About the Author
Bob Levey's column, "Bob Levey's Washington," which explores all aspects of life in the capital, has appeared in The Washington Post since 1981. During his 32-year career at The Post, Levey has covered presidential politics, Congress, local news and sports. In 1985,1988, 1997, Washingtonian magazine named him one of the top five columnists in the capital, and in 1999 the magazine selected him as a "Washingtonian of the Year."
Levey also has maintained careers in television, radio, and the Internet. He hosts a talk show on cable TV NewsChannel 8 and serves as a commentator for WTOP-AM and FM. In addition Levey hosts "Levey Live," an hour-long "chat show" appearing Tuesdays and Fridays on The Washington Post's Web site, washingtonpost.com.
Levey holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago.
Jane Freundel Levey is the editor of Washington History: Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., a consulting historian specializing in D.C. history and a founder of Summit Historians, a group that produces corporate histories and exhibits.
She holds a master's degree in American studies from George Washington University and a bachelor's from Wellesley College. She speaks and publishes frequently on Washington history topics.
The Levey's have two teenaged children, Emily and Alexander.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
George Washington envisioned the new capital of the United States as "The Rome of the New World," according to historian James Sterling Young. The president wanted glistening, wide boulevards. He wanted a prestigious national university. He wanted a thriving commercial center, nourished by Potomac River links to the Ohio River valley.
What the nation got instead for the first two-thirds of the 19th century was mostly a rattletrap, a muddy backwater that embarrassed visiting diplomats, stumbled commercially and failed to attract significant population or investment. "There sits the president, like a pelican in the wilderness," wrote a Philadelphia editor in 1803. As always, politics explained a great deal.
Congress had meandered to eight locations since 1774, from major cities like New York to farm villages like Lancaster, Pa. In 1790, while it was meeting in Philadelphia, former revolutionary War soldiers laid siege to its members, demanding long-delayed back pay - and sympathetic local militas did little to protect the law-makers. So Congress decided to create a permanent capital out of whole cloth, a federal enclave protected by forces without local responsibilities or ties. But where should it be built? Northerners wanted in their region, while Southerners insisted taht it be more central to their homes than the previous meeting places in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.
Not for the last time in American government, the solution was found in a bargain over money. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had proposed that Congress assume the states' Revolutionary War debts, a notion opposed by Southerners, who feared that it would lead to too much federal control, to an "unconstitutional seizure of state authority," as historian Kenneth R. Bowling puts it. So Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson persuaded Hamilton and James Madison, then a Virginia member of the House, to strike a deal: The Capital would be placed in the South in return for Southern support of a debt-assumption bill. The bargain worked, resulting in a capital that, unlike its European counterparts, would be orphaned from the nation's financial and cultural centers.
The congress directed George Washington to choose a government seat of up to "10 mile square" on the Potomac, between Conocheague Creek at Williamsport, Md., and the Eatsren Branch (Anacostia) near Georgetown. He picked 64,000 acres, mostly farmland and dense woods, at the junction of the Potomas and Anacostia, almost exactly midway between the northernmost and southernmost points of the new republic.
Some grumbled that the president's choice was likely to enhance the value of his own large landholdings -- 8,500 acres ( and 10 miles of river frontage) at and near Mount Vernon, and another 60,000 - plus acres, two-thirds of which lay along the Potomac-Ohio river system. In picking the capital's site, however, he specified that no federal buildings be erected on the Virginia side of the District of Colombia, and admiration for the president was in any case so intense that few delled on the question of financial conflicts.
Maryland and Virginia, anticipating economic benefits, were happy to cede land for the capital. Maryland gave 60 square miles of territory, including Georgetown. Virginia gave 30 square miles, including Alexandria. The remaining 10 square miles lay under the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Maryland threw in $72,000 in cash, and Virginia anted up $120,000, to get the city started. President Washington carved the city into plots and offered them for sales, but after land auctions of the early 1790s failed to raise much money, Maryland lent the city an additional $250,000.