Building Washington, D.C.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson's To-Do List:

  1. Declare independence (note the British are the most powerful economic and military force in the world).
  2. Win a war (see note 1).
  3. Convince the thirteen colonies to give up their autonomy and form a federation (clearly confederacy is simply not going to work).
  4. Write a constitution and get signatures to same (see note 3.).
  5. Build a nation’s capital – an inspirational city - from the ground up.

The two hardworking gentlemen did lead a revolution; one with his writing, the other with military acumen. They removed the American colonies from British control.  Their team cobbled together a nation of states, complete with a constitution, from thirteen disparate colonies.

Though both these middle-aged fellows deserved time off to enjoy their preferred lives as farmers – Washington at Mt. Vernon, Jefferson at Monticello – they firmly believed that the future of their new nation depended on a symbolic, as well as a physically central, location from which the new United States would be governed.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were clearly not intimidated by any challenge, but this was a beauty. With no money, no plans, no materials and no experience – and no experienced workforce, they proposed to build a city almost from scratch.

Hewing a homestead from the frontier wilderness was one thing. It was happening all the time – log house for shelter, slab-sided barn for the pigs and oxen. Building a great capital city – a London or Rome or Paris from bare earth was substantially more.

It would have been easier to look to established cities like New York or Philadelphia, both of which had served from time to time as the nation’s capital. Both Washington and Jefferson knew that the leaders of either city considered it would better serve as the country’s center. Both cities had grown up around magnificent harbors, had settled populations of both skilled and manual labor, and were centers of wealth available for investment in new government buildings and their infrastructure. Both men also knew that the leaders of these well-established cities had the political savvy sufficient to control the fate of the nation. They also knew both cities would be able to contend with those newly minted American citizens not yet convinced that the British were permanently removed from power.

But there are two important things to remember about Jefferson and Washington. They were born and bred to the bone Virginians who viewed its location at the geographic center of the thirteen colonies as key to its greatness. And they knew that the future of the entire nation depended on expanding westward. They firmly believed that the heart of the enterprise should be centered within the sanctuary of the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, preferably as far westward as possible. And the site most qualified was at the tidal reach of the Potomac River.

So begins the story of the only nation in millennia to build its own capital city.

Robert J. Kapsch is a researcher and principal of the Center for Historic Engineering and Architecture. He is the author of Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of the New Federal City, 1790−1840, The Potomac Canal: George Washington and the Waterway West, Historic Canals and Waterways of South Carolina, and Over the Alleghenies: Early Canals and Railroads of Pennsylvania.

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