Main Street Of America


Washingtonians early became accustomed to exotic or foreign faces on their streets. Besides the American Indians, there were the flamboyantly dressed envoys from Algiers and Turkey, and the elegant ones from Europe. The private parties were rather too heterogeneous for class-conscious Europeans, and there were no first-rate public amusements. Housing was hard to find, and the climate was regarded as miasmic. For years, the British made an effort to assign only bachelors to Washington, to avoid the cruelty of sending women and children there. Stratford Canning, a British minister, wrote to his sister in 1822, In the present imperfect state of this celebrated metropolis the life of a foreigner must ever be one of privation and restraint. … I try to make the best of my bargain; I swear occasionally—you women cannot conceive the comfort of swearing—and I occasionally repeat to myself old saws and fag-ends of verse about patience. If I cannot get the last new novel I shut myself up and wait for better times.

Canning described Pennsylvania Avenue as “a low flat space of considerable extent,” and believed that nothing short of a miracle could make Washington a success. “It would take a century to carry its population up to 30 or 40 thousand souls,—black souls and white.” (He was wrong by some seventy-five years: the population of Washington reached the 30,000 mark sometime between 1840 and 1850.)

Other foreign representatives did their share of complaining. The Spanish minister in 1805 wrote that it was difficult “to produce as decent dinner in the new capital without sending fifty or sixty miles for its materials.” The Portuguese minister, Abbe Correa de Serra, coined a famous epithet for Washington that can be taken as kindly or unkindly, depending on the listener: “The City of Magnificent Distances.”

Local residents complained even more than the diplomats and the congressmen. One resident expressed the conviction that L’Enfant had made Pennsylvania Avenue so very wide in order that “dire necessity” would force Congress to pave and improve it as quickly as possible. Another wrote the City Council: I find the communications to and from my house intercepted by a ditch adjoining the pavement on Pennsylvania Avenue and by a marsh which fronts me on the East. A carriage, a cart, or a single horse cannot pass from the Avenue to my house. It is even difficult … on foot.

Yet despite universal grouching, there was an esprit de corps in Washington comparable to that of good sailors on a rough voyage. There were those who stayed on deck despite the rolling seas—and succeeded in enjoying themselves.

By 1810, the population had increased to 8,208. When James Madison was inaugurated in 1809, he and his friend Jefferson rode down Pennsylvania Avenue in an open carriage, acclaimed by a crowd estimated at close to 12,000—for the roads into the city and the hotel accommodations were now such that people from as far away as Baltimore were able to make the inaugural ceremonies an occasion for a sightseeing spree.

As far as Washington was concerned, the War of 1812 was the war of August, 1814. The redcoats, led by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, set fire to the Capitol and then marched up Pennsylvania Avenue and did the same to the abandoned President’s House. That evening and the next day they also burned the Library of Congress, the Navy Yard, the Potomac Bridge, and the War and Treasury departments. They would have burned the Patent Office (then in Blodget’s Hotel) too, had they not been dissuaded by its superintendent, Dr. William Thornton, who stood at the door and told them that to burn patent models would be a crime comparable to the burning of the library in Alexandria. “Are you Goths or Vandals?” he asked them. British newspapers, when word of the conflagration reached London, were distressed and indignant.

Admiral Cockburn spent the night of August 24 at Mrs. Suter’s boardinghouse, on the corner of Fifteenth Street and the avenue. He had been there some weeks before, disguised as an ordinary traveller, and he now reintroduced himself to Mrs. Suter with elaborate courtesy. He might have lodged there longer, but next day the city was struck by a tremendous storm, with winds of hurricane force that tore off roofs and sent featherbeds flying through the air. The Admiral, having the safety of his ships in mind before anything, decided to withdraw.

When Congress met in special session in September, 1814, Washington’s fate had never been so much in jeopardy. Several members spoke in favor of abandoning the city. But pride overcame practicality: better to live with charred buildings and desolate streets than allow the enemy to claim to have driven the Americans from their capital. Once this decision was made, the city’s lagging esprit was revived. Latrobe put aside his complaints and set to work rebuilding the Capitol.