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Washington: The Making of the American Capital Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 6, 2008

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; 1st edition (May 6, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060842385
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060842383
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,491,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bordewich (Bound for Canaan) depicts how some improbable and unwelcoming terrain on the Potomac came to be chosen in 1790 as the site for the nation's capital. Bordewich likewise narrates the graft, inefficiencies and myriad injustices that went into the design of the new capital and the construction of the first state buildings. As the author emphasizes, slavery affected everything about the genesis of Washington: the politics of selecting a site that was nominally Southern to placate Jeffersonian Democrats; the construction of such buildings as the White House and the Capitol—projects that exploited slave labor. Bordewich also reveals the backroom politics wherein the conservative Northern Federalist Alexander Hamilton made a deal regarding federal fiscal policy and the siting of the so-called Federal Territory. Bordewich is especially strong in painting portraits of such memorable characters as city planner Peter Charles L'Enfant as well as the brilliant black mathematician, astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who did essential work on the first survey of the city, along with various piratical speculators whose greed nearly sank the grand project more than once. In sum, Bordewich tells a fascinating tale, and tells it well. (May 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“[A] captivating narrative of the national’s capital.” (Wall Street Journal)

A splendid and eminently readable account of both the seamy and idealistic impulses that placed our nation’s capital where it is, and an excellent reminder of the importance of land speculation in our political history from the very beginning to today. (Michael Korda, author of IKE and ULYSSES S. GRANT)

“In his magnificent new book Fergus M. Bordewich brings to life the history of our nation’s capital.” (New York Amsterdam News)

Customer Reviews

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the genesis of our nation's capital.
bronx book nerd
Unfortunately the other half is not scholarly and digresses into discussions that add little to the narrative -- in fact they detract.
David M. Dougherty
Mr. Bordewich writes informative historical books and I look forward to the release of each of his books.
Ardis J. Pierce

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Ardis J. Pierce on May 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mr. Bordewich's latest book explains the complex process of the development of Washington D.C. The simplistic knowledge of the formation of the location of the capitol was based on a dinner party, however the truth is much more complicated. The history of this great metropolis was created amidst confusion, chicanery and speculation. It is fascinating to learn of the involvement of the main participants, those who detracted as well as those who pursued the completion of the city. Mr. Bordewich writes informative historical books and I look forward to the release of each of his books.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By James T. Kennedy MD on September 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This well written, easily read account of the decade long saga that is the history of Washington, D.C.'s creation as our national capital brings a bit of scholarly background of the Founding era to a general readership. The political, personal, international, financial, religious, medical, national security, and geographical details that each came to play in the selection and completion of this project are clearly explained. Whether famous or infamous, the players are presented fairly, but without omission of their very human motives and behaviors. Slavery is presented just as it was in this new Republican land-of-the-free: protected by the Constitution and a powerful force when expressed in the Federal Ratio. The quoted sentiments of many contemporaries bring the text an enjoyable contemporaneous quality. There are many poignant anecdotes, including the sheriff's arrest of a sitting Supreme Court justice and co-father of the Constitution, James Wilson, for failure to pay his debts. Without doubt, the lack of maps is a major disappointment. I found myself digging out my old tourist guides each time reference was made to today's geography. There is a place on the bookshelves of everyone interested in American history for this informative volume.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Thorough history of the creation of Washington, D.C., including a chapter on its re-creation after its 1814 destruction. It is unique in its inclusion of, in fact its emphasis on, the significant role slavery and slaves played in its creation. I was less impressed by several lengthy diversions, such as a chapter devoted predominantly to life in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic. Though interesting, it may occupy more space than its relevancy deserves. A very significant lack is that of any maps in a book which has at its center so much geography.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By David M. Dougherty VINE VOICE on December 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The selection of the lowlands on the Potomac for the federal capital is a very interesting story of sectionalism, politics, and the influence of George Washington on our early history as a nation, but the author spends half of his space telling us the story of the lives of black slaves and the injustices under which they suffered. The author seems bent on making the case that black slaves were critical to the building of Washington and he greatly overinflates their contribution in the name of political correctness. Evidently the white founding fathers were venal and greedy, and without the sturdy slaves on whose backs the nation was built, it would never have been built at all (in the author's opinion.) This argument is hardly convincing. In addition, the author tends to make unproven and scurrilous statements about the founding fathers, particularly Jefferson and Madison, as if to cut them down to size.

The story of L'Enfant, the lack of money and the various schemes floated to build the capital city is well worth telling, and where the author stays on track he does fairly well. The young nation survived by the narrowest of margins, and it was not until the 1830s that the nation was on its feet financially. During the time of this story political parties were formed, the branches of government jockeyed for their places in the division of power, and the major cabinet departments appeared. At the same time the hurly-burly of western expansion took place, the War of 1812 was foolishly fought (and nearly lost), and the U.S. was fortunate to escape without substantial loss of territory or crushing reparations. The capital was burned by the British in 1814, and the militia so loved by Jefferson proved inadequate to repel professional soldiers.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Richard Bouvet on October 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Allow me firstly to say I went in initially with high expectations for this book. The history of Washington, D.C. had been an area that I knew very little about and was greatly excited when I finally found a book about this on the shelves of my local bookstore. But, how my expectations have changed after reading this book.
Bordewich gives the reader a cast of characters that otherwise have been regulated to the dustiest pages of history, and whose contributions are indeed worthy of note.
The problem that Bordewich forces his readers to endure is his insistence of turning several chapters into abolitionist minutia history. Where one chapter of anti-slavery background filled the reader with all they really needed to know about the people and abolitionist history, Bordewich insists on dragging his readers through information that he's already stated in other chapters. I found myself actually speed reading through those chapters in about 45 seconds and skipped to the next chapter.
It appeared as if Bordewich needed `filler' to round out the more informative and better written chapters. Overall, I came away disappointed from a book that I had such high hopes for. Buy this if you need a reference book, but not for pleasure.
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More About the Author

FERGUS M. BORDEWICH is the author of six non-fiction books: America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union (Simon & Schuster, 2012); Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008); Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005); My Mother's Ghost, a memoir (Doubleday, 2001); Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century (Doubleday, 1996); and Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China (Prentice Hall Press, 1991).

In his newest book, America's Great Debate, Bordewich tells an epic story of the nation's westward expansion, slavery and the Compromise of 1850, centering on the dramatic congressional debate of 1849-1850 - the longest in American history - when a gallery of extraordinary men including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, William H. Seward, and others, fought to shape, and in the case of some to undermine, the future course of the Union.

He has also published an illustrated children's book, Peach Blossom Spring (Simon & Schuster, 1994), and wrote the script for a PBS documentary about Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Jefferson's University. He also edited an illustrated book of eyewitness accounts of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Children of the Dragon (Macmillan, 1990). He is a regular contributor to Smithsonian magazine, mainly on subjects in nineteenth century American history. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife and daughter.

Bound for Canaan was selected as one of the American Booksellers Association's "ten best nonfiction books" in 2005; as the Great Lakes Booksellers' Association's "best non-fiction book" of 2005; as one of the Austin Public Library's Best Non-Fiction books of 2005; and as one of the New York Public Library's "ten books to remember" in 2005.

Washington was named by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post as one of his "Best Books of 2008."

Bordewich was born in New York City in 1947, and grew up in Yonkers, New York. While growing up, he often traveled to Indian reservations around the United States with his mother, LaVerne Madigan Bordewich, the executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, then the only independent advocacy organization for Native Americans. This early experience helped to shape his lifelong preoccupation with American history, the settlement of the continent, and issues of race, and political power. He holds degrees from the City College of New York and Columbia University. In the late 1960s, he did voter registration for the NAACP in the still-segregated South; he also worked as a roustabout in Alaska's Arctic oil fields, a taxi driver in New York City, and a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter.

He has been an independent writer and historian since the early 1970s. His articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, American Heritage, Atlantic, Harper's, New York Magazine, GEO, Reader's Digest, and others. As a journalist, he traveled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, writing on politics, economic issues, culture, and history, on subjects ranging from the civil war in Burma, religious repression in China, Islamic fundamentalism, German reunification, the Irish economy, Kenya's population crisis, among many others. He also served for brief periods as an editor and writer for the Tehran Journal in Iran, in 1972-1973, a press officer for the United Nations, in 1980-1982, and an advisor to the New China News Agency in Beijing, in 1982-1983, when that agency was embarking on its effort to switch from a propaganda model to a western-style journalistic one.

America's Great Debate joins Bordewich's two previous books in exploring from a new angle the ways in which slavery and sectional conflict distorted American democracy in the years before the Civil War. In the aftermath of the Mexican War, new conquests carried the United States from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. How would the newly acquired empire be governed? Could it even be governed? Would that empire be slave or free? California's request to join the Union as a free state in 1850 pushed slavery's defenders to the brink of armed conflict. Many Americans expected secession and civil war to begin within months, if not weeks. The prevention of war through ten months of fierce debate was one of the greatest political achievements in American history. The compromise that resulted preserved the Union for another decade, ultimately enabling the North to ready itself for a war that it could win. America's Great Debate vividly recounts that story.

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Washington: The Making of the American Capital
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