Praise for Washington | EXCERPTS: From The prologue

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COMMENTARY BY FERGUS m. bordewich: NY Daily News | W. S. Journal

Nation’s Capital Built by Slaves May Soon
House Its First Black President
New book shows irony of how the Nation’s capital was built by slaves.
Review by Neil Foote, May 15, 2008. Courtesy

THE NATION is riddled in debt. Elected officials are split among party lines, blaming each other for the inefficiencies of government. Racial politics are at the heart of the on-going debate about the future of the country. The public is disillusioned by the ’˜back room' politics driving decision-making.

Sound familiar? That was 1790. Just 14 years after the Revolutionary War, this ’˜great' nation was struggling with many of the same issues it is now. In his newly published book, "Washington, The Making of the American Capital" (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers Imprint, 27.95, 384 pp) author Fergus M. Bordewich offers an insightful, thorough and ironic picture of America.

As the nation chooses what is likely to be its first African-American Democratic presidential nominee and potential president, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) would be making history in many ways. He would move full-time into a city that once was a bustling city for slave trade, and live in a house built by slaves.

"The practice of slavery is embedded in the founding of a capital, but it was hidden history," said Bordewich, whose last book, "Bound for Canaan" focused on the personalities involved in The Underground Railroad. "In a year when an African-American is about to be nominate as president, this book has immediacy and relevancy. If elected, [Sen. Obama] would be the first African-American living in the White House, and not just working there."

In "The Making of the American Capital," Bordewich said he tried to capture the sense that the development of the nation's capital almost became a "huge flop". "It was a race against time," said Bordewich, author of five books who has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, and Atlantic Monthly, "and Washington treated it like a military campaign because he knew if he had failed, the capital would be returned to Philadelphia."

For President George Washington, his reputation was on the line. If he had failed, it was perceived that the country and the world watching with skeptical eyes would label the notion of the "United States of America" as a farce. For Thomas Jefferson, he struggled with his conflicting views on democracy and slavery.

In fact, Bordewich said construction was almost abandoned because major concerns with the private contractors used to build The Capitol and the White House. Corruption, labor problems, huge cost overruns and political opposition almost put the project to a halt.

Washington, a slave owner, stood firm, seeking to create an ’˜imperial city' with its grand architecture. Another irony of this story is that William Thornton from the Caribbean island of Tortola, who designed The Capitol Building, owned slaves, but was an abolitionist.

The other key figure, Benjamin Banneker, was the most prominent African-American involved in the project - who wasn't a slave, Bordewich said. Known as a brilliant self-educated mathematician and astronomer, Banneker had become friends with the Ellicott family in Maryland. The family, devout Quakers who were also abolitionists, let the young genius borrow astronomical equipment.

Andrew Ellicott was hired to do the land survey for the capital project, and along with him, he brought Banneker who distinguished himself with his ability to provide crucial information to Ellicott and the developers. With that project under his belt, Bordewich said Banneker went on to publish numerous almanacs, and was admired by whites for his intellect.

"The construction of the capital was to be the first collective project of United States," Bordewich said. In the end, the project foreshadowed what's currently happening in the country. "In the end, Washington got what he wanted ... and in his waning days, he became an abolitionist."



from Fergus M. Bordewich's Washington: The Making of the American Capital

  1. Congress originally voted to place the national capital in the free state of Pennsylvania.
  2. Establishment of the capital on the Potomac resulted from a backroom deal among Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, which took place over Jefferson's dinner table.
  3. The Capitol Building was designed by a slave-owning abolitionist from the Caribbean island of Tortola, William Thornton.
  4. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves.
  5. The development of Washington was the biggest real estate boondoggle in American history, up to that point, and was almost wrecked by scandalous machinations of land-grabbing speculators led by the richest man in the country, Robert Morris.
  6. Construction of Washington was almost abandoned because of corruption, labor problems, giant cost overruns, political opposition, and public disillusionment.
  7. The driving force behind the city's completion was George Washington, for whom the project was a personal obsession. He believed that the Potomac was destined to become a great commercial highway into the heart of North America, and that the city of Washington would become the nation's greatest metropolis.

Neil Foote has 25 years of experience in all aspects of the media, including print, broadcast and the Internet. Foote has been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper industry executive and an Internet strategist. He is currently is president Foote Communications LLC, a public relations, web consulting and multicultural marketing firm.