Thursday, 17 September 2009

“Washington,” by Fergus M. Bordewich (Amistad/HarperCollins)

Bordewich-Washington The making of the American Capital

The story of Washington D.C., is an amazing tale of high ideals, incompetence, greed and the struggle of the slave-class. The city, Bordewich tells us, “was born from one of the most intense political struggles in American history, one shaped by power politics, big money, the imperatives of slavery, ferocious sectional rivalry, and back-room dealing.” In Washington, Bordewich offers a biography of the great city, touching on the main issues and people involved.

“The establishment of Washington, D.C., was, at least in part, rooted in fictions: that the Potomac was destined to become the high road to the West, that there was no better location for the seat of government, that land speculators could do for the nation what its elected officials would not, that executive privilege could shield Congress and the public from unpleasant truths, and that – the biggest illusion of all – slavery had little or nothing to do with putting the capital on the Potomac in the first place.”

In Washington, Bordewich has managed to convey admirably this amazing story, capturing the sense of the time brilliantly. The city is an amazing feat of accomplishment, especially for a nation that was so backward and insecure as the fledging United States. It is a city of “the sepulchral monuments to past presidents and to wars won and lost... massive government buildings, museums, foreign embassies, and the taut axis of republican power formed by the Capitol and the White House”, which taken together “shape a cityscape that emanates both national self-confidence and imperial grandeur like no other in the world.”

That is now. Towards the end of the 19th Century, however, “few questions agitated the new country’s leaders as much as the site of its permanent capital,” and the story of its creation is a useful tool to illustrate the politics of the time(s). Or, in the author’s words, this struggle is “a kind of national parable, embodying the central contradiction of America, persisting even today, between noble intentions and the sordid realities of power.”

To begin with, Bordewich discusses the choice of the Potomac as the location for the new city, how this was not really a popular choice, as many saw it at the time as a “barbarous wilderness”. The city was seen as a test for the young nation. It had to work, the founding generation believed; otherwise America’s various enemies (the “hungry wolves”) might see it as a sign of, unable to create a seat of power and authority, and ripe for exploitation and conquest.

The city’s location did not just have international implications, as domestic considerations played a considerable, at some times insurmountable, obstacle to a final decision. The politics involved in choosing a location were fraught with Machiavellian manoeuvrings (once again, the skill of James Madison is on display). The story illustrates how timeless politics is, and how nothing is new in the public sphere, as “virtually from the start, the project was hobbled by scandalous financial manipulation, and a degree of incompetence sometimes suggestive of a modern banana republic.”

As well as the city and politics involved, Bordewich introduces us to the broad cast involved in its creation, giving us detailed (sometimes amusing) portrayals of key figures – from the timeless names of Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton, to the lesser-known characters like Peter Charles L’Enfant (the city’s flamboyant planner), whose Romanesque, neoclassical designs in New York were described as “vamped up Jimcrackery and Gingerbread” and an insult to Congress. Others include Capitol-designer William Thornton. One of the most interesting portraits is that of the brilliant black mathematician, astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who conducted some of the essential work needed on the first survey of the city. along with various piratical speculators whose greed nearly sank the grand project more than once

Without slaves, D.C. could never have been built, and yet (in another example of a white-washed founding/history myth) “For two centuries, their presence, and their sacrifice, was largely left out of the story of the capital’s creation, as if they had never been there.”

“There would be free white, and a few free black, wage earners who contributed their sweat to the creation of the capital. But much of the work that would make the city a reality would be done by men who were hired out to the [city] commissioners and their agents, and who were rewarded with nothing but bread, sardines, and salt pork. The capital would become, at least in part, a slave labor camp.”

The politics of slavery, therefore, played a huge part in the founding of the capital, and therefore Bordewich has made it a central element to this book. Originally, Philadelphia (the nation’s capital from 1791-1800) was being re-designed to fulfil the greater function of a world-class capital (the Susquehanna River was also considered). However, given the city’s status as virulently abolitionist, not to mention the growing population of free blacks, rendered it politically unfeasible as a capital – the delicate balance between North and South, slave-state and free-, required a compromise.

The task of compromise, and much more was left to the aging and ailing George Washington, as – even though much of the actual politicking was done by others,

“For most of a generation, Washington the man had been the living symbol of a national unity that transcended local jealousies and selfish interests. When he was gone, a new symbol that transcended one man's personal charisma must knit together the disparate people who called themselves Americans: Washington the city.”

Washington peals back the many layers of myth and fable surrounding America’s capital, revealing the hidden and unsavoury side to the nation’s beginnings and how it developed into, in Bordewich’s words, “a massive symbol that would embody the spirit of a nation that barely yet existed.” Beset by myriad financial and political obstacles, it is a story of triumph over adversity, and political courage and skill. Bordewich has an excellent writing style that will engage and inform while also drawing the reader along, and Washington is therefore an excellent addition to the existing literature on America’s capital.

This is easily one of the best written history books of the year.

Also try: Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); David Reynold’s, America, Empire of Liberty (2007); Frederick Gutheim, Worthy of the Nation (2006); Sarah Luria, Capital Speculations (2005); Joseph Passonneau, Washington Through Two Centuries (2004)

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