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2 march 2009

The United States displays two contrasting philosophies about capital cities. In the first model, one followed by most European nations, a state's seat of government is also its commercial, industrial, and cultural center, and its largest city: Boston, Providence, Richmond. In the other, the capital is much smaller than the state's metropolis, is geographically central, and doesn't have much going for it other than its civic function: Columbia, Dover, Harrisburg. Washington DC is one of the latter kinds of capitals, in its origin, and goes the type one further by being artificially planned. Campaigners sometimes inveigh against politicians as being creatures of Washington, but it's a circular phenomenon. Washington was, and still is, a creature of politicians.

Fergus M. Bordewich's Washington is a well-conceived look at how the Federal City was shaped, in Spiro Kostof's sense, during its formative decade, the 1790s. Though I must pause for a moment here and complain about HarperCollins including not a single map of the District, except for a couple of illegible 18th-century sketches included among the illustrative plates. I mean, I know this is a book, and the point of a book is text, but text about the primitive street grid of a built-over city is hard enough to follow even if you live in that city – and like many potential readers of Washington, I haven't even been there in years. C'mon, HarperCollins: spring for a few maps in paperback!

Back to the many and solid virtues of Washington, though. Bordewich's narrative has several main thematic threads. Political logrolling eventually located the nation's capital on some neglected acreage on the Potomac. Financial skullduggery bankrupted several of the capital's promoters. Slave labour built the city and its great administrative buildings: and as with the Pyramids, the names of the builders themselves have been obscured by those of the master/officials who took the credit. (L'Enfant, meet Imhotep.) And though many people had a hand in planning the capital, Bordewich argues that one person was the driving force behind it. Though he never served there as President or even lived to see the federal government relocate there from Philadelphia, George Washington was in many respects the practical founder of the city as well as its eponymous genius.

The material on slavery follows from Bordewich's own concerns as a historian of race and culture. Author of an outstanding history of the Underground Railroad (Bound for Canaan, 2005), he has also written about Native Americans during a career devoted to decentering the American past and recentering it on obscured groups and individuals. Most American history buffs know that Peter L'Enfant designed Washington. But fewer know (I certainly didn't) that the black astronomer Benjamin Banneker made crucial contributions to the survey that enabled L'Enfant's design to be realized. And even at that, Banneker was one of the most famous African-Americans of his day. Bordewich manages to print the names of several till-now forgotten black artisans and laborers (free and enslaved), the workers who executed the work planned by L'Enfant, Banneker, and others.

Much of the financial material in Washington is as hard to follow as the news of the Panic of 2008 centuries later. Suffice it to say that nearly every kind of insane bubble, lottery, sinking fund, floating fund, and Ponzi scheme was attempted in order to raise money for Washington to be built. Congress was no more inclined then than now to appropriate money for the actual public good, and there was no broad-based interest in building the capital. As a result, great fortunes were speculated away in the fervor over the city's construction: the greatest of them that of Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution, who was ruined by his efforts to establish the peacetime capital of the new country.

Bordewich speculates in ideas here. If Washington had not been built against the odds, the capital would have stayed in Philadelphia. Given the anti-slavery climate in 1790s Pennsylvania, Bordewich believes that southern secession would have come much earlier than it did, with possibly irrevocable separation of North and South. The tradeoff for Union was the establishment of the federal district in a resolutely slaveholding area. Washington thus embodied all the contradictions of a democracy based on slavery. As did the first President, whose slave estate of Mount Vernon was right across the river from his cherished city. Washington DC has a way of concentrating the diverse dilemmas of the rest of the nation, and it did so from its beginnings.

Along the way, Washington has also become a major urban area and cultural center, enriching American life in ways its founders only vaguely dreamed about. American "small capitals" have sometimes stayed small. Tiny gem-like Annapolis has resisted the pull of the metropolis of Baltimore. Jefferson City, Springfield, and Tallahassee have stayed modest compared to their states' larger cities. Santa Fe has even retreated in importance (partly because, through historical oddities, the Santa Fe Railroad never extended into Santa Fe, instead making Albuquerque the new metropolis of New Mexico).

But other small, central capitals have become dominant in their states. Columbus and Atlanta are good examples: compromise capitals in origin that are now their states' chief cities. Sacramento and Austin have become major urban centers in recent decades. And so with Washington. If it hasn't become the American Rome that L'Enfant dreamed it might be, it has developed much more of a "there there" than Ottawa, Brasilia, or Canberra. Heck, after almost 40 years, it even has a major-league baseball team once again.

Bordewich, Fergus M. Washington: The making of the American capital. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.