George Washington’s City

GeorgeWashingtonCity

Today is the birthday of George Washington (1732-1799). Washington was a man of many gifts and a genuine 18th-century celebrity: a hero of the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, intelligent, courageous, honorable, hard-working, serious, strong and muscular, modest yet dignified, an enthusiastic dancer, a fine dresser, and, according to a friend, “the best horseman of his age.” He was also unusually tall, which always seems to impress one’s fellow citizens mightily even if one is a prize dunce. The fact that he was pretty much universally admired made it possible for the wobbly, newly-unified country to survive its first few years. He brought people together. Without him we might not have remained the United States.

In fact Washington was, like so many of the Founding Fathers, an impressive fellow in so many ways that I cannot attempt to cover them in a single blog-post. So I offer here only one of his accomplishments, from our homeschool Local History and Geography lesson on The Founding of Washington, DC. And what a story it is, full of intrigue, scandal, and spurious investment opportunities. Plus ça change…

Once the squabbling Thirteen Colonies agreed to band together, shove the British aside, and govern themselves, they had to select a capital for the new nation. Several different cities had temporarily housed delegates and/or the Declaration of Independence itself throughout the Revolutionary years, and others put forward what they considered justifiable claims for their own beloved towns. Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies and so would have been a natural choice if it hadn’t been a hotbed of Quakers, free blacks, abolitionists, and other Yankee troublemakers. The southern states said, If you-all choose Philadelphia, so long USA, we are out of here.

A deal was finally made to carve out a brand-new capital in more southerly location somewhere on the Potomac, and who ought to be allowed to choose the spot? None but the universally trusted and unanimously elected First President. So Washington made an exploratory journey and selected a 10-mile by 10-mile piece of land that included the little ports of Georgetown and Alexandria, situated between the Chesapeake Bay/Atlantic highway and the tempting lands to the west.

No one was really delighted with the decision except perhaps Washington himself, who worked hard both during and after his Presidency to keep interest alive and oversee the exceedingly slow construction of the new Capitol and President’s House (see the young Congress’ unwillingness to pay for anything, Each Day post 2/21). Washington, DC slowly developed from a small muddy provincial village into an interesting city that is at last worthy of its namesake. (I believe a recognizable shift took place sometime during the Kennedy administration.) Happy Birthday, dear George Washington! Our debt to you is incalculable.

Now I am going to go bake a cherry pie.

(For those interested in this subject, I recommend the excellent Washington: The Making of the American Capital, by Fergus Bordewich.)

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