Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Empire of Mud, by J.D. Dickey

Second paragraph of third chapter:
In August 1814, in one of the last acts of the futile and misnamed War of 1812, British forces dropped anchor at Benedict, Maryland, some forty-five miles southeast of the District. Avenging the American army's devastation of the Canadian city of York, the British marched to Bladensburg, where they routed a force of capital militia. From there they attacked Washington City from the north, only to find it abandoned by its defenders. The British torched the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and other public buildings before finding a fully prepared meal laid out for guests at the Executive Mansion, which they gobbled down before burning that building too.
I love going to Washington, and indeed spent three days there two weeks ago, in the course of which I bought this book at Busboys and Poets meeting britzkrieg for dinner, and then read it on my flight westwards. It's a nice little micro-history of Washington City during its lifetime as an independent governmental entity from 1802 to 1871, with appropriate consideration of what happened before, after, and in the neighbourhood - considering also how the city's peculiar relationship with the nation, ruling and ruled by the United States but not part of any of them, constrained its development.

One of my favourite songs in Hamilton deals with the choice of site for the new nation's capital:
[BURR] Congress is fighting over where to put the capital—
[Company screams in chaos]
[BURR] It isn’t pretty
Then Jefferson approaches with a dinner and invite
And Madison responds with Virginian insight:
[MADISON] Maybe we can solve one problem with another and win a victory for the Southerners, in other words—
[MADISON] A quid pro quo
[JEFFERSON] I suppose
[MADISON] Wouldn’t you like to work a little closer to home?
[JEFFERSON] Actually, I would
[MADISON] Well, I propose the Potomac
[JEFFERSON] And you’ll provide him his votes?
[MADISON] Well, we’ll see how it goes
Dickey goes into this in some detail, and there is more back-story than is in the musical. From Alexander Hamilton's side, he was concerned at the vulnerability of a government located in Philadelphia, or any pre-existing city, to mob pressure. George Washington, who was empowered by Congress to choose the site for the new government, chose partly due to military defensibility (from naval attack - he did not anticipate that the British would land elsewhere and march in from the northeast) but also with an eye to his own personal interests - his own home, Mount Vernon, was a couple of dozen miles away, and he also had investments in local infrastructure, particularly a failed attempt to build a canal linking the capital to the North East. But by 1802, when the city government was established, Washington was dead, Hamilton's career was over, and there was nobody to champion the interests of Washington City; until the Civil War successive administrations and Congresses were suspicious of a powerful central government and therefore unwilling to invest much in its seat. So the Capitol, the White House and a few other buildings existed as islands of decent architecture in a grubby network of streets which still honoured L'Enfant's original design, but the city as a whole was dilapidated and geographically isolated until the railways came. (One little detail - I was fascinated to learn that before the Pentagon there was the Octagon, a six-sided building which still stands near the White House, where slaves worked in the cellars for the Tayloe family and where President Monroe ran the country for a few months in 1814 while the White House was being repaired.)

Dickey goes into the physical and human geography of Washington City - not just the elites, but the slaves, the prostitutes, the small traders, the elites. There are many fascinating snippets: The Supreme Court judges all rented rooms in the same house up to the 1840s. The area between the White House and the Capitol, now the glistening Federal Triangle, was previously known as Murder Bay and was a haven of liminal activity. Mary Ann Hall ran a successful brothel for decades on the site of what is now the National Museum of the American Indian, and rests under an impressive monument in the Congressional cemetery, no doubt close to many of her clients. The Washington Monument remained an embarrassing half-built stump for twenty-five years, due to wrangling over costs and control.

The story shifts gear dramatically with the Civil War, which made Washington City a key defensive asset and also a target for attack. Montgomery Meigs, the army engineer who had already brought in fresh water and renovated the Capitol, tends to be remembered for his role in establishing Arlington Cemetery during the war, but actually put a lot more effort into making the city fit for purpose as a military base. By the time the war was over, the District of Columbia's population had soared and its political image had changed completely; Meigs' efforts led directly to the abolition of the independence of Georgetown and Washington City and the institution of congressional rule over the Dictrit of Columbia in 1871. That's pretty much where his story ends, and he gets a little too caught up in the detail of what was going on with Boss Shepherd, who carried out further city development to personal profit and huge cost in the early 1870s.

The book is lavishly illustrated with maps, photographs, and occasional portraits, and is also reasonably digestible at 245 pages of the main text. I think even readers who don't share my fascination with its subject would enjoy it.
Tags: bookblog 2016

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