From the acclaimed author of Bound for Canaan comes a major work of American history on the astonishing compromises and alliances involved in making Washington, D.C., the capital of the new nation. In Washington, acclaimed and award-winning author Fergus M. Bordewich turns his eye to the backroom deal making and shifting alliances among our Founding Fathers and in so doing pulls back the curtain on the lives of slaves who actually built the city.
The answers revealed in this eye-opening book are not only surprising and exciting but also illuminate a story of unexpected triumph over a multitude of political and financial obstacles, including fraudulent real estate speculation, overextended financiers, and management more apt for a ‘banana republic’ than an emerging world power.
ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1793, while Philadelphians cowered from the yellow fever, a scene medieval in its panoply unfolded on the banks of the Potomac. Like tapestry figures come to life, Brother George Washington and his fellow Masons from Alexandria stepped from their boat onto the north bank of the Potomac in eye-filling regalia of satin aprons, badges, and sashes. Flourishing ceremonial truncheons and wands, preceded by a military band, and trailed by the crisply uniformed soldiers of the Alexandria Volunteer Artillery, they trod with solemn step along the sketchy streets of what was mostly still a city of the imagination. One carried the Bible on a satin cushion, another a ceremonial sword, still others symbolic offerings of corn, wine, and oil.
Along the way, they were joined by contingents of Masons from Maryland, the city’s surveyors, the federal commissioners, stonecutters, and ‘mechanics,’ and assorted leading citizens, among them the Capitol’s architect William Thornton; James Hoban, who had designed the President’s House; Andrew Ellicott, the surveyor; and the Boston financier Samuel Blodget. Two abreast, with drums beating and flags snapping in the warm breeze, they marched past the foundations of the President’s House, picking their way around potholes and tree stumps, through cornfields, along the route of what one day would be Pennsylvania Avenue, toward Capitol Hill, where the eye might make out, just barely, the heaps of stone and brick where hired slaves and white craftsmen were at work on the future home of Congress.
Washington had been a devoted Mason for thirty-seven years, and Grand Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22 for five, and he saw no more conflict of interest in shrouding the Capitol’s dedication in Masonic ritual than he had in manipulating the federal city’s location to favor the interest of his friends in the Patowmack Company. ‘I shall always be happy to advance the interests of the Society,’ he had told a Masonic gathering, in 1790. ‘Being persuaded that a just application of the principles on which the Masonic Fraternity is founded, must be promotive of private virtue and public prosperity.’ To Washington, as to many of his friends in the governing elite, the goals of republican government and Masonry were congruent: to be a good Mason was to be a good American. (While other aspects of the Brotherhood’s influence on the Founders have largely been forgotten, the cryptic Masonic symbol of a pyramid topped by the Deity’s all-seeing eye continues to adorn the national currency.)
Masonry claimed descent from secret Hebrew principles handed down by the master mason of King Solomon’s temple, an assertion that seemed less outlandish in an era when even the educated possessed a shaky grasp of historical chronology, and generally believed the earth itself to be but a few thousand years old. The brotherhood’s actual roots lay in a workmen’s guild of the later Middle Ages, which by the eighteenth century had evolved into an elite fraternity propounding Enlightenment ideals of rationality, fellowship, and generalized benevolence. During the Revolutionary War, Masonry served as a powerful bonding force among the officers of the Continental Army, fostering among them a sense of common purpose, and helping to overcome the centrifugal force of local loyalties. It seemed to many in the leadership class that too much democracy would lead to anarchy, unless official firmness coupled to principles of gentlemanly honor restrained men’s baser impulses. In 1796 Washington would proclaim with deep conviction that the entire nation must become like Masonry, ‘a lodge for the virtues.’
It has been said that if the Capitol was temple to the state religion of republican government, then the Masons represented a kind of national priesthood. This was never more vividly illustrated than on that hot, bright September day in 1793. As the cavalcade approached Capitol Hill, each file of marchers paused and then hieratically stepped to the side, creating a human corridor through which now advanced the Grand Sword Bearer alongside Brother Washington, wearing the ornately embroidered apron given him by Madame de Lafayette. The procession finally halted at the southeast corner of what would be the north wing of the Capitol. There the artillerymen unlimbered their guns and fired a cannonade that resounded across the sun-swept plain.
A high-ranking Mason named Joseph Clarke brandished aloft a silver plate engraved with ‘the year of Masonry 5793’ and a paean to Washington, ‘whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial as his military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties.’ Washington, Clarke, and two other Masons then climbed down into the trench, where they laid the plate atop the Capitol’s cornerstone, and then placed upon it the offerings of corn, nourishment, refreshment, and joy, and on a loftier plane science, virtue, and the Brotherhood itself. The entire crowd now joined in prayer, followed by a round of Masonic chants, and another fifteen-round cannonade. Afterward, the assembly retired to a covered ‘booth’ where they banqueted on a barbecued five-hundred-pound ox.
There was about the cornerstone-laying, for all its triumphal trappings, if not an atmosphere of desperation exactly, then at least one of anxiety, a nervous hope that it would prick the enthusiasm of investors, who so far had shown disconcertingly little interest in the federal city. After three disappointing land auctions, the last held only the day before, the project was starving for lack of funds. Not only had few buyers appeared, but many of the winning bidders failed to make good on their notes for the lots they had bought. As the commissioners delicately put it, there was ‘a great want of punctuality among those who purchased at the first sale.’ The consequences of the backroom deals of 1790 were now coming home to roost. Washington and the Potomac lobby had never given their approval. Instead, construction was left to the creative inspiration of private enterprise, assisted by modest grants from Maryland and Virginia. (Maryland was prompt in its payments, but the commissioners wrested installments from Virginia’s tight-fisted treasury only after repeated episodes of pathetic pleading.)
This hopeful strategy, such as it was, virtually ensured that the projects would eventually fall prey to speculators and insiders. Voices would soon be heard grumbling, with good reason, that ‘Bankrupts, Land and Stock Jobbers’ were taking control. Washington’s strategy, like L’Enfant’s plan—which had extravagantly predicted six hundred thousand residents within a decade—was based on the belief that the capital’s destiny as a national commercial hub as well as its seat of government would instantly attract investors. Instead, the development of the federal city would become, behind its lofty faÃ§ade of austere public purpose, an exercise in opportunism on a grandiose scale.
Washington felt time growing short. He had reluctantly agreed to run for a second term, to which he had been reelected without opposition a year earlier; he felt tired and old and frustrated. On the Potomac, nothing seemed to be going right. Land sales were stalled; something was necessary to put the wheels in motion again. Investors held back because there were no settlers. Prospective settlers held back because building lots remained undeveloped. Inflated land prices were one deterrent; another was Washington’s stipulation that houses be built only of brick and be at least two stories high, which precluded purchase by the less affluent. Some way had to be found to spur construction. The commissioners thought they found the solution to their worries in the ingratiating person of Samuel Blodget, who had been the biggest bidder at the first auction, in September 1792.
For the second auction, in October, Blodget negotiated a secret deal personally approved by the president—‘it would be best for the circumstance not to be publicly known,’ Washington cautioned—which permitted Blodget to bid at an artificially low, that is rigged, price of $3,648 for one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on Capitol Hill. So infatuated were the commissioners with Blodget that they handed him the direction of the entire project, at the generous salary of $1,600 annually. ‘You are retained for one year commencing the first Instant, as supervisor of the Buildings and in general of the affairs committed to our care,’ they wrote him, with a sigh of collective relief. ‘you are to be next in power to ourselves. We have more pleasure in advising than in giving orders.’
But Blodget had in mind something much simpler, and more profitable, than the thankless labor of meeting budgets, procuring materials, placating irritable landowners, and actually erecting buildings. ‘He has great confidence in a lottery,’ the commissioners reported to Secretary of State Jefferson. ‘We find ourselves at Liberty and agree to it.’ This was hardly the dignified development model that the president had in mind. But it was imperative that the project move forward somehow. Washington’s personal secretary, Tobias Lear, was pressed into service as a propagandist, painting in a widely distributed pamphlet a heady picture of ‘chaste, magnificent and beautiful’ public buildings already under construction alongside a ‘superb hotel’—Blodget’s—and promising that, thanks to the sale of thousands of lots to defray the city’s expenses, the city’ future residents and their property would be ‘forever free from a heavy tax, which is unavoidable in other large cities.’
Lotteries had been used before to raise money for public works: New York had held one to finance the construction of Federal Hall, as had Philadelphia for its new city hall. And in 1790 the promoters of Columbia, Pennsylvania as the prospective Federal District had ‘chanced off’ lots to hapless investors, who wound up owning cow pasture instead of the national capital. But fraud was all too common, notoriously epitomized by the illegal lotteries, which flourished from ‘offshore’ bases on islands in the Delaware River, outside the jurisdictions of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Blodget’s actions would do nothing to burnish the reputation of the lottery as a respectable instrument of fundraising. He was already deft at telling the commissioners what they wanted to hear. First, he had proposed sending agents through the states hawking city lots. Then he had assured them that he could obtain a loan large enough to pay for major construction, using unsold city lots as security.
After a visit to Boston, he breezily declared that ‘we shall obtain many good citizens from this place.’ These pioneers, like the loan, existed nowhere but in Blodget’s sales pitch, and like his other promises it too came to naught. He proposed to offer fifty thousand tickets at $7 apiece, with a top cash prize of $25,000, and a grand prize of ‘Superb Hotel with Baths, out houses, et. To cost $50,000.’ In all, $350,000 in awards would be handed out.
Blodget may have been a huckster, but he was an inspired one. The hotel, at Eighth and E Streets NW, between the Capitol and the President’s House, was yet to be built of course, but when it was, he promised, it would be the grandest in the United States, with an expansive frontage of 120 feet. Its style, the starry-eyed commissioners effused, ‘will far exceed any building at present known in America.’ Blodget declared a contest to select the hotel’s design, and publicized it nationwide. The winner turned out to be none other than James Hoban, the architect of the President’s House, a choice that lent cachet to Blodget’s scheme. Fifteen hundred people attended the laying of the hotel’s cornerstone on the Fourth of July.
Once again, all was not as it seemed, however. The commissioners still had no money. They urgently begged Virginia Governor Henry Lee to forward the next portion of his state’s contribution: ‘We entreat, Sir, throw the balance into our hands. [Without it] se shall not be able to carry on the public buildings.’ Blodget, although he was the capital’s official superintendent, largely ignored such mundane concerns, preferring to travel the country hustling his real estate and lottery tickets. However, even his consummate salesmanship could not convince Americans to move to the Potomac. He too was losing money.
Thousand of tickets had to be recalled because of legal problems, while many Philadelphians who had bought lottery tickets on credit had died from yellow fever, making it impossible to collect payment. With characteristic insouciance, however, he promised the commissioners that he would pay off the prizes from his own estate, a nearly impossible feat since it depended on collecting debts owed him by insolvent creditors.
The lottery drawing proved to be an excruciatingly slow-motion affair. Weeks after it began, so many tickets still remained unsold that, with the commissioners’ approval, George Town merchants quietly bought up blocks of them to create the impression of high demand. By October, no one had yet drawn any of the big prizes. Disgruntled ticket holders complained that Blodget was deliberately dragging out the drawing in order to inflate the value of the tickets that remained unsold. But Blodget blithely replied, ‘in a short time it will appear that no lottery was ever better paid in this country than ours, & this will secure success to future lotteries without which the city will never go on with spirit.’ When someone finally won the $25,000 prize, Blodget had only $4,000 on hand to pay him.
Undismayed, the irrepressible promoter was already talking about yet another scheme, called a ‘tontine,’ whose payout was contingent on the longevity of its participants. Investors would purchase shares at $100 apiece, to pay for the development of city lots. Over time, dividends would be paid into a collective fund from income generated by the properties. When enough shareholders had died off so that the number of survivors equaled the number of lots owned by the fund, the assets would be divided among them. Naturally Blodget himself would oversee the fund, manage the sales, and deploy his own agents to sell shares around the country.
By the end of the year, the commissioners finally decided that they had been taken in, and that far from attracting either settler or serious investors, Blodget’s machinations were deterring them and tainting the reputation of the whole federal city. Blodget, the disillusioned commissioners gloomily informed the president, ‘wants judgment and steadiness. We all wish to part from him, and that quietly.’ Washington disingenuously sneered, ‘Speculation has been his primary object from the beginning,’ lamenting of the ingratiating promoter. ‘I was at a loss how to account for a conduct so distant from any of the ideas I had entertained of the duties of a Superintendent.’ On December 15, the commissioners ordered Blodget ‘to forbear the publication of any lottery for the present, for we are rather inclined not to have another.’
Blodget simply ignored them. Safely ensconced in Philadelphia, he told them that he would carry on with his lottery with or without their approval. ‘Altho’ any, the Belles Lettres, and such trifles give me leave to assure you that you are not instructed in the more noble and more exalted science of lottery making,’ he impertinently wrote to William Thornton. The commissioners first pleaded, writing, ‘[We] beg you sir to Stop the Business as soon as possible.’ Then five days later, they wrote Blodget again, this time fulminating that ‘no further steps should be taken,’ toothlessly warning him ‘not [to] drive us to the necessity of a public disavowal.’