A History of Nation's Capitol
By Les Standiford
Crown Publishers, 2008, $24.95
Visiting Washington, D.C., is one of the most educational trips a person can make in this country, and if you catch it when the crowds aren't too bad, one of the most entertaining.
There is so much to see and do, so much history to absorb that it's something everyone should try to experience.
It wasn't always that way, and the nation's capital almost didn't happen.
The original vision of a "Federal City" came from the mind of a Frenchman named Pierre L'Enfant, now a largely forgotten figure in our early national history. L'Enfant, a friend of the first president, had a grand and noble vision for the city, one in keeping with the position that America would take in the world.
Numerous forces worked against the establishment of the Federal City. Philadelphia interests wanted the capital to be there, as did New York City.
Leaders from New England threatened to secede from the new government if the capital was too far south. Southern states would not support northern moneyed interests getting control of the capital too far north. Annapolis was considered, as was Baltimore and a couple of Pennsylvania towns.
In the end, George Washington pulled the political coalition together to get the location agreed upon on the banks of the Potomac River.
One hundred square miles of wilderness were "purchased" from landed farmers in the area, the deal built around a land development plan. The United States didn't have any money actually to buy the land, so they came up with an elaborate land development scheme to make it work.
It took 10 years before John Adams moved into the President's House, and the seat of government actually moved with him. Ten years after that, the little capital was beginning to look like a real town.
Then a group of British regulars marched in and burned the place down during the War of 1812. Washington was so small and insignificant that no one actually believed the Brits would attack the capital. They assumed it would be Baltimore or Annapolis, much larger and more prosperous places.
In fact, preparations for the defense of the city were not even taken. President James Madison rode a horse out to scout what they were doing. His wife, Dolly, was so sure the Redcoats were going to Baltimore that she had dinner on the White House table when the foreigners arrived to burn the house down.
This is the story of Washington's hand in the development; of Jefferson working at odds with him; of L'Enfant's personal story of triumph and failure; and the very difficult process of actually getting large-scale construction done in a virtual wilderness.
Get the book and read it. It's guaranteed to make your next visit to Federal City more meaningful.
Contact Pat Taylor at email@example.com.
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