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1800 Two Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Washington Under Construction

On November 17 Congress assembled for the first time in the brand-new city of Washington. No quorum was present in either chamber, so the opening of business had to be postponed until the eighteenth in the House and the twenty-first in the Senate. On the afternoon of the twentysecond, President John Adams delivered his annual message. (It was the last time a President would read his address in person until 1913, and no great loss either, for the protocol of the day required both houses to return the favor by calling on the President to make an address of their own, to which the President had to reply with yet another elaborate speech.) At the beginning of his address, Adams congratulated the government on its successful relocation from Philadelphia and predicted hopefully that “although there is cause to apprehend that accommodations are not now so complete as might be wished, yet there is great reason to believe that this inconvenience will cease with the present session.”

Writing to her sister on November 21, the President’s wife, Abigail, was less diplomatic: “I arrived about one o’clock at this place known by the name of ‘the city,’ and the Name is all that you can call so!” As expected, she found mostly “trees and stumps in plenty”; the nearest village, Georgetown, was “the very dirtyest Hole I ever saw for a place of any trade or respectability of inhabitants.” On her way from Baltimore she had gotten lost and traveled “16 or 18 miles [with] not a village. Here and there a thatched cottage without a single pane of glass, inhabited by Blacks.”

The President’s house was “twice as large as our meeting House,” making it quite cold and drafty even with 13 separate fireplaces. Despite all the trees, wood was in short supply; there were no bells for servants; and the stairs to the second floor were nowhere near finished. Still, she was determined “to be satisfied and content, to say nothing of inconvenience, etc.,” even though “we have not the least fence-yard or other convenience without, and the great unfinished audience-room I make a drying room of, to hang our clothes in.”

What offended this life-long Massachusetts resident the most was the widespread use of slave labor, which, besides its inherent cruelty, bred inefficiency, squalor, a disdain among whites for manual labor, and a general disregard for punctuality. Abigail Adams would not have to put up with such conditions for long, because in a few weeks the electoral college returns would show that her husband had been defeated for re-election. To increase the Adamses’ misery, on December 1 their son Charles died in New York City.

During their brief stay, Washington was a small enough town—perhaps 3,000 residents, of whom 137 were government clerks —that when the Treasury building caught on fire in January, the President himself manned a spot in the bucket brigade. The fashionable residential district consisted of a single row of four-story houses on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue between Nineteenth and Twentieth Streets. They stood out so starkly from the morass that they were known simply as the Six Buildings. Those not wealthy enough for such splendor, including most members of Congress, had to lodge wherever they could, often sleeping two or even four to a room on cots (though the Speaker of the House got a room of his own).

But the residents of Washington, as always, had great plans. In 1803 an English visitor spoke of “this embryo London (or to be more in tone with the American modesty this embryo Rome).” The metaphor was adopted more poetically the following year by the Irish poet Thomas Moore: “This embryo capital where fancy sees / Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees, / Which second-sighted seers ev’n now adorn / With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn.” Or as Oliver Wolcott, the Secretary of the Treasury, wrote in June 1800, “There appears to be a confident expectation that this place will soon exceed any in the world.…No stranger can be here a day and converse with the proprietors, without conceiving himself in the company of crazy people.”

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