken, the centre of population was five hundred and twenty miles westward of the spot Congress had fixed upon as the unchanging focus of our growth. Madison alone caught a glimpse of continental possibilities, and believed that America might "speedily behold an astonishing mass of people on the western waters;" and although for that reason it might be impossible to select a site for the capital that would remain central as regards population, it was of the utmost importance to choose a point whence the knowledge of new enactments could be the most quickly disseminated throughout the land. If it were possible, he contended, to promulgate the proceedings of Congress by some simultaneous operation, it would be of less consequence where the seat of government might be established. A site along the Potomac began to be favored, as the then projected canal, now paralleling the Potomac from Georgetown to Cumberland, would afford the most convenient and rapid means of conveying to waiting citizens beyond the Alleghanies the documentary decrees of the Congress of the United States.
Could Washington and his colleagues have imagined that in a later age the tidings of the deliberations of Congress, instead of depending for transmission upon canal boats, would be flashed instantly, by the clicking of mysterious keys, to the distant shores of the continent, and even to possessions beyond the seas, the Potomac today would probably not be graced by the beautiful city of Washington.
Nearly all the members agreed that the capital should be located on some waterway communicating with the Atlantic and connected with the territory of the West. The Delaware, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and even Codorus Creek, were urged.
In the midst of the diatribes which these debates created, the unconscious comedian of the House, Thomas Vining of Maryland, delivered a speech in favor of the Potomac which became famous not for its lucidity or logic, but for the absurdities of its bombast.
Charles Dickens's comment concerning Congressional debate of a later day, that the constituents of American statesmen boasted not of what their representatives said, but of the length of time they talked, would have fittingly described the attitude of the popular mind toward the fight for the capital. Every member of both Houses had won the plaudits of his respective followers by almost endless speeches championing some locality, or devoted to arraignment of the sinister motives of opponents.
Mr. Vining's speech was a decided relief. In the first place, it was brief, and secondly, its freedom from malevolence together with its bizarre humor gave it a distinction unique in the famous controversy.
"Though the interest of the State I represent is involved in it," said he, "I am yet to learn of the Committee whether Congress are to tickle the trout on the stream of the Codorus, to build their sumptuous palaces on the banks of the Potomac, or to admire commerce with her expanded wings on the waters of the Delaware. I have, on this occasion, educated my mind to impartiality and have endeavored to chastise its prejudices. I confess to the House and to the world, that viewing the subject with all its circumstances, I am in favor of the Potomac. I wish the seat of government to be fixed there, because I think the interest, the honor and the greatness of the country require it. I look on it as the centre from which those streams are to flow that are to animate and invigorate the body politic. From thence, it appears to me, the rays of government will most naturally diverge to the extremities of the Union. I declare that I look on the western territory in an awful and striking point of view. To that region the unpolished sons of earth are flowing from all quarters, men to whom the protection of the laws, and the controlling force of the government are equally necessary; from this great consideration I conclude that the banks of the Potomac are the proper station."
Obscurity of logic and serio comic rhetoric had accomplished what solemn oratory and studied satire had failed to do, and the House, for the first time since the question of locating the capital had provoked the ambitions and hostilities of every State, joined in unanimous and jocular applause.
The Constitution adopted in 1787 gave to Congress the power to "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may by cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress become the seat of the Government of the United States." This provision served only to increase the competition. After the conflicting efforts of several States to secure the prize, a bill was passed on September 27, 1789, locating the capital at Germantown, but, pending an amendment to the bill, the Senate adjourned, and when the next session was convened both Houses had decided to change their vote.
The contest might have continued long enough to dismember the Union but for the genius of Jefferson and Hamilton, who brought about a compromise. Jefferson, in his Ana, has recorded the inside history leading to the final selection of a site for the capital. At the time Hamilton was urging the passage of his bill to have the Federal Government assume the State debts, amounting to $20,000,000. The measure was defeated in the House, and Hamilton invoked Jefferson's aid to secure a reconsideration, stating that the creditor States of the East threatened secession if their claims were not considered.
"I proposed to him," says Jefferson, "to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two and bring them into conference together, and I thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the Union. The discussion took place. It was finally agreed that whatever importance had been attached to the rejection of the proposition, the preservation of the Union and of concord among the States was more important, and that, therefore, it would be better that the vote of rejection should be rescinded, to effect which some members should change their votes. But it was observed that this pill would be peculiarly bitter to the Southern States, and that some concomitant measure should be adopted to sweeten it a little to them. There had been propositions to fix the seat of government either at Philadelphia or at Georgetown, on the Potomac; and it was thought by giving it to Philadelphia for ten years and to Georgetown permanently afterwards, this might calm in some degree the ferment which might be occasioned by the other measure alone. So two of the Potomac members, White and Lee, agreed to change their votes, and Hamilton undertook to carry the other point."
Some historians have accepted Jefferson's account as final, but others, studying the inflexible purposes of Washington, believe that a controlling power more potent than the wine and compromises at a political dinner finally secured the vote for the Potomac site. Years before, when a young lieutenant, encamped with Braddock's army on Observatory Hill, Washington had "noted the beauty of the broad plateau" on which the Capitol was destined to be reared, and had "marked the breadth of the picture, and the strong colors in the ground and the environing wall of wooded heights which rolled back against the sky, as if to enclose a noble area of landscape, fit for the supreme deliberations of a continental nation."
The loftiest minds in Congress were swayed by Washington's judgment. They agreed with him that America should establish the splendid precedent of a nation locating and founding a city by legislative enactment for its permanent capital. Furthermore, they wished to honor their first President and the great general and counsellor who had made their independence possible, by conferring upon him the power to select for this Federal city the locality he had in prophetic fancy chosen as a suitable site for the capital of the Republic.
In the act passed July 16, 1790, Congress expressed its faith in the President by permitting him to establish the capital anywhere along the Potomac between the East Branch and the Conogocheague, a distance of eighty miles. The boundaries of no other city were ever fixed by so illustrious a surveyor. It is recorded that, as he walked over the wilderness with his engineering instruments and corps, he was harassed by the "importunities of anxious residents and grasping speculators," but not for a moment did he waver in his purpose to select the site whose majesty had appealed to him in former years as a fitting environment for the Federal home. Within nine months the confines of the federal territory were established. The cornerstone was laid with appropriate ceremonies at Jones's Point, Alexandria, April 15, 1791, but the territory west of the river was retroceded to Virginia in 1846. Not a cent was advanced by Congress for buildings or grounds. In fact, with an empty treasury and no credit, Congress was unable to give financial aid.
Washington himself drew up the original agreement by which the owners were, to convey the land to the Government. The proprietors agreed that all lands necessary for streets, avenues, alleys, etc., should be surrendered free of cost. The building lots were to be equally apportioned between the Government and the individuals. For the larger plots necessary for public buildings and other government uses, the owners were to receive compensation at the rate of £25 per acre. Washington thought that by this arrangement the Government might sell the smaller lots and with the proceeds buy the large ones needed for public uses.
It is a memorable picture, that of the "Cincinnatus of the West," the renowned statesman, President, general and engineer, planting his theodolite here and there, marking the confines of the capital city, or travelling on horseback to the Georgetown tavern to discuss terms and titles with the owners of the land. The spectacle of Washington laying out the city and presiding at the laying of the cornerstone of its Capitol, appealed to the dramatic sense of Daniel Webster, who in delivering the oration on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone of the extension of the Capitol, July 4, 1851, alluded as follows to the city's illustrious founder: "He heads a short procession over these naked fields; he crosses yonder stream on a fallen tree; he ascends to the top of this eminence, whose original oaks of the forest stood as thick around him as if the spot had been devoted to Druidical worship, and here he performs the appointed duty of the day."
The planning of the city was entrusted to Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who had been a major of engineers during the Revolution, and later had proved a popular architect both in Philadelphia and New York. He studied the Potomac situation and drew up the plan of a city on so magnificent a scale that it was considered wild and chimerical. Nothing like it existed in the New World, and few cities in the Old equalled the grandeur of his projections. L'Enfant was removed before having progressed far with the work, and Andrew Ellicott of Pennsylvania was appointed in his place. But the present widely admired plan of Washington had its origin in the artistic, creative mind of L'Enfant.
In 1792, Congress voted him a sum of five hundred guineas, and deeded him a lot in Washington, as compensation for his services; but the designing of the capital city had been to him a work of art and love, and he rejected all considerations of payment. His dismissal had been brought about by his refusal to submit his plans to the Commissioners, his defence being that if his design were published speculators would seize upon the "vistas and architectural squares and raise huddles of shanties which would permanently disfigure the city."
When Madison became President, he sought to honor L'Enfant by offering him the professorship of engineering at West Point, but again the artistic foreigner declined to accept anything at the hands of the people who, he felt, had failed to appreciate the supreme effort of his genius. His final years he spent as a pensioner at the manor houses of the Digges family in Maryland. He died in the home of Dudley Digges in 1824, and was buried in the garden of the Chellum Castle Manor near Bladensburg, where today his grave is marked only by a cedar tree. Inasmuch as the great projects of L'Enfant are receiving to this day the attention of the Government, it would not be inappropriate, in the centennial year of Washington's existence, to give his remains fitting and affectionate sepulture in the city he designed.
The Commissioners, at a meeting held in Georgetown, September 8, 1791, decided to call the Federal district, "Territory of Columbia," and the Federal city, the "City of Washington." At this same meeting the method of designating the streets by letters and numbers was adopted. The name of the city has remained unchanged, but the name of the territory was afterwards changed by Congress to the "District of Columbia."
For a short time after the city was plotted, Washington enjoyed its first real estate boom, although that word was not then known. The lots sold more readily abroad than at home, and for a time brought extravagant prices in London. However, comparatively few seem to have been disposed of, and the meagre return from sales was most unfortunate because the money was badly needed to pay for the first public buildings. Finally, the President made a personal appeal to Maryland, which lent $100,000, not, however, without first securing the personal bond of the Commissioners.
The Capitol was planned by Dr. William Thornton, an Englishman, who seems to have been a man of some natural talent, but unskilled in architecture. Stephen L. Hallett, a professional house builder, also submitted specifications for the building, and there is good reason to suppose that Thornton's plans, as finally accepted, were considerably affected by Hallett's more practical drawings.
When the cornerstone of the Capitol was ready to be laid, great preparations were made for the event. Companies of militia and artillery were called out, and civic societies, public officials and many distinguished citizens were invited. With appropriate ceremonies of the military and of the Masonic order, the President deposited in the cornerstone, together with corn, wine, and oil, a silver plate bearing this inscription, which the Commisioners first ordered to be read aloud:
"This Southeast Corner Stone of the Capitol of the United States, of America in the City of Washington was laid on the 18th day of September, 1793, in the thirteenth year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the Presidency of George Washington, whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial as his military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties, and in the year of Masonry, 5793, by the President of the United States, in concert with the Grand Lodge of Maryland, several lodges under its jurisdiction, and Lodge No. 22, from Alexandria, Virginia.
DANIEL CARROL, Commissioners.
JOSEPH CLARK, R. W. G. M. P. T.
STEPHEN HALLETT, Architects.
COLLEN WILLIAMSON, M. Mason."
Two years later Thomas Twining, an English traveller who had taken an important part in laying the foundations of the Indian Empire, visited Washington, and thus describes a trip from Georgetown to Mr. Law's house at Washington:
"Having crossed an extensive tract of level country somewhat resembling an English heath, I entered a large wood through which a very imperfect road had been made, principally by removing the trees, or rather the upper parts of them, in the usual manner. After some time this indistinct way assumed more the appearance of a regular avenue, the trees here having been cut down in a straight line. Although no habitation of any kind was visible; I had no doubt but I was now riding along one of the streets of the metropolitan city. I continued in this spacious avenue for half a mile, and then came out upon a large spot, cleared of wood, in the centre of which I saw two buildings on an extensive scale, and some men at work on one of them. The only human beings I should have seen here not a great many years before would have been some savages of the Potomac, whose tribe is said to have sent deputies to treat with William Penn at the assembly he held at Chester.
"Advancing and speaking to these workmen, they informed me that I was now in the centre of the city, and that the building before me was the Capitol, and the other destined to be a tavern. As the greatest cities have a similar beginning, there was really nothing surprising here, nor out of the usual order of things; but still the scene which surrounded me, the metropolis of a great nation in its first stage from a sylvan state was strikingly singular. I thought it the more so, as the accounts which I had received of Washington while at Philadelphia, and the plan which I had seen hung up in the dining room at Bladensburg, had prepared me for something rather more advanced. Looking from where I now stood, I saw on every side a thick wood pierced with avenues in a more or less perfect state."
Sometime before this, and in answer to an advertisement by the Commissioners, James Hoban, an Irish architect, then acting as supervising architect of the Capitol, had submitted plans for a "President's House," and they had been accepted. Inasmuch as the Act of Congress creating the District decreed that the houses for Congress and the President should be ready for occupancy by the year 1800, the work on both was now carried forward vigorously. Washington, retiring to his home at Mount Vernon at the close of his second term in 797, gave over the care of the Federal city to his successor, John Adams. President Adams first appointed a new architect for the Capitol, Stephen Hallett, who resigned after holding the position for one year. George Hadfield, an Englishman, next appqinted, resigned in 1798, and left James Hoban, the supervising architect, to finish the work alone.
Congress having adjourned about May 20, 1800, to meet in Washington in November, the seat of government was removed from Philadelphia to Washington early in June of that year. The records and files of the various departments were transferred by vessels chartered for the purpose, and, as soon as possible, were put in order in the buildings to which they had been assigned. The government officials and clerks came by stage, bringing their families with them. From the records of the Treasury Department it appears that the Government met all the expenses of moving them and their household effects.
When the government officials arrived, only the north wing of the Capitol had been completed, while the Treasury Building, a plain two story structure of thirty rooms located on the site of the south front of the present edifice, was the only public building ready for the occupancy of the executive departments. Work had been begun on the War Office at the southwest corner of the White House grounds.
When Congress convened in November, little progress had been made. The few hotels and buildings of the city were so overcrowded that few of the members could secure quarters nearer than Georgetown, three miles away through mud and forest. Streets existed for the most part only on paper, and Pennsylvania Avenue, the principal thoroughfare, was really a bog lined with bushes. The only sidewalk, that from the Capitol to the Treasury, being made of stone chippings, so wounded the feet and tempers of pedestrians as to make the mud of the street preferable.
One of the few ladies to follow their husbands into "the wilderness" at this time was Mrs. Adams. To her belongs the distinction of being the first mistress to grace the President's house. The, house itself was but partially finished, and, though Congress had appropriated $6000 with which to furnish it, but little of the furniture was in place when she arrived. Mrs. Adams, however, seems to have been of a bright and cheerful disposition, for, in her letters to her daughter, she gives a more lenient account of the inconveniences and a more just view of the possibilities of the city than many of the new residents. During the short remaining period of President Adams's term, Mrs. Adams assisted her husband to receive at many formal dinners and stately functions, and under their combined influence Washington society became as polished and as exclusive as the best in other cities.
A drawback to the city's progress lay in the constant agitation for the removal of the capital an agitation that in no wise abated until in very recent times, when the railroad and the telegraph overcame "remoteness and inaccessibility," the chief grounds for complaint. The press of New York and Philadelphia united with the Northern members in declaiming against the discomforts of the infant city, and such.pressure was brought to bear that in March, 1804, a bill "to remove the seat of government to Baltimore" passed to its second reading in the Senate. However, the "Capital movers," as they came to be called, succeeded only in retarding the growth of the city. As a result, at the close of Jefferson's administration there were but five thousand inhabitants. The North spread the sarcasm that Washington was a city of streets without houses and houses without streets. The ludicrous fame of America's capital created laughter even in Europe. Foreigners after gazing at the President's house were said to peer into the woods and inquire ingenuously where the city was. The satire of Tom Moore has been mentioned. Here is his picture of Washington:
"In fancy now beneath the twilight gloom,
Come, let me lead thee o'er this modern Rome,
Where tribunes rule, where duski Davi bow,
And what was Goose Creek once is Tiber now.
This famed metropolis, where fancy sees
Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees;
Which travelling fools and gazateers adorn
With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn;
Tho' naught but wood and . . . they see
Where streets should run, and sages ought to be."
With the inauguration ceremonies of President Madison, March 4, 1809, the capital returned from Jeffersonian simplicity to the stateliness and fashion of Washington and Adams. Mrs. Madison, the charming hostess of the White House, revived the stately dinners and formal levees, and a court circle gradually grew up resplendent at balls and assemblies.
The War of 1812 had a special bearing on the history of Washington. It had been in progress almost two years when, early in the summer of 1814, rumor told of a great British armada fitting out at Bermuda, some thought to attack New York, others Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington.
On the night of August 19, 1814, a courier, dashing at full speed over the sandy roads of Maryland, drew rein for an instant at every little post town and shouted the warning note: "To arms! The British have landed at Benedict, and are marching inland. To arms! "
Then at once it was known that the city of Washington was the object of the invasion. The British forces now marching upon the city numbered 5123. They were some of Wellington's veterans, fresh from the fields of France and Spain. Opposed to them and in defence of the city, General Winder had nearly six thousand men. Only nine hundred of these were regular troops.
The attempt to resist the invasion resulted in the battle of Bladensburg, which was fought near the spot which later became famous as duelling grounds. A brief but brave defence was made, the raw and undrilled American troops being compelled to give way to the disciplined veterans who had fought with Wellington.
Washington has had its days of tragedy. Two American Presidents have been assassinated within the city, and its inhabitants shuddered at the approach of Southern armies during the Civil War. But at no other time in the history of the Federal city has there been such a moment of supreme terror as on the night of the 24th of August, 1814, when the British gave to the flames the Capitol, the President's house, the Navy Yard and the Treasury. President Madison and his Cabinet had taken refuge in flight; the frightened citizens were hurrying bewildered into Virginia when, towards sunset, General Ross and Admiral Cockburn drew up their troops on the esplanade east of the Capitol. Thus far the movement had been conducted according to the rigid etiquette of war, but the spectacle of the American capital at their mercy awoke both in officers and men the wanton spirit of revenge.
American school books have perpetuated the unique fable that the British held a mock session in the Hall of the House of Representatives; that Cockburn from the Speaker's desk, while the soldiers filled the seats, put the question: "Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?" and that, when the motion was boisterously carried, gave orders to apply the torch. The scene is an imaginary one; the tale is a piece of romance. It is the sort of historical fiction that Lamartine delighted to invent to add dramatic interest to events.
It is unnecessary to resort to imagination to make a vivid picture of the sacking of Washington. By the glare of the burning Capitol the red coats marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the President's house. The Palace, as the Federalists called it, was not palatial. The portico had not been built; what was to be the garden was a field of rocks and tree stumps; the interior of the house was crude, and the East Room, since associated with great historical events, had, since the time of Mrs. Adams, been given over to the uses of the laundry.
A second fiction connected with the British raid is that they found a great dinner spread on the President's table and in much glee and derision sat down to devour it. That tale, like the fable of the mock session at the Capitol, was given to a London paper by a merry midshipman.
At midnight a violent thunder storm checked the four conflagrations. The next day the British renewed the devastation, adding to the flames the Departments of State and War, and private buildings. But nature, as if protesting against the outrage, came to the rescue with a cyclone that drove the enemy to seek shelter.
Panic seized the combatants. On the Washington side, General Ross, perceiving Americans on the Virginia shore, set fire to the great bridge spanning the Potomac. On the Virginia side, Americans, believing the British were about to cross, simultaneously applied the torch. While the two sheets of flame rushed together, the British army left the ruined capital.
Sentiment in England was divided over the destruction of Washington. "Willingly," said the London Statesman, "would we throw a veil of oblivion over the transactions of our buccaneers at Washington. The Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the capital of America."
Other British authorities justified the ruin as a reprisal for the burning and destruction of York, the capital of Upper Canada, though that unwarranted act was the work of soldiers acting without authority, and had been generally condemned in America and publicly disavowed by General Dearborn, who commanded the expedition.
The preparations for rebuilding the city were begun before the smoldering ruins had ceased to glow. The designs of the Capitol and other public buildings were somewhat altered, but the White House, under the supervision of Hoban, the original architect, was reared on the old walls, almost a replica of the former mansion. Although the reconstruction was begun immediately, there was a continuation of the old difficulties. The question of removing the capital again became an issue, and continually hampered the work of rebuilding. However, the old buildings were slowly replaced, new ones were constructed, and the Government was soon comfortably housed. But the city itself developed with woful languor. The few attempts to beautify it failed. By 1860, there were but two or three miles of poorly constructed pavements. Most of the streets were worse than country roads. In summer the dust rose in clouds and blinded and choked those who ventured forth, while in winter the mud was so deep that at times the streets were well nigh impassable. Until 1862 there were no street railways.
Charles Dickens, who was a visitor to Washington during its period of struggle and reconstruction, drew this startling picture of the capital:
"Take the worst parts of the City Road and Pentonville, or the straggling outskirts of Paris, where the houses are smallest, preserving all their oddities, but especially the small shops and dwellings, occupied in Pentonville (but not in Washington) by furniture brokers, keepers of poor eating houses, and fanciers of birds. Burn the whole down; build it up again in wood and plaster; widen it a little; throw in part of St. John's Wood; put green blinds outside all the private houses, with a red curtain and a white one in every window; plough up all the roads; plant a great deal of coarse turf in every place where it ought not to be; erect three handsome buildings in stone and marble, anywhere, but the more entirely out of everybody's way the better; call one the Post Office, one the Patent Office, and one the Treasury; make it scorching hot in the morning and freezing cold in the afternoon, with an occasional tornado of wind and dust; leave a brick field without the bricks in all central places where a street may naturally be expected; and that's Washington."
As there were few attractions to tempt the wealthy, plain and inexpensive dwellings were mostly in evidence. During the sessions the members of Congress could hardly find suitable quarters, since the inns and hotels, with few exceptions, were of such a character that they brought forth vilification from those who were compelled to live in them. Boardinghouses were somewhat better. An old directory shows that in 1834 Senators Daniel Webster, John Tyler, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay; Representatives John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk and many other well known men of the time sought homes with private families or in semi public boarding houses. The modern method of numbering houses was not then used, and we find addresses given as follows: Henry Clay, "at Mrs. Ditty's, C Street near the corner of Four and a half"; Nathaniel Silsbee and Daniel Webster, "Boarding house of Mrs. Bayliss, opposite Central Market."
The Civil War added the final touch to the national significance of the capital. From the straggling city of seventy thousand inhabitants, those stirring times transformed it into a vast military post of two hundred and fifty thousand. In appearance the city resembled an extensive military camp and hospital. Yet when the foe did come the city was in but poor condition to withstand attack. In the summer of 1864, General Jubal Early was sent north to attack Washington, and, if possible, to divert Grant from Richmond. General Lew Wallace was then in command of the Middle Division, which included Washington. Home Guard, crippled soldiers, and Department clerks were mustered in; but in all there were not more than thirty five hundred men. General Early had by his own account ten thousand picked veterans, including nine field batteries with forty guns. At Monocacy, thirty miles from Washington, after a brave contest, the Union forces retreated in good order. At night, Early camped within ten miles of the capital; But Wallace had delayed him long enough to enable Grant to send a part of the Sixth and Nineteenth corps, and Washington was saved.
Meanwhile, work on the public buildings went steadily forward. During the war the dome of the Capitol was raised, and the Treasury and Patent Office buildings were almost completed. In 1863, the statue of Freedom was placed upon the dome with imposing ceremony, accompanied by the salutes of guns of the surrounding forts. The enormous military population during the war brought greatly increased responsibilities to the city, and a better realization of its importance to the nation. From 1860 to 1870, more noteworthy and substantial improvements were made than had been before undertaken in the whole history of the city, and the population in this single decade increased from seventy thousand to 120,000.
With the return of peace the habitual slothfulness returned, and the old do nothing policy seemed about to be resumed. But there were a few energetic citizens in whom the short period of progressiveness had instilled an unquenchable desire for a better order of things, and by their untiring energy they prevented a recurrence of the former stagnation.
One man in particular seems to have been inspired with a resistless ambition for the city's salvation. Around this person - Alexander R. Shepherd - the little body of reformers rallied their forces.
A territorial form, with a governor, legislature and delegate to Congress, was created for the District. A Board of Public Works, appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate, was created to undertake the remodelling of the city. Subsequently this Board became the pivot around which the rest of the municipal machinery revolved. Shepherd was appointed Governor, and under his guidance the Board immediately began its difficult and thankless task.
The changes which the Board wrought in the city were stupendous. The result is Washington as it is known today. The enormous expense entailed by the great reconstruction created an opposition which forced Congress to appoint committees of investigation. The extent of the Board's operations are best illustrated by the enlargement of the District's debt. The debt of the territory, which in 1871 was but three millions, had risen in 1875 to twenty millions, and of this "astounding increase only the original loan of four millions was submitted to the vote of the people, and this, at the time it was voted on, was understood to include all the main improvements necessary for remodelling the city."
Shepherd, whose master mind had directed the whole undertaking, finally left the city. When, a few years later, he returned on a visit from Mexico, his advent was celebrated by the citizens of the new and beautified capital by demonstrations of welcome so sincere and genuine, as to atone for the former lack of appreciation.
Washington today is richer in historic memories than any other city on the continent. To the literary worker and historian it is a boundless treasure house. Standing on the hills of Anacostia, and musing on the story of Powhatan's vanished capital, one may read in the surrounding spires and domes and monuments of the city the eventful story of Anglo-Saxon triumph in the Western Hemisphere. One smiles now at the satire of the poet Moore; for the morasses have indeed become parks, and imposing shrines have been built to commemorate heroes that were then unborn. In what was once the wilderness of "magnificent distances" are the palatial houses in brick and granite of men and women celebrated in letters, in art and in public life. In the galleries of the Capitol will be found the portraits and memorials of America's illustrious dead. In the State Department is to be seen the faded original of the Declaration of Independence.
The city that Washington founded has become one of venerable memories and matchless triumphs.
From the "Rome" of Francis Pope the visitor looks down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Via Sacra of the new world, whereon the men most illustrious in the annals of the Republic have walked and ridden to their public offices, and along whose historic thoroughfares the heroes of great wars have enjoyed their triumphs. Here Lafayette was received with joyous welcome when, in 1824, he returned to measure the majestic growth of the Republic during the fifty years that had passed since he and Washington were comrades in the fight for freedom. As, standing on the superb terraces on the west front of the Capitol, one views the monument, the sacred hills of Arlington, the Potomac winding towards Alexandria, which Adams predicted would become the continent's metropolis and greatest export city, the imposing declivities of old Georgetown, at whose base were once anchored merchant ships from foreign ports, there passes before the mind a vivid panorama of the history of the American people. Beauty and majesty have obliterated the infant city of a hundred years ago. The achievements of science have mocked many of the ancient prophecies. The canal, starting at Georgetown, which was to have carried the deliberations of Congress to the Western world, knows no such use, and the ships that were to crowd the Potomac are content to moor at railway termini along the Atlantic coast.
But although applied science has confounded the wisdom of a hundred years ago, the hopes and dreams of the founder of the capital have been realized. In 1798, before the Government moved to the new city, Washington wrote concerning the capital.
"A century hence, if this country keeps united, it will produce a city, though not so large as London, yet of a magnitude inferior to few others in Europe." Had Washington looked down the century and caught the gleam of the gigantic shaft that attests his glory, and the golden dome of the Congressional Library, the most superb temple ever reared to literature, or in an illumined moment beheld the Goddess of Liberty standing between Heaven and earth and symbolizing freedom for seventy five millions of people, he could not have written with loftier faith in the destiny of the Republic.
Washington is no longer the city of magnificent intentions; it is Washington the Magnificent.
Historic towns of the Southern States
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