Novelist and accomplished armchair historian Standiford (Writing/Florida International Univ.; Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America, 2005, etc.) gives a sprightly account of Washington, D.C.’s improbable genesis and survival.
The author frames his account with the sack of the brand-new Federal City on August 24, 1814. The British army was prompted by “the intent of teaching the upstart Americans a lesson in ‘hard war’ and reducing their capital to ashes,” he writes. President James Madison would never again inhabit the White House, and a divided Congress voted against the government’s relocation to Philadelphia; rebuilding the devastated capital became a priority. After sketching these events, Standiford returns to the beginning, dwelling at length on the states’ squabbles over where the nation’s capital should be situated. French architect and Revolutionary War veteran Peter Charles L’Enfant, fresh from his success remodeling New York’s City Hall into a Federal Hall, was enthusiastically endorsed by President Washington and others for the planning of a magnificent Federal City to rise out of the swampy wilderness along the Potomac River. L’Enfant envisioned a design that would “give an idea of the greatness of the empire,” allowing dramatic vistas for the appreciation of majestic public buildings and emphasizing the natural beauty of the land as well. However, after his power struggles with the district commissioners came to a head in 1792, he was replaced by successors who came and went through a revolving door, and Washington’s retirement and subsequent death deflated the enthusiasm for the capital’s construction. (L’Enfant spent the rest of his days in hopeless litigation to get remuneration for his work.) The British attack of 1814 was a wake-up call for the fledging nation, which had grown complacent, and Standiford does a fine job bringing to life the urgency of events.
A nice complement to Fergus M. Bordewich’s broader survey, Washington: The Making of the American Capital (2008), offering a more intimate look at L’Enfant and the crisis provoked by the British.