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Washington in New York -- chs 24 - 26


Thomas Jefferson hated cities.  Oh, he loved what they had to offer--fine food and drink, fine clothiers, bookshops, theaters, museums, universities, architecture--but he hated more what they also offered--commerce, banks, stockbrokers, factories, crime, filth.

The idea of building a city from scratch--of starting over as it were--appealed greatly to a purist like Thomas Jefferson. It had nothing to do with financial gain as, for example, it partly did for George Washington, James Madison and others who had property holdings along the Potomac. For Jefferson, it wasn't about money, it was about an ideal--it was about creating the perfect city.  And what better place?  The Compromise of 1790 placed the capital in the heart of the Upper South.

There was little question about what to name the city.  The name of the nation’s first president appeared on the first survey map and that settled it.  The undeveloped swamps and woods was then known officially as “Washington City.”  President George Washington was asked to head up the project. His first task was to appoint Thomas Jefferson as principle advisor; in effect, as the man in charge of quality control.  It was, after all, Jefferson’s vision they were creating.  Jefferson did not want his ideal city sullied with commerce and industry and all that went with it.  Let Norfolk be the region’s business hub. Jefferson's city would be a shining example of virtuous republican government.  It would be an American Athens.

This was not something new that was being attempted.  Creating a capital city from scratch had been done before.  Peter the Great of Russia had built St. Petersburg where once there had been a swamp.  It became a great city because Peter the Great was an absolute tyrant of indefatigable energy, vision and persistence.  He brought in the best architects of Europe to design the city's infrastructure, marshaled 40,000 unpaid peasants to build it, and forced the nobility, merchants, traders, government bureaucrats and common folk to pick up and move there.

Louis IV of France had done it as well, with the building of Versailles.  The royal palace was a baroque masterpiece, but as a city it had nothing to do with people and how they lived.  Commerce had no place.  The place was majestic but sterile.  The King could command a legion of courtiers to attend to him, but the brightest and most creative men in France preferred Paris.  When the French Revolution came, the capital was forcibly returned to Paris.

St. Petersburg and Versailles were made possible by the will of two absolute monarchs.  Could a democracy marshal the necessary means to build a city from scratch?  The answer is yes, but it wouldn’t be fully realized--it wouldn’t be an actual city--for at least 150 years.


The architect who had given a facelift to Federal Hall in New York City--Pierre Charles L‘Enfant--was hired to design a city layout.  The plan L'Enfant submitted was even more ambitious than the preliminary sketches Jefferson had dreamed up.  L'Enfant superimposed a radial system of avenues on Jefferson's grid of streets.  He added tree-lined walks on either side of broad avenues, several public squares, five grand fountains, expansive parks and gardens, and arranged the public buildings in such a way as to have a sweeping view of the Potomac.  One of the noteworthy aspects of the plan was its striking similarity to the layout of Versailles, where, coincidentally, L'Enfant grew up.

The problem was money. From the start, George Washington insisted that financing not come from the Federal government, but from the sale of city lots.  Besides, asking Congress for money might reopen the question of residency and the dream of a southern capital might yet be repealed.  In any event, what money Congress was spending on government buildings was being spent in Philadelphia, where the temporary capital was located.

The sale of lots proved an utter failure.  Out of ten thousand lots in the government's possession less than 100 were actually sold.  L'Enfant was so disgusted with the scheme as being beneath the government's dignity that once he completed the city layout, he promptly resigned.  A syndicate was formed by three men of acknowledged standing in the financial community: James Greenleaf, John Nicholson, and Robert Morris, "the financier of the Revolution."  The syndicate was to purchase several thousand lots, pay for them in seven annual installments, sell a portion to private buyers at the enhanced prices that presumably would be the result of their activities, and negotiate a large loan abroad using unsold lots as collateral.  The promoters, however, could not sell their lots, could not meet their installment payments, and could not interest investors, foreign or domestic.  The scheme collapsed and by the fall of 1797, the syndicate of three found itself under lock-and-key in debtor’s prison.

Meanwhile, the cornerstone was laid for the Executive Mansion in a ceremony hosted by President George Washington.  Other than that, nothing much happened.  Lots were not being sold, and buildings were not going up, and the grand squares, parks and fountains were never built.  Few commercial ships frequented the Potomac.  In a final desperate bid to keep the dream city alive, Washington went to Congress for a loan, using unsold lots as collateral.  Some collateral: the lots were worthless.  What should have been a slam dunk dragged on for four long months before Congress authorized a loan of $500,000.

Three government buildings were then built: the Executive Mansion, the Capitol, and the Treasury Building.  James Hoban, an Irishman from South Carolina, designed the President's House, a stately building inspired by the home of the Duke of Leinster in Dublin. It was still unfinished when Jefferson was elected president in 1801.  It would remain unfinished until 1833, more than 40 years after it was begun.

Inspired by the Roman Pantheon, the capitol was designed by Dr. William Thornton. The initial building contained assembly rooms for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Supreme Court.  The capitol building would not be completely finished for another 71 years.  And who should do the work?  With the exception of a handful of Scottish stone cutters, slaves did the lion’s share of the work.  They cleared trees, drained the swamps, leveled the land, graded the streets, and erected the government buildings.  Like ancient Athens of Greece, the American Athens would be built by slave labor.

All roads leading to Washington City were rudimentary and confusing.  Coaches spilled over on uneven roads.  When the capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington City in 1800, Abigail Adams got lost while en route.  As First Lady, she hung the Adams’ laundry in the unfinished East Room.  With the exception of the President’s House and the Capitol, Washington City was not a city at all but a shanty town, occupied four months of the year by Congress.  The rest of the time it stood empty and vacant.  The only commerce to be seen were boarding houses and bordellos.  People would arrive and ask where they could find the nation’s capital and be told they were standing in the heart of it.

George Washington wanted the city named after him to have a university, a thriving theater, a retail center, hotels worthy of visiting dignitaries, and commerce: yes, to be as diverse and vibrant as Philadelphia and New York City.  What Washington really wanted was a northern city on the Potomac.  His dream would not be fully realized for more than 150 years.  It wasn’t until after World War II that Washington D.C. began to bear resemblance to an actual city. Separated from the commercial, financial, intellectual, and cultural centers of the nation, even today Washington D.C. would not be confused with the capitals of other modern nations, such as Berlin, London, Paris or Rome.


It’s tempting to wonder what Jefferson thought of his anti-city.  It was totally cut off from the larger world and therefore not unlike Monticello.  As president he could preside over the nation in perfect solitude, as he had presided over his Virginia plantation.  There were no professors from a major university, no benevolent Quakers, and no sophisticated money men to influence the Jeffersonian Democrats, who controlled Congress in the first part of the nineteenth century.  There was little commercial traffic on the Potomac to give the place a cosmopolitan air.

Washington D.C. was a backwater, but it was the South’s backwater, where slavery went unquestioned.  Up until the Civil War, slaves were auctioned off within a block of the Capitol.  Writes historian Garry Wills:  “Can one imagine a succession of twelve slaveholder presidents if the capital had remained in Philadelphia?  The southerners got what they wanted, a seat of government where slavery would be taken for granted, where it would not need perpetual apology, excuse, or palliation, where the most honored men in the nation were not to be criticized because they practiced and defended and gave privilege to the holding of slaves.”


In the Spring of 1790, George Washington looked past the Allegheny Mountains to the continent beyond and saw only trouble.

In defiance of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, British forces still occupied the Northwest Territory.  In the southwest, Spain blocked the Mississippi River to American navigation.  In between were the Indian nations, vainly resisting the onslaught of American expansion.  Washington feared some incident on the frontier would spark an Indian war and draw the United States into conflict with England or Spain.  As Washington saw it, the solution was to sign a peace treaty with the Indians and deal with Spain and England through diplomatic channels.

The biggest threat was from the Indians in the Southwest.  Comprised of four tribes--Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws--they operated as a loosely aligned Confederation, much as the United States had done under the Articles of Confederation.  Over time, the four tribes had become dependent on white traders for most of their needs, not only for clothing and luxuries, but for guns and ammunition.  Finding it necessary to deal with both the United States and Spain, the tribes tried to play the two nations off against each other to their own advantage.  Lacking centralized leadership, they often failed to act effectively.  As soon as the Revolution was over, Spain, the United States, and various states acting separately, took advantage of the Indians’ lack of centralized leadership and procured contradictory treaties in which presumed representatives of all four tribes would sign on the dotted line induced by whoever was supplying the most liquor and gifts.

In trying to make the treaties stick, Spain had the advantage.  Her economic interests were the same as the Indians’.  She had no large population lusting after the Indian hunting grounds.  In fact, Spain encouraged Indian hunters; the fur trade, which brought the Indians prosperity, also contributed to Spain’s prosperity.  On the other hand, the treaties negotiated by the United States often involved large land concessions.  The Indians immediately repudiated these treaties as having been agreed to by only a few of their nations.  Settlers moved into the disputed areas anyway, and fighting ensued.

As with slavery, Washington’s view of the American Indians had changed over the years.  During the French and Indian War, Washington believed Indians to be “butchering” and “diabolical” monsters.  Now, he saw them as “poor wretches,” more sinned against than sinning  Where he once ordered secret surveys to be made in lands legally belonging to the Indians, he now saw the white men who sold Indian lands as the true villains.

How can anyone expect peace with the Indians, Washington asked, “so long as the spirit of land-jobbing prevails and our frontier settlers entertain the opinion that there is not the same crime (or no crime at all) in killing an Indian as in killing a white man?”

To establish peace in the southwest, the Washington administration set out to determine the validity of the treaties that had been made during the time of the Articles of Confederation both by the national government and by various states.  The only way to bring peace to the frontier, Washington told Congress, was to foster the “happiness” of the Indians and that depends “on the national justice and humanity of the United States.”  American expansion beyond the Alleghenies was inevitable, Washington knew, but land for that expansion must be purchased fairly and only as needed.  Thus, he urged expansion efforts to proceed with “circumspection, moderation, and forbearance” when dealing with the Indians, and peace will have a better chance of prevailing.


The Washington Administration had to deal not only with Spain and the Indians, but with opposition in those states that were encouraging and profiting from Indian land-grabs.  The United States and specifically Georgia, claimed land that was also claimed by Spain.  While the federal government was still forming, the Georgia legislature sold twenty-five million acres to land companies in Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  Most of this land was in disputed areas. The tracts comprised almost all of the land of the Choctaws and Chickasaws and part of the Cherokees.  Since much of the territory lay between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, the land scandal has been known forever after by the name “Yazoo.”  By 1790, the Yazoo land scandal was threatening to plunge the entire Southwest into war.  Somehow, Washington had to squash Yazoo before that happened--but how?

Since the Yazoo land grants violated a number of treaties, Washington wondered whether he had the right to place federal authority in opposition to Georgia’s official acts.  First, he consulted with Attorney Edmund Randolph on the constitutional considerations.  Next, he asked Hamilton whether he should denounce Yazoo in a proclamation.  Hamilton doubted that he had the right under the Constitution, so the President put the matter to Jefferson.  Hamilton, meanwhile, discussed the question with Rufus King of the Senate and reported back that the Senate would likely take up the issue and that, in his opinion, it would be better to let action originate there.  Jefferson considered Georgia’s behavior unconstitutional, but felt that the state and the Indian tribes should be further consulted before Washington acted.  Short of sending in the U.S. Army, which was woefully undermanned, Washington didn’t have a lot of options.  Even if he issued a proclamation denouncing Yazoo and urging all United States’ officers and citizens to observe the treaties, he had no effective means of enforcing it.

Washington did have one trick up his sleeve and that was to lure their leader, Alexander McGillivray, to New York.  McGillivray was the son of a Scottish fur trader and a Creek girl of mixed blood descended from an aristocratic Southern family.  Now living among the Creeks, McGillivray had lived in Georgia for a time and was familiar with the white man’s duplicity in dealing with Indians.  This combination, joined with a gift for leadership, made him a dominate figure within the Creek nation.  His way of life was extravagant.  Living deep in Indian territory, he maintained an estate that rivaled many on the Chesapeake Bay: a mansion house, extensive plantations, even African-American slaves.


Washington sent a personal invitation to McGillivray to come to New York and negotiate a peace treaty acceptable to both the Indian nations and the United States.  That McGillivray would profit from the deal was encouraged.  Washington’s timing could not have been better.  A crisis in the waters off North America’s Pacific Coast, in Nootka Sound, had brought Spain and England to the brink of war.  McGillivray, who was dependent on Spain for subsistence, was flattered by Washington’s letter.  Realizing he might need a new source of supply, he willingly accepted the President’s invitation. He gathered twenty-nine Indian warriors around him, and headed northward from Georgia.  If he feared trouble along the way, he was mistaken.  Rather, he was received with a flattering welcome in town after town.  Sailing up from New Jersey to Manhattan, the largest crowd since Washington’s arrival gathered to see him.  His appearance and that of the Creeks made a sensation.  Abigail Adams described the visitors as “the very first savages I ever saw.”  They were conducted by Secretary of War Hugh Knox and uniformed members of the new Society of St. Tammany, to the Executive Mansion where Washington greeted McGillivray warmly.

“I am glad you have come, Colonel.  I have long felt we had much in common.”

“I cannot flatter myself that much, Mr. President,” replied McGillivray, “but it has long been my ambition to shake your hand in friendship.”

Washington left the actual negotiations to Knox, who crafted the treaty. Much of the text was likely proposed by McGillivray. The two parties pledged lasting peace and friendship.  All but three million acres of the land in dispute was ceded to Georgia. Creeks within the boundaries of the United States would be subject to federal laws, rather than Georgia state laws.  British right to passage through Creek lands was also restricted, and Creek prisoners were to be returned from American custody. The Creeks also ceded the land belonging to the allied Oconee Indians, which had been a contentious issue.  For their part, the Creeks were granted an annual payment. In addition, Creeks within American territory and Americans within Creek (and American) territory would be subject to U.S. law, but Americans settling in Creek territory would forfeit federal protection. In an effort to encourage Creeks and Seminoles to take up agriculture, the U.S. government offered to provide domestic animals, agricultural tools, and up to four interpreters, intended to act as farm advisors.

The Treaty of New York as it was called contained six articles, set forth in a separate document, and kept secret. The first laid out the structure of future commerce between the United States and the Creek Nation, including shifting the traffic in trade goods through American ports and away from Spanish territory and ports-of-entry. The United States also agreed to pay select Creek chiefs a $100 yearly stipend and a commission to McGillivray as a brigadier general with annual pay of $1,200. This last gesture was aimed at encouraging the white Creek leader to promote U.S. interests and policies among Creeks.  Finally, should the fur trade by way of Spanish possessions be stopped by war, as compensation $50,000 worth of goods would be imported to the Creek country through the United States, without duty.

The Senate wasted no time in approving the treaty over the strident objections of Georgia’s lawmakers.  Infuriated by the government’s concession of three million acres, pistol packin’ James Jackson was likewise apoplectic that Washington should treat Indian “savages” as his diplomatic equals.

On August 7, Washington appeared in the House chamber of Federal Hall and addressed an assembly that included Knox, McGillivray, and two dozen Creek Indians.  After signing the document, Washington gave McGillivray books and an epaulette from his wartime uniform.  To the other Indians he presented strings of beads, representing perpetual peace, and tobacco to smoke in remembrance of the occasion.  McGillivray and the Creeks then filed past Washington, each giving him the handshake of peace.  A native song concluded the ceremony.

The Treaty of New York was Washington’s first great diplomatic triumph.  His policy of “circumspection, moderation, and forbearance” had paid off.

On August 4, 1790, Congress authorized the first issue of U.S. Treasury Bonds thereby setting in motion Hamilton’s economic program.

On August 12, Congress adjourned.  Legislators wasted little time packing and getting out of town.


President George Washington, meanwhile, had one final piece of unfinished business to deal with--Rhode Island.  Rhode Island was not only small--37 miles wide by 48 miles long--but a source of considerable grief for the Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, it had been the only state to vote against the Tariff Bill, thereby blocking the government’s best hope of creating a revenue stream.  In 1787, Rhode Island was the only state NOT to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  And in 1788 the Rhode Island legislature put the brakes on a scheduled ratifying convention thereby denying the people of that state the right to decide whether or not to join the Union.

Well, Rhode Island had been a thorn in the nation’s side long enough.  It was time they joined the Union.  The surest way of getting their attention was to hit them where it counted--in the pocket book.  Word went out that if they didn’t join the Union their exports would be taxed as if they were a foreign nation.  Being heavily dependent on trade with New York, Philadelphia, and South Carolina, they got the message.  On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island ratified, becoming the thirteenth state to join the Union.

Rhode Island had been a thorn in Washington’s side as well.  He had avoided the state while touring the Northeast the previous Fall.   Now, he wanted to personally welcome the Ocean State into the fold.  On August 15 the President boarded a packet ship (a.k.a. mail carrier ship) and journeyed there by sea.  Joining him were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, New York Governor George Clinton, Judge Blair of the United States Court, three members of Congress, and three of Washington's staff.  They were merely window dressing.  Washington was the main event, the one everyone wanted to see.

If there was any resentment about being coerced into joining the union, Rhode Islanders didn’t show it.  On the morning of the 17th, they turned out in droves to cheer the President’s arrival in Newport.  After the usual round of speeches, Washington made a tour of the city.  Fully recovered from his illness and feeling fit and strong again, he walked with the briskness of a young man.  Those walking with him had trouble keeping up.  In the evening he attended a dinner in his honor at the State House.

The following morning, while listening to various city officials and religious leaders welcoming him to their city, Washington was particularly touched by a letter read aloud from the Newport Hebrew Congregation.  The members were descendants of Portuguese Jews who had suffered persecution during the Spanish Inquisition and sought refuge in America.

Their letter reads in part:

"Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial of affection and esteem. . . .

"With pleasure we reflect on those days--those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel who delivered David from the peril of the sword--shielded Your Head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

"Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People--a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance--but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great government Machine:

"This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confident and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good. . . ."

Recent scholarship has revealed that Thomas Jefferson, and not George Washington, actually wrote this letter ( at Washington's direction). The allusion to "everyone sitting in safety under his own vine and fig tree" is from the Bible (Micah 4:4).

The President's reply:

"While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

"The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

"If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

"The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy--a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

"It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants--while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

"May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

G. Washington

That same day, Washington re-boarded the packet ship and after seven hours at sea was greeted in Providence with a salute of cannon fire, the ringing of church bells, and the singing of songs.

After the sun set he visited the local college (the future Brown University) which on this special occasion was all aglow in candlelight. The next morning was cold and rainy. When the weather cleared Washington was given a walking tour of the city, including a visit to the local shipyard where he was reminded that Rhode Island depended on trade for its livelihood. That afternoon he attended yet another dinner in his honor.

After a number of toasts and speeches by local dignitaries, Washington’s party boarded the packet ship and returned to New York City.


The show was over.  It had made for high drama and low comedy, with heroes and villains aplenty, but it had come to an end.  Like some theatric troupe, the federal government was packing up and taking its act to another city.

While in New York, the executive and legislative branches had completed the work left unfinished at the Constitutional Convention, averted the breakup of the Union, and made provision for the public debt.  The infant republic was on firmer ground now.  Everyone deserved a bow.

Unlike Congress, which had assigned the work of packing and shipping to clerks and departmental secretaries, George Washington took it upon himself to supervise moving the contents of the Executive Mansion.  He personally saw to it that crates were packed properly, loaded onto wagons, and safely shipped off to Philadelphia.

On August 28th, the Governor of New York, the Mayor and City Aldermen were invited to the Macomb House for a farewell dinner.  Martha Washington was finding it difficult to suppress her tears. She had not expected to be happy in New York, but found living there to her liking. "I contrive to be as happy here as I could be at any place except Mount Vernon," she wrote to a friend. "In truth I should be very ungrateful if I did not acknowledge that everything has been done with politeness, hospitality or friendship could suggest to make my situation as satisfactory and agreeable as possible."

Two miles away, at Richmond Hill, Abigail Adams was having similar feelings. "It will not be Broadway," she wrote to a friend about the move to Philadelphia.

On Monday, August 30, the President and First Lady rose early, hoping to get out of town without notice. Waiting outside, however, were the Governor, Chief Justice John Jay, and various state and municipal officials.  Washington shrugged, and said to Martha simply,  "They must have their way."


Washington’s departure was very much like his arrival.  New Yorkers turned out in droves.  Canons fired a thirteen gun salute.  As Shakespeare wrote in "ROMEO AND JULIET, "Parting is such sweet sorrow."  The President waved his hat; Martha wiped her eyes.  The presidential barge slipped from its moorings, struck out into the bay, and somewhere off near the Jersey Shore disappeared in the glare of afternoon sunlight.


The last to depart were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  The two left New York on September 1.  Riding in Jefferson’s phaeton, it’s likely they stopped in Princeton to see Madison’s old Scottish professor, John Witherspoon, who was now nearly blind, and then spent a week in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia they arranged lodging for the coming session of Congress.  Madison secured a room at a boarding house.  As he had in New York, Jefferson leased a house and planned a number of renovations to accommodate the elegant furnishings he was expecting from France.  With the exception of President George Washington, no member of the federal government lived as extravagantly as the Secretary of State.  In Philadelphia, he would maintain a household of five servants, a maitre d’hotel imported from Paris, and a stable of four horses.

The late-summer weather was pleasantly mild, so the Virginians took a more leisurely route home by traveling down the eastern side of the Chesapeake, as far as Chestertown.  From there, they sailed across the Bay to Annapolis, where they met up with Thomas Lee Shippen, whom Jefferson had befriended in France.  While awaiting the arrival of the phaeton on a slower boat, they borrowed small boats and rowed about the rivers and inlets, and at a local inn were served “delicious crabs.”  In Annapolis, the travelers climbed to the top of the state capitol (still standing and in use today) to view the panorama of bays, rivers, and islands.  Before leaving the next day, they dined on what Shippen described as the most perfectly prepared turtle soup he had ever eaten.  In contrast, the following evening at a country inn the food was atrocious and “mosquitos, gnats, flies and bugs” pestered them throughout the night.  In the morning, they refused breakfast.

They stopped next in Bladensburg, at an inn kept by “an old black woman,” where a few nights earlier President Washington, on the way to Mount Vernon, had stayed.  Local townspeople, upset that Washington had shown this woman’s inn preference, took out their anger on her outhouse which they smashed to pieces.

Having spent all his money from the high style in which they traveled, a day or so later Shippen parted company with “those charming men Jefferson and Madison.”

Jefferson and Madison spent the next couple of days exploring the swamps and woods that was to become the nation’s capital.  No doubt, the two Virginians were still congratulating themselves on the dinner deal that would bring the capital into the sphere of Virginia’s influence, and away from the corrupting influence of stock-jobbers, merchants, bankers, and industry.  Washington City would be a slice of Virginia--rural, clean, and virtuous--where men of good character could go about the business of running the nation far from the corrupting influences “of any overgrown commercial city.”

The southern capital would give physical form to Jefferson’s vision of what the republic should be.  Everything would be carefully controlled and under Virginia’s watchful eye.  Strict building codes would insure a tasteful uniformity in the city’s domestic architecture.  Public buildings would be designed with an imaginative sweep and nobility of scale.   Sandstone, marble, and granite would be the building materials of choice.


Alas, the city Jefferson dreamed of creating had nothing whatsoever to do with democracy.  The plan he and L’Enfant dreamed up was for a baroque city--the essence of baroque being absolutism, regularity, and display of grandeur.  It had nothing to do with people or how they lived.

According to historian Lewis Mumford, the ruling principle of the Baroque design is the abstract figure, the execution of which no obstruction can be allowed to interfere.  The plan has for its focal points edifices and monuments which are visible symbols of majesty and authority.  As with Versailles, it is stunning to behold, but ultimately cold and lifeless.

The grand avenues that L’Enfant designed--160 feet wide, coupled with a network of tributary streets--would take up a total of 3600 acres, more than all the remaining land that was available for private residences and public buildings combined. A population of half-a-million would have been required to justify them, whereas in fact they left room for a population of about hundred thousand.  To pave them would have required a sum equal of perhaps a quarter of the entire national debt.  (For the most part the streets, including Pennsylvania Avenue, would remain unpaved for nearly a century.)

Far more fundamental than the grid of streets was the question of what, besides the activities of government, was to sustain the city’s life?  What was there to attract people, resources, prosperity, refinement, vitality?  This was never a concern of L’Enfant or Jefferson.  In the baroque city people have no purpose other than to bear witness to the grandeur of buildings, and to watch the coming and going of the ruling elite.  Of course, this was never the intent of L’Enfant or Jefferson.  Jefferson, for one, would have been horrified at such an idea.  They hoped to make the nation’s capital a fit expression of the American Republic.  In ordering up such a place, however, they reverted to past symbols, to cities and buildings that recalled democratic and republican government--ancient Athens and Rome--but were built on the backs of slave labor.  Ironically, Washington City would be no different.

The people who created Washington had no feelings for cities at all, had little sense of what a city was, and little experience of what urban life meant.  According to Medieval historian Henri Pirenne, a city is not a city without commerce.  In the middle ages, it was the city with all its perceived vices that gave birth to democracy in Europe, created public education, universities, and hospitals, and eliminated slavery.  Serfs found refuge in cities, learned a craft and gained their freedom.  The expression, “The air breathes freer in cities” is from this time.

Historically, cities have not been created at all; sparked by trade they just happened.  In the middle ages, most cities began within castle walls.  Merchants set up shop under the watchful eye of kings, and as commerce increased the city expanded outside the walls.  As work became more specialized, guilds resulted, and within the guilds democracy began.  Because the traditional forms of leadership--the nobility and the clergy--were of no help at all but a hindrance--town councils were formed to better manage the city’s needs and growth.  In time, the town councils grew powerful and began talking back to kings.  A struggle for supremacy resulted, and bribery played a big part in city councils winning their independence.  It should be remembered that castles and churches were cold, lifeless places until merchants began paying off kings and clergymen with silks, tapestries, furnishings, and artwork, the very luxuries commerce made possible.  All the great Renaissance painters and sculptors, and the soaring gothic cathedrals, would not have been possible without the rise of the merchant class.  In time, the merchant class grew and became the middle class.


It’s remarkable how much of the building during the middle ages and later was carried out--not by kings, who were preoccupied with petty wars--but by the merchant class.  The important guilds were represented in the town councils, and projects of planning and construction were usually supervised by master builders acting as municipal officials.  “From the thirteenth century onwards,” writes Fritz Roring, “it was a municipal building committee that constructed the whole of Bruges in the subsequent centuries.  It fixed the rows of buildings with a deliberate, even exaggerated stress on differences in balustrades; it looked after the paving of the roads and the water supply of the town; it encouraged the replacement of thatched roofs in favor of tiled roofs through a kind of bonus system; and in short it intervened in everything.”

At the heart of such planning was the recognition that cities were for people and how they lived.  A good example is the piazza of the Italian Renaissance city.  The piazze of Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Venice served a wide variety of social needs.  The city square, lined with restaurants, food and clothing marts, and shops where craftsmen worked under the eye of passersby, was at once a marketplace, a meeting place to mingle and gossip, a playground for children, a promenade for lovers, and a stage for civic pageants and religious processions.

Bankers set up tables and did their business in the piazza.  Yes, moneymen were a part of the scene, and fueled the city’s culture.  Florence, for example, while producing and trading much of Europe’s cloth, also produced Alberti, Dante, Donatello, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Galileo.   Education itself became a commercial commodity, indispensable in trading centers as, for example, Genoa, where illiteracy was virtually unknown.  It was in the cities and towns, not in the countryside, that the medieval universities took root and grew.

The similarity is striking, of the southern slave plantations of Virginia with the feudal estates of medieval Europe.  Both were agrarian and largely self-sustaining, managed by overlords and worked by people inextricably bound to the land.  Serfs who escaped the feudal estates were pursued with the same zeal as slaves who fled the plantations.  The difference was serfs found freedom in cities while slaves found freedom in the free north.

Whether they would have admitted it or not, Jefferson and Madison had cities to thank for the quality of their education, the cultural refinements they enjoyed, and the republican government they cherished and helped to establish in America.  Like the clothes they wore, everything they held dear was attributable to cities.  The northern cities they deplored were in fact the true symbol of the American republic, where the air breathed freer.

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