The Capital City (And its Part in the History of our Nation) – Rufus Rockwell Wilson
The capitals of most countries are the especial pride of their people. It is not so with us—at least, it has not been so in the past. Happily, it appears as though this condition were changing. It has, indeed, ever appeared to me strange that Americans know so little of and care so little for the capital of their own country. Nature, prodigal of gracious slope and curve and tone, has endowed it with, perhaps, more charm than any other national capital—at least, than any large European capital—and its founders laid it off on a generous plan which has left the opportunity of furthering what Nature presented, in a way to appeal to the pride of our people. Yet how large a proportion of Americans turn their eyes and their steps, not toward its majestic buildings, but to some foreign capital with its gaudy shops and commercial allurements, returning with an alien’s ideas on many subjects and boasting of beauties which are not comparable to those of our own capital city.
The Capital City (And its Part in the History of our Nation).
Excerpt from the text:
WASHINGTON during its first century of existence has become one of the great capitals of the world. It has also grown to be the most beautiful city in our country. Among centers of authority and pleasure, only Paris equals it in beauty and charm, and Paris has behind it a thousand years of history. The reason for this lies partly in the fact that Washington is a city planned and built solely for the purposes of government. It is, perhaps, the only capital which has had such an origin; which is named after a nation’s first leader, laid out according to his individual views, and beautified, in the main, according to his ideas of beauty. Indeed, Washington, as it stands to-day, may be said to express George Washington’s intention and personal taste.
The selection of a site for a permanent capital was one of the tasks which fell to the First Congress. A settlement was reached only after a long and bitter contest, for sectional jealousies were strong and members of Congress from the New England States and from New York inclined to the belief that those from the South might gain undue advantage over them. Thus, the judgment of Congress often changed, and as its favor shifted from site to site — now the Susquehanna, then the falls of the Delaware, again the Potomac, — warmly favored by Washington, as his correspondence shows, — and later Germantown — the country was thrown into a turmoil of conflicting opinion and interests. A bill at one time passed both the House and Senate locating the capital at Germantown, now a suburb of Philadelphia, but delay ensuing, reconsideration was had, and Germantown lost its opportunity.
So stubborn grew the contest that it was feared that the union of States, as yet none too strongly welded, would be shattered ere a settlement was reached, and save for the political sagacity of Alexander Hamilton, these fears might have had confirmation. Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, had proposed to Congress, as an essential feature of his plans for placing the federal finances on a solvent and enduring basis, the assumption by the general government of the debts contracted by the several States while prosecuting the War of Independence. Members from the Southern States, whose war debts were proportionately much smaller than those of the New England and other Northern States, influenced less by financial interests than by local pride, and fearful also of a too great central power, stoutly opposed the measure, while the Northern members almost to a man were resolved upon its adoption. Debated for weeks, it finally failed of passage in the House by a slender margin of two votes. The minority, however, refused to accept this decision, declining to transact any business whatsoever until it had been reversed, and day after day the House met only to adjourn. Again, as in the dispute over a site for the projected capital, there were whispered threats of secession and a dissolution of the Union. Then it was that Hamilton, by using Thomas Jefferson, lately come from France to take the chief place in Washington’s Cabinet, and still a stranger to partisan and sectional differences, as an instrument to put an end to both disputes, showed how consummate a politician he could be in support of his statesmanship. The Southern members, eagerly seconding Washington’s fondly cherished desire, had asked that the seat of the federal government be established on the banks of the Potomac, and when Congress refused this request, their anger had rivalled that of the Northern men upon the question of the State debts. Might it not be, Hamilton asked Jefferson, at a chance meeting in front of the President’s house in New York, that the Southern men would agree to vote for the assumption of the State debts if the Northern members promised to support a bill for a capital on the Potomac, and would not the Secretary of State exert his good offices to bring such a result about? The suggestion came as if upon the thought of the moment, but was so earnestly and eloquently urged by Hamilton that Jefferson declared that ” although a stranger to the whole subject,” he would be glad to lend what aid he could. Jefferson writes, —
” I proposed to him to dine with me next day, and I would invite another friend or two, 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” — so healing was the influence of good wine and good fellowship — ” that whatever importance had been attached to the rejection of this 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 that by giving it to Philadelphia for ten years, and to Georgetown permanently afterwards, this might, as an anodyne, calm in some degree the ferment which might be excited by the other measure alone. So two of the Potomac members . . . agreed to change their votes, and Hamilton undertook to carry the other point.”
Thus the assumption bill secured the sanction of Congress, and in the same manner an act was adopted, which received executive approval on July 16, 1790, giving the sole power to the President to select a federal territory ” not exceeding ten miles square on the river Potomac at some space between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and the Conongocheague for the permanent seat of the government of the United States.” A later act, at Washington’s suggestion, changed these boundaries so as to include, besides the village of Georgetown in Maryland, a portion of Virginia with the town of Alexandria. Maryland and Virginia promptly ceded to the United States the territory required, but, in 1846, all that portion of the district lying on the west bank of the Potomac was retroceded by Congress to the State of Virginia, so that the federal territory now comprises sixty-four miles, bounded on three sides by the State of Maryland and on the fourth by the Potomac.
The site of the present city, covering the lower portion of the district, was selected by Washington in January, 1791, but had been seen and admired by him many years before. When a boy he saw it while riding the country on horseback, and he spoke of it when as a young man he camped with Braddock on the hill where now stands the Naval Observatory. Then all that met the eye were wooded slopes partly tilled by two or three farmers; hill-tops thickly sprinkled with scrub-oaks, and lowlands covered with underbrush of alder; but between the Potomac, slow widening to meet the sea, the bluffs, a mile and a half away, and the heights of Rock Creek at Georgetown and of the Eastern Branch, five miles apart, there lay a spacious amphitheater of such gentle slopes and useful levels that the attention of the young surveyor was quickly attracted to it.
Washington, always more of a merchant and an engineer than an artist, had thoughts of a great commercial city here, with the navigable Potomac, reaching to the sea, to help it in the race for supremacy. The site of this future city he often passed on his way to and from Georgetown, and later, when occupied with public cares, while travelling from the North to his home at Mount Vernon. The Indians for generations used this site as a meeting-place, holding there many council-fires, and this legislative and governmental use of the ground by the red men, traditions of which survived all through Washington’s life, may have suggested to him a similar use by the new possessors of the soil.
However this may have been, there is no doubt that Washington was the first and foremost champion of the location of the federal capital on the banks of the Potomac; and his letters offer abundant evidence that it was with more than his usual zeal and hopefulness that, early in 1791, he set about the work of transforming an isolated tract of farm land into a center of legislation for half a continent. The private owners of the land proved a source of vexation and of slight delay. These, for the most part, were the descendants of a little band of Scotch and Irish, settled on the land for a hundred years or more, who had inherited from their fathers habits of thrift and the ability, on occasion, to drive a hard bargain.
Aged David Burnes, a justice of the peace and a tobacco planter in a small way, proved the most stubborn and grasping of all. Even Washington was at first unable to do anything with “obstinate Mr. Burnes,” who did not want a capital at his front door and did not care whether or not the seat of government came to the banks of the Potomac. Washington argued with him for several days, explaining to him the advantages he was resisting; to all of which, so the tradition runs, Burnes made reply, —
” I suppose you think people here are going to take every grist that comes from you as pure grain; but what would you have been if you had not married the widow Custis?”
Small wonder that Washington, losing patience in the face of this ill-tempered rejoinder, bluntly informed crusty David that the government wanted his land and proposed getting it in one way or another. Burnes, thereupon, capitulated, and on March 30, 1791, joined the other owners of the site in an agreement to convey to the government, out of their farms, all the land which was needed for streets, avenues, and public reservations, free of cost. The owners also agreed to sell the land needed for public buildings and improvements for one hundred and twenty-five dollars per acre. All the rest the government divided into building lots and apportioned between itself and the owners. The small lots were to be sold by the government, and out of the proceeds payment was to be made for the large ones. In this way, without advancing a dollar and at a total cost of thirty-six thousand dollars, the government acquired a tract of six hundred acres in the heart of the city. The ten thousand one hundred and thirty-six building lots assigned to it ultimately proved to be worth eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and now represent a value of seventy million dollars. Shrewd financier as he was, it is doubtful if Washington ever made another so good a bargain as that with Burnes and his neighbors. Burnes in parting with the acres which he did not want to see spoiled for a good farm to make a poor capital, stipulated that the modest house in which he lived should not be interfered with in the laying out of the city. This condition was agreed to by Washington, and Burnes’s cottage stood until a few years ago, one of the historical curiosities of the capital.
After David Burnes, the most considerable owners of the land taken for the federal city were Samuel Davidson, Notley Young, and Daniel Carroll. Young, who held nearly all of the property in the center of the city and on the river front between Seventh and Eleventh Streets, acquired wealth from sales and leases of his property, and erected a substantial residence on G Street, South, overlooking the Potomac, where he lived in comfort until his death in the closing years of the first quarter of the last century. Worse luck attended Carroll, who owned the land to the east of Young. This gentleman, brother of the first Catholic bishop of Baltimore, cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and himself a member of the convention that framed the Constitution and of the First Congress, was so firm a believer in the future greatness of the federal city that when Stephen Girard offered him two hundred thousand dollars for a portion of his estate, he refused the offer, demanding five times that sum. Carroll’s greed, however, soon wrought his undoing; the high price placed upon the lots held by him compelled many who wished land for the erection of houses and business structures to settle in the northern and western parts of the city, and the tide of population turning permanently to the north and west decided the fate of the eastern quarter. Thus Carroll’s dream of great wealth came to a luckless ending. All that he could leave his heirs when he died was a heavily encumbered estate, and so late as 1873 six acres of the Carroll tract, upon which his descendants, during a period of eighty years, had paid sixteen thousand dollars in taxes, — this in the hope of a profitable sale, — were finally disposed of for three thousand six hundred dollars.