Washington, D.C.: molding a nation's capital from the wilderness of 1800

By , Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

TOMORROW is the anniversary of the removal of Congress from Philadelphia in 1800 to its permanent site in Washington, D.C. It was a momentous occasion at the time but mostly for its negative, even punitive, overtones. For the nation's capital in 1800 was nothing for a congressman to write home about.

''I do not perceive,'' wrote Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott to his wife, ''how the members of Congress can possibly secure lodgings, unless they consent to live like scholars in a college, or monks in a monastery, crowded ten or twenty in one house, and utterly secluded from society. . . . There are, in fact, but few houses in any one place, and most of them small, miserable huts, which present an awful contrast to the public buildings.''

President John Adams was only a bit more complimentary in his view of the new city. On a visit in early June, he didn't have the heart to write his beloved Abigail about the true state of the President's House, where they would reside in a few months. ''You will form the best idea of it from inspection,'' he wrote Abigail instead. Indeed, the White House was unfinished - without staircases, fences, yard, or a supply of firewood. The audience room, or East Room, was a shell without windows and would be used by Abigail as a drying room for clothes.

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Washington was a wilderness town in November 1800. Only the north wing of the Capitol building was completed, and Capitol Hill was conspicuous for its lack of amenities. There were only a few boarding houses, a tailor shop, one shoemaker store, a grocery, a stationery shop, a dry-goods business, and an oyster house. Foreign diplomats who were used to much more refined surroundings were appalled. Exclaimed a French minister: ''What have I done, to be condemned to reside in such a city!''

Abigail Adams's experience in finding the route to Washington illustrated that the nation's capital was scarcely a place on the map. ''I arrived here on Sunday last,'' she wrote her daughter at the end of November 1800, ''and without meeting any accident worth noticing, except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore, and going eight or nine miles on the Frederick road, by which means we were obliged to go the other eight through the woods, where we wandered for two hours, without finding a guide or the path. . . . In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it, but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort in them.''

To be sure, Washingtonians didn't view their city in such dire terms. In fact , they were absolutely convinced that the town on the Potomac would soon be a capital city: ''There appears to be a confident expectation,'' observed Secretary Wolcott ''that this place will soon exceed any in the world. . . . One of the Commissioners, spoke of a population of 160,000 as a matter of course in a few years. No stranger can be here a day and converse with the proprietors, without conceiving himself in the company of crazy people. Their ignorance of the rest of the world, and their delusions with respect to their own prospects are without parallel.''

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