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Washington: The Making of the American Capital

A book released May 6, 2008 by Fergus Bordewich

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Numerous obstacles had to be overcome to make the new American Capital a reality.

  • Jun 3, 2009
As it turns out it was a far more complicated process than I ever imagined.  For the most part, folks in the Northeast wanted our nation's Capital to remain in New York City. Meanwhile, the people and politicians of Pennsylvania were lobbying hard for a site on the Susquehanna River.  And those hailing from Virginia and the other Southern states were bound and determined to see to it that the new national capital would be located closer to their neck of the woods.  So many interests, so many issues, so many strong personalities.  In "Washington: The Making of The American Capital" author Fergus M. Bordewich sorts through it all and presents a comprehensive account of the complex series of events that led to the selection of a site on the banks of the Potomac River as our new nations capital.  This is an engrossing saga with more twists and turns than you might expect.  The fact is that on several occasions our leaders almost gave up on Washington D.C.  The obstacles simply appeared to be too numerous to overcome.

The biggest proponent of locating the new "Federal City" on the banks of the Potomac turns out to be none other than our nations first President George Washington.  In fact, he selected the site himself.  As a Virginian and a slave holder President Washington shared the sentiments of most of his fellow Southerners that it was imperative that the new Capital be situated in a more southerly location.  Had the Capital continued to remain in New York City or been moved to another location in the Northern half of the country Southerners feared that slavery would have been in serious jeopardy.  And they were correct because more and more Northern states were outlawing the practice.  As the process to select the site of the "Federal City" proceeded it looked for all the world like a site in Pennsylvania would be chosen.  However, the Pennsylvania politicians overplayed their hand and the delegation from Virginia manuevered the situation brilliantly.  As a result, the new Capital would be located on the banks of the Potomac.

The second portion of "Washington: The Making of the American Capital" Fergus Bordewich focuses on the monumental struggle to plan and build the new "Federal City". When the site was finally approved in 1790 President Washington promised that the city would rise in just 10 short years.  This was an extremely ambitious goal that was constantly hampered by a chronic shortage of funds, huge egos and reckless financial speculation.  In addition, there was also the nagging issue of attracting the skilled craftsmen and common laborers needed to help build the city.  From the beginning, the planners found it extremely difficult to attract people to the area.  Sadly, it is an indisputable fact that without large numbers of slaves the city never would have been completed.  According to Bordewich "Slaves would be the salvation of the federal city. They had been present from the beginning, in crews of a half-dozen or a dozen, hewing trees to open the streets that would someday become the thoroughfares of the city, prying up stumps, driving teams, hauling logs, and cutting the fine-grained sandstone for the future buildings of the government.  The commissioners would later brag that they 'could not have done without slaves.' They were not exagerating."   Of course this stark reality would only serve to exacerbate the tensions between the North and the South on the issue of slavery.

While the new city was not nearly completed, Congress and the Federal government did manage to move from their temporary headquarters in Philadelphia as scheduled in 1800.  Sadly, President Washington did not live to see the completion of the "Federal City". He passed away on December 14, 1799 at the age of 67.  "Washington: The Making of the American Capital" chronicles an important event in American history that I had previously known very little about.  This is an engaging book that offers the reader considerable insight into the thought processes of many of our Founding Fathers and other leading citizens of the period.     Highly recommended!
Numerous obstacles had to be overcome to make the new American Capital a reality.

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June 04, 2009
Wow...thanks SO much for this review. I'll have to recommend this to my uncle and father, after I read it myself of course! I had no clue that there was even a thought of making the capital in New York. I wonder how our history would've been changed if that had happened? Thanks so much for sharing this book- I'm definitely going to check it out.
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Quick Tip by . June 11, 2010
Awesome book and history, Good read.
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Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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About this book


Washington, D.C., is home to the most influential power brokers in the world. But how did we come to call D.C.—a place one contemporary observer called a mere swamp "producing nothing except myriads of toads and frogs (of enormous size)," a district that was strategically indefensible, captive to the politics of slavery, and a target of unbridled land speculation—our nation's capital? In Washington, acclaimed and award-winning author Fergus M. Bordewich turns his eye to the backroom deal making and shifting alliances between our Founding Fathers and in doing so 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.

In this page-turning work that reveals the hidden and somewhat unsavory side of the nation's beginnings, Bordewich, once again, brings his novelist's sensibility to a little-known chapter in American history.

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ISBN-10: 0060842385
ISBN-13: 978-0060842383
Author: Fergus Bordewich
Publisher: Amistad
Date Published: May 6, 2008
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