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

3.4 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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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.

Review

“[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)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; 1St Edition 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: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #796,430 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A fascinating history of the politics and wrangling behind the scenes as the founding fathers discussed where the National Capitol should be located. We should all remember that compromise is the name of the game and the ultimate bargining chip, particularly in politics. Bordewich writes an engaging history of the early republic. If you haven't read him before, this is a good starting place.
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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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Format: Paperback
As cities go, until recent times, Washington D.C. was a failure. As late as 1950, the daughter of sitting American president Harry Truman, called the nation’s capital “little more than a country town.” Ten years before the Civil War, in 1851, a visitor described Washington as a city of “houses without streets, and streets without houses.” In other words, for most of its existence, Washington D.C. was little more than an economic and cultural backwater that happened to be the seat of the federal government. Thomas Jefferson, who more than anyone was responsible for the creation of Washington D.C., preferred it that way. He hated cities. Oh, he loved what they offered—gourmet food and drink, book sellers, art galleries, universities, museums, and arresting architecture. But he hated more what they also offered—commerce, banks, stockbrokers, and factories. Cities were corrupt and dirty places that interfered with his vision for America, as a nation of gentlemen farmers who worked their own plot of land. The idea of creating a city from scratch—of starting over, as it were—appealed greatly to a purist like Thomas Jefferson. His vision for the nation’s capital was not as a city in the traditional sense—as a market place—but rather in the Roman sense, as a forum. Business and banking? No. Jefferson's vision was that of an anti-city.

Fergus M. Bordwich’s well-researched book makes for a ripping good story, about how and why the nation’s capital was moved from New York City to a pasture on the banks of the Potomac, and how it evolved from shanty town, to slave capital, to what it is today—the symbol of American freedom and democracy. If you have the slightest interest in U.S.
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