Matthew B. Gilmore
George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in Early Republic America. University of Georgia Press, 2018.
Well the text on the back cover starts with “This book traces the history of the development, abandonment, and eventual revival of George Washington’s original vision for a grand national capital on the Potomac.” And that’s definitely a sentence I’ve been saying to people for a long time. But I think your audience of readers interested in D.C. history needs a bit more detail.
My general goal for the project was to combine a local history of Washington with a look at the ideologies of the national politicians in power over the years so that I could examine the resulting relationship between the federal government and the city (both its residents and the physical city itself). Along the way, I also thought it was important to try to draw connections between Washington and broader trends in American urban history.
The result is a history of the idea of the grand national capital and how it inspired action from local elites and national leaders – sometimes in favor of and sometimes against – fulfillment of that vision of the city.
The broad story arc across the whole book is contained in that sentence I quoted above.
George Washington and the Federalists created a vision for a grand national capital which was given form in L’Enfant’s plan for the city. With it’s huge avenues and a footprint that covered six times the area of inhabited New York City in 1800, the city was meant to awe visitors and house a strong and powerful national government. Long before the Federalists could actually construct such a city, however, the reins of government were turned over to the Jeffersonians in 1801.
No fan of cities or powerful governments, Jefferson was not interested in bringing L’Enfant’s grand plan to fruition. In addition, the small-government ideology his party espoused rejected the notion that taxes collected from the rest of the nation should be used to construct a city for the residents of Washington. Beyond improvements to Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, Jeffersonians did little to foster development in Washington.
In the 1830s, however, despite having their ideological roots in the small-government beliefs of the Jeffersonians, Jacksonian politicians embraced a revival of federal support for the District. They acknowledged, for example, the obvious points that all Americans bore responsibility for support of their capital and that the local population with its tiny tax base was completely incapable of doing so alone. In addition, they began a building spree in the city, erecting large stone structures to house executive offices that were reminiscent of the White House and Capitol. With the nation fast becoming the continental empire Washington has envisioned, the Jacksonians supported construction of a national capital to match the growing power of the United States.
Along the way I fold in the stories of the local District population who embrace Washington’s vision for the city early on and who serve as keepers of the flame, if you will, for that vision.
As this book began life as a dissertation, it seems appropriate to give a nod the influence of my advisor, Alan Taylor and the two other members of my committee, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and Ari Kelman. Their influence on my approach the subject and on my writing really can’t be understated.
In terms of other history books, I always appreciated the model offered by Carol Sheriff in her book about the Erie Canal, The Artificial River. She does a commendable job of taking a subject that, on the surface, might not seem all that interesting – the digging of a four-foot deep ditch across the state of New York – and uses it very deftly to make broader points about American life in the early 19th century.
For D.C. history, there are just too many to mention. The authors I listed below in question five all deserve some acknowledgement (and even that list feels insufficient).
Finally, I should note the important intellectual influence of my wife, Keren, who is a city planner. In our household, one of us deals with the urban past while the other helps to shape our urban future. Needless to say, it is perfectly obvious to both of us, whose job is more important.
It always gets a bit tiring trying to tell people that Washington was never all that swampy. I make the point briefly in the book, but not with the detail and passion that Kenneth Bowling brings to the subject in The Creation of Washington D.C. (pp. 237-38).
I suppose what often surprises fans of D.C. history is my analysis of Jefferson. Because of his love of architecture, his work organizing parts of the capital project early on as Washington’s Secretary of State, and his later micromanagement of Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s work at the White House and Capitol, Jefferson is often seen as a crucial figure in the city’s development. Looking at the government’s role in city development during his administration, it becomes clear, however, that Jefferson and his successors were no great friends of the city.
Research into early Washington can’t be done without the deeply detailed histories written long ago by people like Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan and Constance McLaughlin Green, and those written more recently by Bob Arnebeck and Kenneth Bowling.
Authors who engage more directly with the meanings carried by the physical form and development of the capital include Carl Abbot, Catherine Allgor, John Reps, Howard Gillette Jr., and Alan Lessoff.
Of course, the above lists are by no means comprehensive.
As someone who researches and writes about Washington but does not live there, my greatest challenge is always a race against time during my research trips. The previous generations of historians might have had the luxury of quietly contemplating sources while at the archives. My circumstances require that I spend my time taking thousands of photos that I’ll get to look at later.
Piecing together facts and a narrative from the fragmentary historical record we have from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries is, of course, always a challenge for those of us who write about those eras. That was definitely the case on this project especially when dealing with the history of local District residents.
I worked a good deal with the records of the commissioners who were in charge of construction of the city and the public buildings, as well as the various federal officials who held similar responsibilities as the years went on. Those records along with many of the other documents related to early Washington are housed at the National Archives in D.C.
I was very lucky to come across a series of reports written by the War Department for the Senate between 1898 and 1901 that detailed the sales of all the lots in the city owned by the government. For those not familiar with this bit of D.C. history, the government basically split the land in the city not reserved for streets or public buildings with the original owners. Once the squares were drawn up, the government got half of the lots in each square and the original owner got the other half. It was hoped that sales of such lots by the government would provide money for construction of the city and public buildings. This division also gave the original owner some way to make money from their situation. These very thorough reports allowed me to trace early lot sales and the income the government collected from them. These are all publicly available Senate documents. The first one, for example, is Senate Document No. 277 from the 2nd Session of the 55th Congress.
I also found the annual compilations of laws passed by the Washington City Council to be a very helpful. They often provided useful insight into the concerns of the local population and the financial state of the city. As those were published pamphlets, I was able to acquire many of them via inter-library loan from various large libraries around the nation.
I’d really love a full record of every lot sale and every building constructed over the first half-century or so of Washington history. It would be great to be able to map those buildings, sales, and land values over time as the city grew.
The book is an academic monograph from a university press. However, throughout the process of researching and writing it, I wanted to keep a much broader audience in mind than just other academic historians and a few of their graduate students. To that end, I’ve tried my best to make sure that the prose is clear and easy to read. I very much hope that anyone with an interest in D.C. history, the early American republic, or the ways we give meaning to spaces and places will enjoy the book.
I’m a historian at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where I teach American History and also our Ancient History class. Most of my course-load consists of the U.S. History survey classes. Since every student at public colleges in Texas is required to take both halves of the U.S. survey, we stay very busy introducing the American story to young Texans. Fortunately for me, that’s a story I enjoy telling.
I’m originally from Rhode Island. I fell in love with the national capital as an undergrad at American U. After American and some time aboard, I spent some time in the D.C. area playing young professional and working for a consulting firm. Eventually, my wife and I left the region to pursue graduate degrees, first to Chapel Hill for her Master’s in City and Regional Planning, and then to Davis, California where I spent seven years working on my doctorate at the University of California, Davis. We’ve been in Texas for the last six years; the last five of those here in Corpus. As you might guess, it is absurdly hot here. But the gulf coast is beautiful. It has a very low cost of living. And after years in places like Chapel Hill and Davis, Corpus is a good-sized city for us.
As I mentioned above, I do love D.C. When it came time to select a dissertation topic in graduate school, I was really intrigued by the many overlapping meanings of the national capital. I also loved the idea that federal authority over the city means that it offers a rare place where the ideals and ideologies of those in power might take physical form.
I think my focus on the ways that differing visions for the capital – driven often by differing ideologies – clashed over the first half-century of Washington history and affected the physical development of the city sets this book apart from other histories of the city at the time.
Constance McLaughlin Green’s Washington, Village and Capital 1800-1878 remains a brilliant classic more than fifty years after it won the Pulitzer. Although, I should also admit that I any time I open either Capital Losses or Capital Houses by James M. Goode, I’m utterly lost in their pages for at least an hour.
I’m currently working on turning my work on early D.C. into a game for use in the classroom. For a few years now, I’ve been using a pedagogy in my Ancient History courses called Reacting to the Past. In Reacting games, the students are assigned a historical character from a pivotal time and place in history. Each character has a set of ideals that they need to stay true to and a set of goals to accomplish. Often, they are grouped together in factions of people with similar ideals and goals. As a class, the groups have to work their way through the major issues facing the society at that time. I workshopped my plans for an early D.C. game at a Reacting conference this past summer, and I’m very excited to move forward with the project.
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