A study of Washington, D.C.. What really are our roots?
Chaos and self-interest were a major part of the experience of building the capitol. They had a ten-year window to build the city. They built it out of nothing. The work to clear of the wilderness and build the capitol was so hard that most of it was done by African American slaves. Of course in 1790 people would proclaim I am not going to Virginia to do “Nigger work.”
Why here? There were compromises. We didn’t invent that word in our day and age. Southerners gave into centralizing debt from individual states under the newly formed United States in exchange for a capitol closer to the Southern States.
Philadelphia, the previous capitol was in the heart of anti-slavery Quaker movement. Slaves that stayed in Philadelphia longer than six months could be set free under Pennsylvania law. George Washington lost two slaves in that manner. Generally southerners would send slaves home before the end of that six-month period.
Why the Potomac? The Potomac was going to be the gateway to the nation-expanding west. George Washington had a company that was going to dredge out the river to supply the new and improved access. Obviously, that never happened. The closest that came to happening was another canal project, the Erie Canal, which would help make New York City a thriving metropolis.
So they ended up setting up a plot for a city in the middle of nowhere. Washington was given one hundred percent authority in setting up the property as lead engineer. He thought that speculators would buy property to provide the means to finance the city. There was a good reason for this. Congress probably wouldn’t have given him any money. Unfortunately, lots were very hard to sell and financing was difficult.
So what did they have? There had to be something positive. They had a great idea. The main designer of the city was a naturalized Frenchman named Pierre L’Enfant. He designed a city with a park-like setting with broad straight avenues. He was so obsessed with straight roads that he ended up demolishing a house of one of Washington’s supporters. To say that this guy didn’t play well with others is an understatement. He was eventually fired, but the ideas he supplied for Washington pretty much survived.
How did a third-rate power build a national capitol that would be the envy of the world? Simply, it took time. There were a lot of sacred things going on despite the back-and-forth of factions wanting their own way. The republic was being built. “One Nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Imagine the scene with me: September 18, 1793, the dedication of a new Congressional Hall. There was very little in the new town, but the cornerstone of the new building was being laid. George Washington and a group of Masons were there to dedicate the building.
George was a life-long Mason of thirty-seven years and, the last five years he was the Grand Mason of his lodge. They were all there in satin aprons, sashes and badges. A grand Sword bearer appears next to Washington and prayers and Mason chants are said over the building. To all, there seems to be no conflict of interests. A good Mason was a good American. They were praying over the temple of the new country with spiritual leaders of the day.
A fifteen-gun cannonade was set off and they roasted a five hundred pound ox. They obviously enjoyed the time.
President John Adams would be the first President to live in the White House. It was only partially done. Abigail would hand laundry in the East Wing of the house. At the end of his term, he had some things to say about the new federal city. In 1800, it didn’t look like much. There had been a plan to bury Washington in the rotunda of the capitol building in a lead lined coffin. Due to family objections, this never happened.
He saw the city as the true sepulcher of the great man, “Infused like a living body with his spirit. May this territory be the residence of happiness and virtue. May these qualities be forever held in veneration, there and throughout the country may simple manners, pure morals and true religion flourish over time. The city’s meaning would unfold over time as the country grew great.”
Everyone saw the future although, at this point, Washington was still a city of the imagination.
During the War of 1812, the English would decimate the city. Washington D.C. was built here as a defensible position. A proposal to move the city someplace else passed on second reading by a vote of 72 to 71. It was defeated in the third reading by a vote of 83 to 74. It would cost 1.2 million to rebuild Washington. James Madison was in office. Madison believed that the city should be built exactly as before.
Even during the Civil War, Washington was still rather a shabby place. Pigs wandered through the streets—political affiliation unknown. After the war, there was a request from the growing Midwest that the capitol be more centralized. St Louis was suggested. U.S, Grant became President in 1868. Said Grant: “Too much blood has been spilt not to keep the capitol here.” He threatened a veto and the motion never was acted on.
To say that we have a perfect history without any human tinkering would not be true to what is known. We do have a sacred history. Having prayed over the foundation of the Capitol building, a plate of dedication was placed in the cornerstone of the building. We have no idea what it said. We can’t even know for sure where the cornerstone was.
Change our government? Rebuild it? Move it? It has all been studied and contemplated. What are our roots? A community of priests started by praying over the eventual temple of a new work in the government of men.
We have forgotten our history in many ways. We have forgotten who we were and who we need to be now. Should we pray over our government? Scripture says yes. Logic says yes.
What we decide to do will be a function of whom we see ourselves as. If we believe in factional fighting, that is exactly what we will have. It is hard when a country is changing. It takes a lot of listening and forbearance. We the people are changing, but we have a background of great values. We need to build on what we already have.