Lewis (English/Skidmore Coll.; The Hudson: A History, 2005, etc.) follows the evolution of the symbolic place of Washington, D.C., in the consciousness of Americans.
Before it was ever the capital of the United States, the city was the subject of fierce debate and a compromise distasteful to most involved. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted a Southern capitol, away from the Northern mercantilism. The only way they could achieve that goal was to allow Alexander Hamilton to assume states’ Revolutionary War debt. Congress didn’t provide funding for building, and there were labor problems and a string of inept architects. Peter Charles L’Enfant, with his brilliant master plan, was so arrogant that Washington fired him within two years; his plan was ignored, redrawn, and set aside. Congress declared itself the governing body of the district and continually ignored the populace’s frustrating attempts at self-rule. Neither did it provide for defense, leading to the burning of the city in 1814. The author stresses that it was a Southern city in geography as well as culture. The treatment of freedmen and blacks in general was decidedly Southern well into the 20th century. Eschewing a historical narrative, Lewis explains the character of the city, how it developed, the dastardly building mistakes, and how a few particular characters helped define it. Those few were responsible for bringing life to the city: William Corcoran, Oliver Howard, Alexander Shepherd, and Alexander Cassatt, to name a few. What brought about a return to L’Enfant’s plan was the formation of the Senate Park Commission in 1901, made up of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Burnham, and Charles McKim.
Lewis amply shows how close D.C. came to being an ugly patchwork town, and he cites the congressmen who fought to keep it Southern and the Gilded Age men who used their money for its good. Those who enjoy the city will enjoy this book.