“Washington: A History of Our National City,” by Tom Lewis

“Washington: A History of Our National City”
By Tom Lewis
560 pp., Basic Books
$26.66

Reviewed by Dr. Márcia Balisciano
Founding Director, Benjamin Franklin House, London

In Tom Lewis’ immaculately researched history, “Washington: A History of Our National City,” we get a chronology of the people, political wrangling, and racial injustice marking the creation and evolution of Washington, DC.

Lewis relates that the idea that a national capital should arise at the junction of the Colonial North and South was not a fait accompli. It was the fruit of bargaining between those like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson — who wanted a southerly seat of national government — and Alexander Hamilton, who desired a U.S. Treasury and congressional assumption of Revolutionary War debt as a way of ensuring the political and economic survival of the new nation.

What Madison, Jefferson, and others in their camp like George Washington got in 1790 was Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. It allowed Congress to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may … become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”

Missing, however, was the money and management structure needed to fast track a coherently built and adequately financed federal seat. But, the question of slavery was overlooked and unresolved, which eventually lead to devastating consequences for Washington, D.C. — and the country.

maxresdefaultIn the book, Lewis marshals his evidence to show how the dreams of many shaped the National City.

It began with George Washington, for whom the 68.34 square mile (177.0 km2) jurisdiction is named. Washington knew the area surrounding the Potomac well, because it was not far from his beloved home, Mount Vernon.

He envisioned an “emporium of the United States” that would rival the great European capitals and allow, with the benefit of new canals, American trade to prosper across the sea, while creating passageways to explore the country’s hinterland. It would feature elegant buildings for government and learning, with respectable housing for workers.

Jefferson’s idea, was slightly different: no edifices of opulent stone in his brand of republicanism, but rather structures hewn from democratic brick. But transforming vision – anyone’s – into reality was not linear. There was land to survey and purchase when funds could be found, designs to formulate and agree, and headline construction to be completed in time for the government’s arrival in 1800 after a residence of 10 years in Philadelphia.

Lewis reveals a rich tapestry of personalities who helped fashion this new American capital. There were shrewd proprietors and errant adventurers who speculated on land and established lotteries to finance their gambles, among them the “courtly” James Greenleaf, who would spend a year in debtors’ prison, declare multiple bankruptcies, but eventually retire with a considerable reputation and some holdings (redeemed by history for having financed Noah Webster and his famous dictionary).

There also was Robert Morris, well-known as a hero financier of the American Revolution, who joined him in business and debtors’ prison, too.

French transplant Pierre Charles L’Enfant created the original plan for the city featuring graceful constructions and broad public spaces from which to admire them, but his proud and recalcitrant personality irritated the three commissioners appointed by President Washington to oversee the rising of a city from the “dust, mire and clay.”

Though he would be honoured for his work retrospectively, he was dismissed before he could see his project to completion. Others stepped into the fray, but they impinged on his notions of order and civic beauty. A leaky first pass at the original White House was the handiwork of Irish-born architect James Hoban, whose unsound design was matched by the top-heavy and air-less domed Capitol building of amateur British architect “and little genius at everything,” William Thornton.

The two landmark buildings around which the capital was constructed were rescued by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a talented architect and civil engineer, who would be called back to Washington from Pennsylvania where he had decamped during the War of 1812, to help rebuild the Capitol after it was torched by the British. But buildings and politics, Lewis shows, often collided. Between 1815-1817, Latrobe “achieved a great deal” but “not enough to satisfy the meddling demands of the capital’s politicians.” He was dismissed for not acquiescing to their frequent requests.

Lewis quotes the 1862 perspective of English novelist Anthony Trollope: far from a shining new metropolis, he found Washington to be a “ragged, unfinished collection of unbuilt, broad streets, as to the completion of which here can now, I imagine, be but little hope.  Of all places that I know, it is the most ungainly and the most unsatisfactory. I fear I must also say the most presumptuous in its pretensions.”

It was a gifted and productive triumvirate of architects — Daniel Burnham, Charles Follen McKim, and the landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmstead — who revisited L’Enfant’s plans for “a beautiful city” at the turn of the 20th century.

As one contemporary architecture critic noted, “the results were so well done, they deserve to be ranked with L’Enfant in the gratitude of Washingtonians and of all Americans who wish to be justified of their pride in the Capital.”

Responsibility for the District of Columbia’s glacial development pace, Lewis makes clear, could be laid at the door of Congressional bureaucrats – to whit arguments in Congress over the siting of the Lincoln Memorial, first proposed during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, meant that the Great Emancipator’s centennial in 1909 passed without action on his national monument. Not until 1922 would President Warren Harding dedicate it to the nation.

Members of Congress controlled the purse strings and dictated governance for the District. They could frequently be obstreperous as in the case of John McMillan, Congressional Representative from South Carolina between 1939-1973, who blocked Washingtonians right to home rule.

It was an irony that a national city resulting from the triumph over taxation without representation, should deny its local citizens free expression of their political will.

A graver anomaly, however, was that a nation founded on a Declaration of Independence – which stated, thanks to Jefferson, with help from Benjamin Franklin, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — was constructed on the back of slaves. As Lewis notes, this was the great incongruity at the centre of American democracy: slaves built the “temples of liberty.”

Slavery proved a terrible expedient for the shortage of labourers needed to build the new city. It was symptomatic of the choice crafters of the Constitution made in 1787 to avoid a showdown between the southern states – which relied on slavery to drive its enormous agricultural engine – and the rest.

The cataclysmic result was the Civil War in which the District took centre stage. Lewis describes a heavy-hearted Abraham Lincoln and his solitary walks at the White House where he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

Though freed from involuntary servitude, black citizens in Washington suffered from segregation and infringement of their civil liberties in the decades that followed. Lewis’ work is well illustrated, and features an unsettling photograph of an August 1924 march of 30,000 Klu Klux Klan members during the administration of President Calvin Coolidge, with the Capitol as the backdrop.

Nearly 40 years later, in 1963, ten-fold that number led by the Reverend Martin Luther King would gather in Washington to highlight the need for civil rights legislation and greater equality at the heart of the government—and throughout the country.

After King’s 1968 assassination, Lewis portrays a city in turmoil as 150,000 took to the streets in grief and anger. Sections of the District were set ablaze, 20,000 were arrested and twelve people died.

He contends: “More than a century and a half earlier, Congress had established a federal city on the banks of the Potomac in order to insulate itself from the threat of violence. Now the domestic problems of the nation had once again come to the capital’s doorstep in a way that left America in shock.”

In the 20 years following, Washington further declined. Political self-determination finally arrived in 1975, but the “city’s finances were in such chaos that they could not be audited,” Lewis states. Washington became a symbol of urban blight which the District’s second mayor, the gifted Marion Barry, best known for his personal demons, did not alter.

By the mid-1990s, Lewis highlights that 85% of the city’s black men were incarcerated. But he ends on a note of hope in light of recent developments: “Washington would endure these trials and would emerge as a stronger and better capital of the United States, a city that came closer to embodying the ideals of the nation than ever before.”

Lewis’ panoramic tale reveals his national city during key points in its history, though he paints the capital’s later years with a quicker brush. He has the historian’s love of detail and interesting characters, although there are so many of the latter–frequently introduced and discharged in a single page– that they are easily forgotten amid the book’s more than 400 pages, but not before reinforcing his narrative.

Lewis should be credited with highlighting the views of women otherwise forgotten: from Margaret Bayard Smith, a newlywed in 1800, who provides a fascinating account of life in the fledgling city to Josephine Lehman, a young World War I worker who watched the capital’s move toward women’s suffrage with interest.

Lewis says his aim was not to write Washington’s definitive history. Maybe not, but he has written a good one.


Sandford AwardSMALLMárcia Balisciano is founding director of Benjamin Franklin House in London. She has been responsible for opening and running Franklin’s only remaining home as a dynamic museum and educational facility focused on history and innovation.

Balisciano is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics. She was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours List.

She lives in London with her family, including two small boys with a love of reading.