George Washington’s Vision of His City on the Potomac
by Mary Brigid Barrett
• The Land of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers
• The Location of the New Nation’s Capitol: North or South?
• George Washington’s Dream of a New National Capital
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
The Land of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers
In the late 1800s, workers digging up a sewer on Capitol Hill found bone fragments from a Dryptosaurus, evidence of the many dinosaurs that roamed sixty-five million years ago through what were then steamy swamplands. Dryptosaurus, the “tearing lizard,” was a two-legged carnivore whose talon-like claws held its prey in a vice-like grip. Some might say the more recent breed of two-legged animal roaming Capitol Hill, “Legislataurus,” has similar tendencies.
One hundred thousand years ago, the ground that Washington, D.C. now occupies, was covered by a cypress swamp, with great cedar tree trunks measuring over eight feet wide dominating the landscape. Before the Europeans came bringing guns and whiskey and disease, the Powhatans, the Manahoacs, the Monacans, the Iroquois, the Tuscaroras, and the smaller tribes of Nacochants and Toags, lived in villages along the rivers. They fished for shad and herring and ten-foot-long sturgeon in the waters now called Potomac and Anacostia. The tribes hunted in thick forests of elm, oak, hickory, walnut, maple, and pine. And many believe that the land just south of what is now our Capital, was once a major meeting and trading place for the eastern tribes. While sifting through the excavated dirt from a swimming pool being constructed in the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt, archaeologists found stone projectile points and shards from Indian pottery.
The native peoples were pushed out by violent war and greedy land speculators; some died from diseases contracted from European settlers for which they had no immunities. White farmers felled the forests, over-planting the land with tobacco, a crop that sucks all nourishment from the soil. By the time the Revolutionary War was fought and won, many of the local farmers had smartened up, realizing the land needed time to replenish. Some let the land run to wild. Others planted cornfields and orchards in the hills and vales. Wild geese and ducks flying over fields and forests provided food for their tables. In the steamy summer months, plush trees shaded the banks of the Potomac. Breezes blowing downriver from its Great Falls cooled the land.
The Location of the New Nation’s Capitol: North or South?
The decision to locate the Federal City in the South sprung from a piece of legislation called the Assumption Act. Orchestrated by Thomas Jefferson, who had considerable personal interest in its outcome, the Assumption Act was either a dicey deal or a brilliant compromise, depending on one’s outlook. Alexander Hamilton, and others, wanted the capital of the new nation to be located in a northern state; the Virginians, and most southerners, wanted the capital south. Hamilton, our first Secretary of the Treasury, wanted the new federal government to pay, to assume, all of the states Revolutionary War debts, and then together the states, as one nation, would pay off the collective debt. The only problem was the southern states had already paid their debts off; they did not find the idea of also having to pay off the northern states debts appealing. So, a compromise: the South agreed that the entire nation should assume all the all the states’ war debts, and as a consolation prize, they got the new capital. But even after the Assumption Act passed, businessmen and politicians from over ten cities–especially New York and Philadelphia–mounted what was essentially a public relations campaign to gain the title capital. They wanted the money and profits they were sure would follow once they controlled the nation’s seat of power.
They were shameless in their attempts. New York and Philadelphia newspapers depicted the Potomac land as one great steamy swamp, which at that time it was not. It was only later, when the land was cleared for streets with all the shade trees felled, that the tree’s roots, which had kept the soil from eroding into the creeks and rivers, disintegrated, turning solid ground to marsh and swamp. And, the Tiber Creek, which John Quincy Adams swam in regularly when he was president, over time devolved into first, a diseased and muck-filled, man-made canal before it became what is today–an underground sewer. In the last decade of the 18th century when work in the new capital began, the land was still plush and beautiful, filled with cornfields, apple orchards, and forests of green trees.
The wily businessmen in New York and Philadelphia went so far as to spend great sums building magnificent houses to serve as the President’s Mansion, in a concerted effort to tempt President Washington into staying north. It was their hope, especially as time went by and construction efforts in the Potomac area suffered setbacks, that Washington would come to his senses, and persuade his fellow Virginians to keep the capital in Philadelphia, or move it back to New York, which served as the original capital after the Revolutionary War. Washington was not deterred in his dream of establishing the capital in his beloved Potomac Valley; he refused to see the house built in Philadelphia.
Of course, the Virginia crowd, including Washington and Jefferson, had self-serving commercial interests, too. They owned acres and acres of Virginia land, and they were confident it would rise in value as the city rose on the hills and vales along the Potomac. Action is often motivated by a combination of idealistic passion and financial self-interest working hand in hand. Washington did love the Potomac, he had grown up on its banks and his beloved home, Mount Vernon, stood overlooking its waters. He also believed that the nation would inevitably expand westward, that the Potomac could be linked by canals to the Ohio River creating a great waterway into the interior where, not surprisingly, he also owned many acres of land. He truly believed that locating the Federal City on the Potomac would benefit not only the South, but the whole country as well. And, if he and his friends made a little profit besides, what could be better?
George Washington’s Dream of a New National Capital
What a nation’s capital looks like—its height, its width, its boundaries, its architecture, its streets, parks, and boulevards, especially a city-capital that is literally carved out of a wilderness—is entirely dependent on a vision a government has of itself. And in George Washington’s government there existed two separate visions.
Rome and Athens, the only historical examples of democratic republics, were short-lived city-states that had no central government, hence no need of a “capital” city. And the geographic area covered by these city-states was small compared to the thirteen American states. No one on earth had ever organized an entire country under a representative government. That’s why our group of founding fathers was extraordinary, as were the womenfolk in their lives, for they were all walking blindly forward into the future with no example before them, no template, no model. We can look back and see they succeeded, but at that time they had no idea they would even survive as a nation. What they accomplished is nothing short of remarkable. They created a triangularly powered government of checks and balances that protects the rights of people who are in the majority, as well as protecting those who represent a minority view. They wrote a Constitution that delineated the rights of those who govern and they created a Bill of Rights to protect its everyday hard working citizens. Washington said of his role as President, “I walk on untrodden ground.” Each of the men who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights could have said the same thing.
They were the two political parties after the Revolutionary War. The Democratic-Republicans idealized rural farm life and small towns. They believed the voice of the people, “the masses,” should be louder than any one voice in government. They wanted states’ rights to rein supreme, and advocated for a very small national government. A small town, simple in concept and design, was their notion of a capital city. Thomas Jefferson was Democratic-Republicans’ point man.
The Federalists were interested in business and industry, they were city-focused, and believed that a strong central federal government was essential to ensure the future of the United States. Their leader was Alexander Hamilton. The Federalists worried that the country really wasn’t cohesively unified, that it was, in fact, 13 separate governments that could easily fall apart. Hamilton was Washington’s Treasury Secretary and Jefferson was his Secretary of State. The heads of the both opposing political parties were in Washington’s cabinet. Cabinet meetings must have been very interesting.
Washington hated political parties, but in truth he was more of a Federalist; he believed that the young country needed a strong central government. He knew this fledgling nation America would need to hold its own in the world, to project strength right away, or the world would run it right over. Like L’Enfant, the designer he asked to plan his new Federal City, he understood the phrase “perception is reality.” Even if they were all just making the government up as they went along, they could at least look as if they knew what they were doing. That is why, when L’Enfant envisioned a grand and glorious city, Washington agreed. He knew building a big, bold, beautiful city of solid stone—a city that could eventually hold its own with London or Paris—would let the world know that the people of the United States of America were serious, that they, that we, were here to stay.
To George Washington, building a beautiful elegant city, with a mansion for the president, a magnificent house for Congress, with beautiful parks and fountains, and a world-class university symbolized the united power he knew we needed if the nation was to survive. He truly understood his critics’ fear that a strong centralized government would betray the rights of individual freedom for which the Revolutionary War was fought. But, he also knew that if Democratic-Republicans got their way, and each state was a seen as sovereign entity unto itself, the new country would never survive. It would fail one state at a time.
It took more than 200 years for Washington’s vision to come true.
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Do you think President Washington and the Congress made the right decision to locate our nation’s capitol in the Potomac Valley? Does their original reasoning still have import now? If yes, expand on why you think their reasoning resonates today.
- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Pierre L’Enfant had many differences of opinions as to what the new capital of the United States should look like. But they all agreed that the visual image of the city was important for its symbolic meaning and because it would send a message to the rest of the world showing other countries who the United States was and what was important to its people. Do you agree? Can cities inspire or intimidate? Do certain kinds of architecture express power or security better than other styles of architecture? Can a capital city and its architecture convey to the world the essence of its country and its people?
- What early American political party best expresses your philosophy of government, the Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans? Why? Taking your philosophy of government into consideration, what do you think our nation’s capital should look like?
- Do you think landscape paintings and illustrations should only express the beauty of a setting, or should they show every realistic detail, including litter and destruction?
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Have your young people research and write the history of their home or school and its land. Have them find out if any other buildings, farms, or business existed previously on the lot. With permission, conduct your own mini-archeological dig. The records in your own town hall and historical society will be helpful for research. Also of help—Douglas L. Brownstone’s A Field Guide to America’s History, or a similar publication. And check out Archaeological.org.
- There are many historical figures who played a part in the creation of Washington, D.C., our capital. They include: George Washington, Pierre L’Enfant, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Ellicott, Benjamin Banneker, Daniel Carroll, James Hoban, William Thornton, and many more. Have students find out who all these “characters” were, what role they played in the development of the city, then have them write a poem about each character, writing first-person, in the voice of that character. Then the kids can share their poems informally or present them in a group dramatic reading.
- Your young people can design their own Federal City! Have the kids decide where in the country they think the capital should be located today. They can visit the library or go online to find maps of the geographic area where they would like to locate their new dream capital. Using L’Enfant’s and Thomas Jefferson’s city designs as a reference, have the kids map out their street plan for their dream capital complete with a house for the president, buildings for Congress and the Supreme Court, and all the parks, fountains, playgrounds, stores, and houses they desire!
- Look at a map of the United States and ask your children or students where they would locate the capital and have them discuss the underlying reasons for their locations. Then have them write a letter to their United States Senator or Congressman sharing their ideas, as well as citing the reasons why they think the capital should be moved to a particular location. They can choose to mail the letter, or keep it as a writing exercise.
- Accompany your children outside on a pleasant day and have them bring with them a small board to draw and paint on, and a backpack full of: watercolor paper, watercolor paints in a plastic or metal paint set, brushes, sponge and some paper towels, a pencil, a kneaded rubber eraser, a bottle full of clean water, a small plastic bowl and some masking tape. (Watercolor paper is available at your local arts and crafts store. Remember very few people know anything about arts supplies, so do not be afraid to ask for help, everyone does!) Find a beautiful vista, and have everyone try their hand at landscape painting. Have the kids sit down first and look and look and look. Have a discussion about the light and the color around them. Is a tree trunk brown, or is it really shades of gray? How many shades of green are the leaves? What direction is the light coming from? Where are the dark shadows? Have the children choose their perspective on the surrounding landscape and suggest that they lightly sketch out what they see first in pencil. When their sketch is complete, they can paint, and suggest they use the top of their paint box, or a small plate of plastic, or a plastic lid, as their palette to mix paints to get the shades of color they want.
Brown, Milton W. Brown. One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting. Smithsonian Institute Press: Washington D.C., 1983
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington, the Indispensable Man. Little Brown and Company: New York, 1969, 1973, 1974
Greenberg, Allan. George Washington, Architect. Andreas Papadakis Publisher: London, 1999
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997
Ketchum, Richard M. The World of George Washington. American Heritage Publishing, Inc.: New York, 1974
Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson, a Life. Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1993
Reps, John W. Washington on View: The Nation’s Capital Since 1790. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1991
Smithsonian Institution. Washington D.C.: A Smithsonian Book of the Nation’s Capital. Smithsonian Books: Washington D.C., 1992
©2016 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance