Georgia, United States, University of Georgia Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780820352855; 264pp.; Price: £47.38
Date accessed: 1 October, 2023
A recent addition to the Early American Places series, Adam Costanzo’s George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic provides an overview of the development of and visions for Washington, DC, from 1790 to the late 1830s and, thus, spans the administrations of the first seven American presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. The city of Washington was the ninth and final home of America’s federal government and did not exist in 1790, except arguably in the mind’s eye of President Washington and his newly appointed (and personally chosen) city architect Peter Charles L’Enfant. Costanzo traces the ways in which the city and the nation matured concurrently, eventually ‘growing to fit the grand design provided by Washington and L’Enfant’ (p. 9). Throughout the book, Costanzo balances the contributions of various presidential administrations with the tenacity and efforts of local citizens to assist and advance the project of creating a thriving seat of government for the new American nation, especially through the waxing and waning of federal commitment. At times, Costanzo highlights how the architecture and design of public and private places can serve as a lens into local and federal visions.
Costanzo organizes his book into four sections. Part one is the origin story: the early visions for a federal city sited along the Potomac, the problem of raising capital for the project through various poorly-realized land speculation deals, and the slow growth of the city which hindered the ability of locals to promote it. Key to the city’s origin is the Residence Act of 1790, in which Congress designated a district along the Potomac River for the permanent seat of government and gave the choice of the actual location for the city to President Washington. The Act also gave the president full authority to hire and supervise the board of commissioners (who named the city ‘Washington’ and the district, the ‘District of Columbia’, in 1791) and complete oversight over surveying, design, and construction. Given the importance of the Residence Act, its absence in an appendix is lamentable. The language used by Congress indicated to some degree what its vision for the federal city was (something Costanzo does not explore), and the broad authority granted Washington makes quite an impact in the original language of the Act.
Costanzo repeatedly refers to Washington’s ‘vision for a great federal city’ (p. 15) or terms to that effect, but Washington’s words or thoughts on what that meant to him are curiously missing. The retired president Washington is quoted from 1798, predicting that the federal city will someday compare to London, but other than that his voice is silent. Instead, Costanzo uses L’Enfant’s voice as a proxy for Washington: in an extract from his letter asking the president to consider him for the project, L’Enfant states his vision clearly, ‘” ... the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit”’ (p. 19). The reader must infer that Washington concurred, which is not farfetched given that L’Enfant got the job and the level of trust between Washington and L’Enfant, but more from Washington himself would have strengthened our overall understanding.
In particular, Washington and one of the first three commissioners for the federal city project, David Stuart (a Virginia physician and Washington’s son-in-law and longtime confidant), exchanged correspondence about the planned city’s progress. The sometimes-frank sentiments expressed to Stuart by the president on various stages of development are revealing, and including them would have added depth to Costanzo’s story. Further, the book’s excellent cover illustrates just how personal Washington’s vision for a permanent seat of government was and yet Costanzo does not discuss it. The cover features L’Enfant’s map below a close-up of part of the famous painting by Edward Savage, The Washington Family (1789–96). This family portrait presents Washington, his wife Martha, two of their grandchildren (his grandchildren by marriage) and a slave in livery sitting and standing around a table, with several of them touching or gesturing to L’Enfant’s rendering of the federal city which is splayed before them. Washington ordered four prints of the engraving and hung one in the family dining room. As is well known, Washington had no children of his own, and one could argue that this family portrait symbolizes the place the federal city held for him – it was like a member of the family, his legacy.
Part two of George Washington’s Washington moves the story forward to the early 1800s, especially the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and the rise of the Democratic-Republican Party. Costanzo argues that Jefferson’s view of America as an agrarian republic stunted the economic development of Washington as a bustling city. In 1803 Jefferson hired Benjamin Latrobe to oversee construction of the two most important buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, the President’s House and Capitol, and Jefferson also designed and approved the planting of 500 Lombardy poplars to line the avenue between the two buildings. However, his focus on the governmental core had the ‘twin effects of beautifying Pennsylvania Avenue and obscuring the rest of the city’ (p. 62). So, Jefferson’s passion for architecture and landscape design, as well as his input and interest in the federal city from the beginning, combined with his political perspective to play a significant role in the elegant look and ‘ornamentation for the government core of the city while also separating it from the surrounding urban area’ (p. 62).
Costanzo is at his best with narrative and his description of individuals and local efforts to develop the federal city beyond the governmental core, which began in earnest during the Jeffersonian era, add enormously to this rendition of the history of Washington, DC. The story of William Cranch and the Washington Bridge Company is an excellent example. Cranch was a nephew of Abigail Adams and arrived in the District of Columbia in 1794 with a letter of introduction from his uncle, Vice-President John Adams. William was Judge Cranch by 1808 when he invested in the recently chartered Washington Bridge Company (by an act of Congress that Jefferson signed). Located along the part of the Potomac near where the 14th Street Bridge now spans, the proposed bridge would connect the end of Maryland Avenue in the city with the Virginia side of the river (where Arlington is today). Cranch promoted it as a money-making toll bridge for foot, horse, and coach traffic against all disbelievers, and the bridge, itself, becomes almost heroic with Costanzo’s telling as it withstood severe winter ice storms and a damaging flood in 1809 and 1810 while detractors lined the banks of the river, predicting a spectacle of destruction. This bridge was damaged during the Civil War, rebuilt more than once during the 19th and 20th centuries, and now stands as the Long Bridge, used exclusively for railroad traffic. Costanzo neglects to mention this last point (and other details of its location, which are included here), which would have made his narrative even stronger.
Part three chronicles the harrowing attack on Washington during the War of 1812 and the rebuilding and renewed dedication to the federal city in the years that followed. In September 1814, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Congress again discussed whether to remain along the Potomac. Over the years since 1790, Congress had revisited the debate over the location of the capital city more than once (the Senate in 1804, the House in 1808), so it is an error or splitting hairs on a technicality when Costanzo claims that the 1814 debate ‘marked the only time since 1790 that the full House of Representatives debated the location of the seat of government’ (p. 114). In any case, Costanzo’s further point is well-taken: the federal government’s loyalty to the Potomac location had never been rock-solid, which stymied growth and restricted the success of local boosterism, community development, and overall progress. When the renewed debates resulted in a decision to stay, even amid the War’s destruction, Congress finally vanquished the lingering uncertainty of federal commitment that had plagued the capital city. Accordingly, Costanzo views this as a milestone moment in Washington history.
As federal attention focused on the rebuilding of public buildings, Costanzo illustrates how local efforts multiplied and residents invested in the vision of Washington as ‘an exemplary American metropolis’ (p. 128). From new ordinances to beautify neighborhoods to efforts to help the poor to support for its intellectual and scientific community, local elites strove to ‘create physical and institutional symbols of local authority’ (p. 109). Taking a cue from Jefferson’s eye for beautification and his subtle understanding of marks of authority (and from European leaders for whom street trees were displays of power), Washington and other major American cities during this period planted thousands of trees. In 1815, First Lady Dolly Madison and local elite women such as real-estate heiress Marcia Burnes Van Ness and author Margaret Bayard Smith helped orphaned girls by creating the Washington Female Orphan Asylum. In an effort to enhance the city’s credentials as an intellectual center, the men of Washington society established the Metropolitan Society in 1816, soon renamed the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, and petitioned for acreage on the National Mall for botanical research and a garden. Although the Columbian Institute declined in the 1820s, it set a precedent for the National Institution for the Promotion of Science (established in 1840), which became the Smithsonian Institution.
The book’s final section examines the Jacksonian era of the 1830s, which brought more substantive federal acknowledgement of responsibility for the expanding city. Although the Jacksonian era was indeed a period of expansion for Washington DC, and the country, Costanzo’s blanket assessment of earlier administrations, ‘the U.S. government remained relatively weak during the first two decades after the ratification of the Constitution’ (p. 154), is highly debatable. Nonetheless, Costanzo convincingly argues that two factors proved crucial to the inclination of federal politicians to attach ‘greater symbolic meaning to the national capital’ (p. 150).
The first circumstance was the rapid westward expansion of the American empire, which increasingly required a physical center of authority to anchor political policy and federal will. Although Andrew Jackson campaigned on a return to the bucolic days of an idealized agrarian republic, his administration increased the federal workforce and supported large public works projects. Jackson, who lived in Tennessee as an adult, was the first president from west of the Appalachian Mountains and brought a westward perspective with him. Again, because Costanzo does not discuss the Savage portrait of The Washington Family on his book’s cover, he does not make the connection between Jackson’s perspective and George Washington’s vision of the capital city as a national and global power, as symbolized in the portrait by the Potomac River (gateway to the West) in the background and Washington’s arm alight the shoulder of the next generation (his grandson George Washington Parke Custis) whose hand rests on the globe, a symbol of empire.
Jackson recognized that even as Americans pushed ever westward and became more dispersed, his party’s political power would emanate more cohesively from a functioning, burgeoning capital city. Among other things, Jacksonians built three new grand federal buildings (Treasury Department, Patent Office, and General Post Office), invested in universities, and most importantly, backed the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal project, which rescued local leaders who were nearly bankrupt. Despite these federal efforts, for some residents of Georgetown and Alexandria it was a case of ‘too little too late’ as they sought retrocession back to their original states of Maryland and Virginia, respectively, in order to receive the economic stability and support that states gave to their cities.
The second trend rocking the nation and its capital city was the growing sectional divide over slavery, abolitionism, and the slave trade in the District. On this point, Costanzo artfully argues that by turning to Congress as a forum for debates over the abolition of slavery and ‘highlighting the symbolic value of the national capital, both opponents and proponents of Southern slavery raised the stature and significance of the federal city’ (p. 160). For abolitionists who bombarded Congress with petitions to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the District, ‘the District was the nation’ and should set an example for the republic, while slavery’s defenders in Congress also ‘saw the capital as a proxy for the nation’ (p. 160).
As nuanced as Costanzo’s discussion is on these two trends, he misses the opportunity to strengthen it with a tie-in to Alexandria’s retrocession movement. He lists the ‘what’ of Alexandrian’s concerns (no control over taxation, confusing court structures, outdated legal codes, congressional disregard, and an unwanted merger with Georgetown and Washington), but not the underlying ‘why’: congressional blockage of such economic development in Alexandria as railroads to connect to western markets, and, even more significantly, southern recognition that the North would soon have the votes to ban the slave trade in the District (Alexandria had a large slave trading market). Alexandria achieved retrocession back to Virginia in 1846; Congress banned the slave trade in the District of Columbia on 20 September 20 1850.
Costanzo’s account becomes stronger with each section, but his narrative is continually weakened by what he neglects to include (which comprises more than this review can address). He ends with a short epilogue that summarizes how the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s insistence on the defense of the capital from southern troops merged the image of Washington with that of the Union. In the ensuing years, the importance ‘of the capital brought it even closer to George Washington’s vision of a grand federal city on the Potomac at the head of a powerful and united American empire’ (p. 185). President Ulysses Grant had much to do with this consolidation of Washington into a truly national capital and a few paragraphs more on Grant’s impact would have bolstered Costanzo’s epilogue. Although Costanzo cites historian Kenneth Bowling several times, he neglected to use Bowling’s ‘From “Federal Town” to “National Capital”: Ulysses S. Grant and the Reconstruction of Washington, D.C.’ (1), which would have made his concluding paragraphs vastly more effective to his final thesis: that in the years after the war ‘the national capital gained further stature as the center of the newly strengthened union’ and evolved from ‘a place of governance and symbolic meaning into a place of actual public engagement’ (p. 186).
One last note, this reviewer feels an obligation to point out an obvious and unfortunate mistake that should have been caught by Costanzo’s editor: the reference to figure four, Thomas Jefferson’s plan of the federal city, is confusingly misplaced in the text so that it occurs in the sentence introducing L’Enfant’s plan for the city (p. 23). As a result, L’Enfant’s plan, figure 5, is also confusingly referenced in the text (p. 24).
- From “Federal Town” to “National Capital”: Ulysses S. Grant and the Reconstruction of Washington, D.C.’, Washington History, 14 (2002), 8–25.Back to (1)
The author is pleased to accept this review without any further comment.