A Skeleton City: Washington DC in the 1820s

During the time in which Napoleon in America is set, Washington DC exhibited “more streets than houses.” (1) Visitors commented on the dirt roads, the distance between buildings, and the generally unimpressive appearance of America’s national capital. They also noted Washington DC’s beautiful setting, its potential for grandeur, and the city’s social life, which revolved around Congressional sittings.

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. View of Washington DC from across the Anacostia River. The United States Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard are to the right. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. View of Washington DC from across the Anacostia River. The United States Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard are to the right. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

Constructing a federal city

The United States Congress authorized the creation of a federal capital in 1790. President George Washington selected the location, which was formed from land donated by Maryland and Virginia. The area included two existing settlements: Georgetown and Alexandria. In 1791, French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant drew up a plan for a city east of Georgetown, on the north bank of the Potomac River. The plan was amended by American surveyor Andrew Ellicott. The cornerstone of the President’s house (later known as the White House) was laid in 1792. Construction finished in 1800. That same year the Senate wing of the Capitol building was completed, followed by the House of Representatives wing in 1811. During the War of 1812, British forces raided Washington DC, setting fire to the President’s house, the Capitol and other public buildings on August 24, 1814. By 1820, these had been rebuilt, but the city as a whole still looked unfinished.

Plan of the City of Washington DC, 1792, by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan

Plan of the City of Washington, 1792, by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan

A scattered box of toys

English merchant Adam Hodgson visited Washington DC in 1819. He observed:

Washington may be said to be rather the site of a city that is to be than an actual city. It is laid out on an extensive scale, but the streets are for the most part unbuilt, or chequered with houses of the shabbiest description. Still, however, it has some magnificent features, while the romantic scenery which surrounds it, and which is visible from almost every part of it, redeems much of the deformity of its scattered and uncomfortable aspect.

The principal street, Pennsylvania Avenue, has a noble appearance and is a mile long, with one wide and two narrower avenues of poplars, which conceal from the view the ill assorted houses on each side. On a lofty eminence, at one end, stands the capitol, and at the other, on a commanding, though less elevated position, the President’s house. (2)

The following year, Scottish writer Frances Wright remarked:

Those who, in visiting Washington, expect to find a city, will be somewhat surprised when they first enter its precincts, and look round in vain for the appearance of a house.

The plan marked out for this metropolis of the empire is gigantic, and the public buildings, whether in progress or design, bear all the stamp of grandeur. How many centuries shall pass away ere the clusters of little villages, now scattered over this plain, shall assume the form and magnificence of an imperial city? … Which of her patriots can anticipate, without anxiety, the period when the road to the senate-house shall lead through streets adorned with temples and palaces? And when the rulers of the republic, who now take their way on foot to the council chamber, in the fresh hour of morning, shall roll in chariots at mid-noon or perhaps mid-night, through a sumptuous metropolis, rich in arts and bankrupt in virtue? (3)

Visiting Washington DC in 1825, Prince Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach expressed his disappointment.

I had not formed a great idea of Washington city, but what I saw was inferior to my expectation. The capitol stands upon an elevation, and is to be considered as the centre of the future city. Up to this time it is surrounded but by inconsiderable houses and fields, through which small houses are also scattered. From the capitol, several avenues, planted with trees, extend in different directions. We rode into the Pennsylvania avenue, and eventually came to the houses, which are built so far apart that this part of the city has the appearance of a newly-established watering place. The adjacent country is very fine, and there are several fine views upon the broad Potomac. We passed by the President’s house; it is a plain building, of white marble, situated in a small garden. …

The plan of Washington is colossal, and will hardly ever be executed. According to the plan, it could contain a population of one million of inhabitants, whilst it is said at present to have but thirteen thousand. To be the capital of such a large country, Washington lies much too near the sea. This inconvenience was particularly felt during the last war. (4)

Arriving in December 1827, Captain Basil Hall observed:

[T]his singular capital…is so much scattered that scarcely any of the ordinary appearances of a city strike the eye. Here and there ranges of buildings are starting up, but by far the greater number of the houses are detached from one another. The streets, where streets there are, have been made so unusually wide, that the connexion is quite loose; and the whole affair, to use the quaint simile of a friend at Washington, looks as if some giant had scattered a box of his child’s toys at random on the ground. On paper all this irregularity is reduced to wide formal avenues, a mile in length, running from the Capitol – a large stone building well placed on a high ground – to the President’s house, and the public offices near it. (5)

Washington DC in 1821 by Anne-Marguerite Hyde de Neuville. The White House is in the middle. You can see more of Anne-Marguerite's work in my post about her husband, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, French ambassador to the United States from 1816 to 1822.

Washington DC in 1821 by Anne-Marguerite Hyde de Neuville. The White House is in the middle. You can see more of Anne-Marguerite’s work in my post about her husband, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, French ambassador to the United States from 1816 to 1822.

Sightseeing

Upon closer inspection, Bernhard admitted he was impressed with the Capitol building.

The capitol is a really imposing building. When it is once surrounded by handsome buildings, it will produce a fine effect. It is built of white marble, and has three domes; the largest is over the rotunda, and the two smaller over the wings. The capitol stands on an acclivity, and in front is three stories high, and on the back, which is opposite the president’s mansion, four stories high. In front is the entrance, with a portal of Corinthian columns; on the back part there is a large balcony, decorated with columns. The entrance under the portal is a little too low. (6)

Bernhard visited President John Quincy Adams at the White House.

In the interior there is a large hall with columns. We were received in a handsomely furnished apartment. Beautiful bronzes ornamented the mantels, and a full length portrait of President Washington hung upon the wall. (7)

He also called at the War and Navy Departments.

The four offices are all built alike, very plain, with wooden staircases; their interior resembles a school-house. There are no sentinels nor porters; in the building for the war department a woman kept a fruit shop. Even the president himself has usually no sentries, and only during the night the marines from the navy-yard keep guard before his house. (8)

As for the Washington Navy Yard, established in 1799:

In this navy-yard ships are only built and refitted; after that they descend the Potomac into the Chesapeake Bay, and go to Norfolk, where they are armed. At the time of our visit there were but two frigates in the yard, called forty-four gun ships, but mounting sixty-four pieces: the Congress, an old ship, which was repairing, and the Potomac, an entirely new ship, which has been launched, but subsequently hauled up and placed under a roof. (9)

Bernhard rode to Georgetown.

This small town is amphitheatrically situated on the Potomac, whose right bank, covered with wood and partly cultivated, presents a pleasant view. Georgetown is separated from Washington, or rather from the ground on which it is to stand, by a small river called Rocky Creek, which empties into the Potomac, over which there is a bad wooden bridge. (10)

Here’s more about that bridge.

Over the Potomac there is a long wooden bridge, built upon ordinary cross-beams. I measured it, and found it to be fifteen paces broad, and one thousand nine hundred long. … It required nineteen minutes to walk from one end to the other. Every foot-passenger pays six cents. This bridge astonishes by its length, but not at all in its execution, for it is clumsy and coarse. Many of the planks are rotten, and it is in want of repair; it has two sidewalks, one of them is separated from the road by a rail. It is lighted by night with lanterns. It is provided with two drawbridges, in order to let vessels pass. It grew dark before I returned home, and was surprised at the stillness of the streets, as I scarcely met an individual. (11)

Much dissipation

Washington’s social life was dominated by politicians and diplomats. According to Hodgson:

Scarcely any of the members reside here, except while Congress is sitting, and then they are in lodgings. The ladies, who accompany their fathers and husbands to see a little of the world, are situated very much as they would be at Harrowgate or Cheltenham, and there are usually many strangers in pursuit of entertainment. It is the residence also of the foreign Ministers, and the heads of the departments of government. All this, you will readily believe, gives rise to much dissipation. On some of the evenings, there are routs at the houses of one or other of the ministers of the Corps diplomatique, and the rest are generally anticipated by two or three invitations.

All, however, complain, that this routine becomes very dull before the session closes, as they meet almost the same persons every evening, and the sober ones will seldom go out above two or three times a week. Families who are acquainted with each other often board together at the large taverns, and the members who are bachelors for the time being, form messes at the private boarding-houses, where they are often in very close, and sometimes very shabby quarters. I think quite the majority of the members go to the capitol in hackney coaches; and as the ground has been covered with snow, I have several times seen a sledge and four, with eight or ten Senators from Georgetown, in the neighbourhood. (12)

Frances Wright wrote:

This skeleton city affords few of the amusements of a metropolis. It seems however to possess the advantage of very choice society; the resident families are of course few, but the unceasing influx and reflux of strangers from all parts of the country affords an ample supply of new faces to the evening drawing rooms. To this continual intermixture with strangers and foreigners is perhaps to be ascribed the peculiar courtesy and easy politeness which characterize the manners of the city. (13)

Captain Hall also enjoyed Washington society.

The society is very agreeable, and is interesting, in many respects, from being composed of persons assembled from every part of the Union, and, I may add, from every part of Europe – for the Corps Diplomatique form a considerable party of themselves. The same kindness and hospitality were shown to us here, as elsewhere; and the hours for evening parties being always early, it was possible to go a good deal into company without much fatigue; although the smallness of the rooms made the heat and crowd sometimes not very pleasant. (14)

The breath of an oven

Hall visited Washington DC in the winter. British farmer William Faux’s description of “a common hot day at Washington” in June 1820 provides a less attractive picture of the city.

The wind southerly, like the breath of an oven; the thermometer vacillating between 90 and 100; the sky blue and cloudless; the sun shedding a blazing light; the face of the land, and everything upon it, save trees, withered, dusty, baked, and continually heated, insomuch that water would almost hiss on it; the atmosphere swarming with noxious insects, flies, bugs, mosquitoes, and grasshoppers, and withal so drying, that all animal and vegetable life is exposed to a continual process of exhaustion. The breezes, if any, are perfumed by nuisances of all sorts, emptied into the streets, rotting carcasses, and the exhalations of dismal swamps, made vocal and alive with toads, lizards, and bellowing bull-frogs. Few people are stirring, except negroes; all faces, save those of blacks, pale, languid, and lengthened with lassitude, expressive of anything but ease and happiness. Now and then an emigrant or two fall dead at the cold spring, or fountain; others are lying on the floor, flat on their backs; all, whether idle or employed, are comfortless, being in an everlasting steam-bath, and feeling offensive to themselves and others. At table, pleased with nothing, because both vegetable and animal food is generally withered, toughened, and tainted; the beverage, tea or coffee, contains dead flies; the beds and bedrooms, at night, present a smothering unaltering warmth, the walls being thoroughly heated, and being within side like the outside of an oven in continual use. Hard is the lot of him who bears the heat and burthen of this day, and pitiable the fate of the poor emigrant sighing in vain for comforts, cool breezes, wholesome diet, and the old friends of his native land. At midnight, the lightning-bugs and bull-frogs become luminous and melodious. The flies seem an Egyptian plague, and get mortised into the oily butter, which holds them like bird-lime. (15)

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  1. Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1828), p. 171.
  2. Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, Vol. I (London, 1824), p. 10.
  3. Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America (London, 1821), p. 504.
  4. Bernhard, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. 1, p. 170.
  5. Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, Vol. III (Edinburgh, 1830), p. 1.
  6. Bernhard, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. 1, p. 176.
  7. Ibid., p. 171.
  8. Ibid., p. 171.
  9. Ibid., p. 172.
  10. Ibid., p. 170.
  11. Ibid., p. 173.
  12. Hodgson, Letters from North America, I, pp. 8-9.
  13. Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America, pp. 513-514.
  14. Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, III, p. 2.
  15. William Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States (London, 1823), pp. 438-439.

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Those who, in visiting Washington, expect to find a city, will be somewhat surprised when they first enter its precincts, and look round in vain for the appearance of a house.

Frances Wright