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Washington, D.C., is home to the most influential power brokers in the world. But how did we come to call D.C.—a place once described as a mere swamp "producing nothing except myriads of toads and frogs (of enormous size)," and which was strategically indefensible, captive to the politics of slavery, and the target of unbridled land speculation—our nation's capital? In WasWashington, D.C., is home to the most influential power brokers in the world. But how did we come to call D.C.—a place once described as a mere swamp "producing nothing except myriads of toads and frogs (of enormous size)," and which was strategically indefensible, captive to the politics of slavery, and the target of unbridled land speculation—our nation's capital? In Washington, acclaimed, award-winning author Fergus M. Bordewich turns to the backroom deal-making and shifting alliances among our Founding Fathers to find out, and in doing so pulls back the curtain on the lives of the slaves who actually built the city. The answers revealed in this eye-opening book are not only surprising but also illuminate a story of unexpected triumph over a multitude of political and financial obstacles, including fraudulent real estate deals, overextended financiers, and management more apt for a banana republic than an emerging world power.In a page-turning work that reveals the hidden and unsavory side to the nation's beginnings, Bordewich once again brings his novelist's eye to a little-known chapter of American history....

Title : Washington: How Slaves, Idealists, and Scoundrels Created the Nation's Capital
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780060842390
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 400 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Washington: How Slaves, Idealists, and Scoundrels Created the Nation's Capital Reviews

  • Steve
    2019-04-27 09:41

    The idea of this book is terrific, and about 70% of the follow through works very well. I've always been somewhat fascinated by city planning and living in DC for the past 14 years, I really looked forward to hearing the straight dope on how DC came to be. The facts surrounding the political wrangling on choosing the site of the capital was very interesting, as was what little there was of the actual laying out and constructing of the city itself. But Bordewich really didn't go deeply enough into the actual building of the city. He spends so much time on Philadelphia that there were times I questioned the title of the book. And while he shines a much needed light on the part that slaves and African-Americans played in DC's birth, he might have put more focus on it than the book really warranted. Still, it's amazing to think of the accomplishment of carving this great city out of the swampy backwaters of the Potomac valley, and Bordewich is to be commended for bringing much of that struggle to life.

  • Nick
    2019-05-06 07:52

    The title should have been "Washington: A book filled with tangents and goes out of the way to tell you the founding fathers were forced to use slave labor to build the city, which almost didn't get built, but we're going to spend a lot of time telling you that they used slaves to build the city and not so much time about the nitty-gritty politics that went on behind the scenes of getting the city built, because they used slaves; if you want more substance behind how Washington, D.C. was built, read John Adams by David McCullough--he goes into more detail."Maybe two stars is a little too brutal, but I found that Bordewich went in way too many directions in this book. (All though I found the bit on yellow fever in Philadelphia interesting; however, that belongs in a book on Philadelphia, not Washington, D.C.)

  • Caroline
    2019-05-04 09:46

    Few capital cities are designed. Most grow up haphazardly and without any kind of design or plan. Government tends to locate in the biggest cities, or the most convenient, or those at the centre of trade. Sometimes one city embodies all of these. Sometimes capitals are relocated entirely; sometimes major buildings are refurbished, spruced up or replaced. But it's rare that a new nation creates an entirely new capital city as a reflection of its own ambitions and future hopes. That doesn't mean its existence or survival was a foregone conclusion. Reading this book, to be honest, it is a wonder Washington is the city it is today, a city of wide stately thoroughfares and fine public buildings. For a great part of its history it was no such thing at all. However, unlike London, Paris, Berlin or innumerable other old and established capital cities, Washington was always intended and envisaged as something more than just the seat of government, and the story of its founding reflects that. The arguments over whether a capital city was necessary at all, the debates about its shape, form and location, the controversy of its funding, the trials and errors of its design, its construction, its future, all reflect the fact that Washington was never just a city. It was a symbol, as Bordewich writes, 'that would embody the spirit of a nation that barely yet existed', a symbol of democracy, republican government, freedom.The great irony, of course, is that Washington was a city built on the backs of slaves and by the institution of slavery. If it wasn't for the imbalance of power in the early Congress caused by the counting of slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation, the capital city would never have been located on the Potomac, and who knows how different a country the United States might have been then? Without a capital city so amenable to slavery, perhaps located in abolitionist New York or Philadelphia? Without a seat of government located to all intents and purposes in the South, without a city built and run by slaves, without the majority of its early Presidents all being slave-holders, without a social life and society influenced by the Southern gentry?I never could have thought a book about the building of a city would be of interest to me, but the story of the building of Washington sheds real light on the early history of America, and Bordewich tells it well. The tortuous tangles of the speculations and financial scandals were occasionally confusing, and I wished for a little bit more about the actual building, the slaves and the workers who built the roads and buildings, but I suppose much of this is probably lost to history. Maybe when the British burned the Library of Congress in 1814. Oops.

  • Richard
    2019-05-25 06:37

    From the title, this book sounds like something someone would have to be dragged into reading. Surprisingly, it is absorbing and even leaves you wanting to know even more (which is one of my standards about how good is a non fiction book). After reading Bordewich's account of how Washington ever became the nation's capital, one wonders that it happened at all. A swamp, a place strategically indefensible, and facing seemingly insurmountable political, financial, and social obstacles, it is simply amazing that George Washington was able to succeed in making it happen.in many ways the books is more about a part of American history that is not well-known (at least it wasn't to me) than a detailed description of the actually building process. There are heroes and scoundrels galore; there is much about land speculation and unsavory financial deals; there is much about slavery (without the use of slaves the city would never have been built); and there is much to admire and learn about George Washington, not all of it pretty.The book reads a bit like a novel.

  • Chris
    2019-05-08 03:55

    Those who do not know history are bound to repeat it. What is amazing to me is that there are tons of people in Washington who DO know history and still repeat it anyway. The facts of how own revered capital came to be seem lost to the sands of time, but not with this book. Political back room deals, wrangling of votes, shady real estate deals, bad investments, slave labor, tacky political souvenirs. It all seems very similar to all the crap that goes on today, and in some cases even worse. I am not sure of it is comforting to know that nothing changes or not. But it is fascinating to know how it really worked and to be able to see through all the seemily fake sentimental patriotic stuff that has become our reality to the real story.

  • Linda
    2019-05-05 03:40

    This is the history of how Washington, DC came to be Washington, DC and it's fascinating. The author does a good job of removing the capital letters from Founding Fathers and showing them for their strengths and weaknesses.The book is more than about Washington, the city. To cover it's subject, it heads into politics, finance, land speculation and slavery. It shows early America under a lens that the student in Social Studies class never sees.

  • Marla
    2019-05-06 04:51

    An interesting if somewhat disjointed telling of the making of the American captial. A little too mush emphasis on finance (and crooked financial doings) for me. The author tends to get distracted and go off on threads - thank goodness! The parts about slavery and the plague of 1793 in Philadelphia were the best thing in the book.

  • Autumn
    2019-05-11 06:33

    I kind of lost steam with this. Actually, I got distracted with Renaissance France and now I can't get back into this. I think I'll look to a more general history of this time period because this is very detailed and slanted toward how much slaves contributed to the building of the capital which is all well and good but I want more on the politics of how D.C. was chosen for the site.

  • Nancy
    2019-05-17 09:46

    Not exactly what I thought it would be--all about slavery, North/South relations instead of the making of the buildings. But I learned a lot. Started reading it when I started City of Glory since they are about similar things and time in the US history.

  • R Helen
    2019-05-18 02:52

    I really enjoyed reading the book. Fergus M Bordewich is a great story teller and, surprisingly, the making of Washington DC as the nation's capital is great story to be told. It never ceases to surprise and sadden me how much slavery played a role in the nation's politics from its very beginnings and the story of how DC came to be is no exception. The fact that it was built at all is quite a feat and Bordewich's account of the trials and tribultions is fascinating. The "tangents" that he supposedly goes off on are not tangents at all, but really add to the narrative and help us understand exactly why Washington is geographically where it is today and how it got there. I was a bit confused when he explains that one of the "turncoats" who voted for assumption so as to solidify the Potomac site for the capital, did so with the understanding that Alexandria would be included in the Federal District. But later says that Alexandria was eventually included as a part of a deal to get the national bank passed. There seems to be a contradicition and Ron Chernow, in his authoritative account of the life of Hamilton, makes no mention of it. I also take issue with his comment on page p87. "Although the United States was a republic, it was not a democracy." He follows that up by saying that Jefferson's election led to "the first stirrings of true popular democracy,"(p.257). It think that confines democracy to essentially Jeffersonian democracy and negates the democratic elements in the Federalist cause. However, for the most part, I think this is a great book for anyone interested in American history. The establishing of Washington DC as the nation's capital was in some ways a microcosm of the larger issues that would lead to the Civil War. At the same time, it became a city that would represent, in the long run, unification, rather than division. It's an interestng book and worth reading.

  • Paul Haspel
    2019-04-25 02:35

    Washington, D.C., was from the beginning a capital with a difference. Where older capitals had been situated in pre-existing centers of population and commerce, Washington was an idea before it was a city; it was planned, set into place, and all but willed into being. Fergus Bordewich provides in his book Washington: The Making of the American Capital an interesting and energetic setting-forth of the story of the beginnings of Washington, D.C. – even if it may not always be quite the patriotic narrative that some readers might expect.Bordewich focuses on how the moving of the nation’s capital from prior Northern sites like Philadelphia and New York to a Potomac River location represented a triumph for Southerners, and particularly for Virginians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, all of whom seem to have hoped that a capital on the Potomac would benefit their beloved home commonwealth of Virginia. (Modern residents of Northern Virginia, dealing with the region's endemic traffic problems both within and outside the Capital Beltway, can decide for themselves regarding the nature and degree of those benefits.)It was an unlikely triumph; U.S. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania was among many who believed that the permanent U.S. capital would end up in the Keystone State. But when Congress passed a Residence Act moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years, and then permanently to the Potomac afterward, Maclay knew that “The act was as much Pennsylvania’s failure as it was Virginia’s victory. [James] Madison and his allies had played a weak hand brilliantly. Pennsylvania had played a strong one abysmally” (p. 51). Yet in Bordewich’s reading, there is a grimmer significance to the placement of the capital: “The Potomac would prove a comfortable home for the kind of government the South wanted, and for slavery” (p. 52). One meets, in the pages of Washington: The Making of the American Capital, the figures one would expect to meet, such as the brilliant and mercurial architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, whose grand design for the city of Washington would survive his own memorable fall from grace. Yet one also meets figures who reflect the difficulties and uncertainties of Washington’s beginnings; investors like Robert Morris invested lavishly and carelessly in the future of Washington, and faced ruin as a result. Meanwhile, the city’s champions – like architect William Thornton, who designed the U.S. Capitol – looked with alarm on the slow development of the federal city, and concluded grimly that “A small delay may be fatal” (p. 199) to George Washington’s dreams of a great capital metropolis rising from the Potomac marshlands. Washington himself tirelessly championed the federal city that today bears his name. As he once put it, “By the obstructions continually thrown in its way, by friends or enemies, this city has had to pass through a fiery trial….Yet I trust [it] will, ultimately, escape the ordeal with éclat” (p. 238). Ultimately, Bordewich concludes, “Without Washington, there would have been no Washington, D.C. Without his unflagging commitment, the city might never have been placed on the Potomac, and certainly not at its present location, which he personally selected” (p. 241).I was glad that Bordewich told the stories of individual African Americans who were so important to Washington’s early years – not just famous luminaries like the brilliant surveyor Benjamin Banneker, but also ordinary African Americans whose names and stories one learns in this book. When Bordewich writes that “The nation would be kept much safer for slavery by a government ensconced on the Potomac” (p. 150), or tells of First Lady Abigail Adams arriving in Washington in 1800 and unhappily observing that “The effects of slavery are visible everywhere” (p. 251), the reader is likely to ask him- or herself some uncomfortable questions about the role of slavery in the founding of the United States of America.The focus on how enslaved African Americans did so much of the hard physical work of building Washington, D.C., is certainly appropriate. Yet I would have liked to have seen more focus on what Bordewich does not really get to until the last seven pages of a 276-page book: the ways in which, throughout the antebellum period, a growing free African-American community in Washington made the city different from other parts of the South. “Black schools and churches flourished. Free blacks were permitted to testify in court, own businesses and real estate, and mingle with whites at public events. Individuals who alleged that they had been illegally enslaved were also allowed to sue in court” (p. 270). More emphasis on African-American agency in early Washington would not have taken away from Bordewich’s desire to focus on the role of slavery in Washington’s beginnings. A more nuanced focus of that kind might have helped to provide a stronger link between Washington’s past and its present – a present in which “today 57 percent of the city’s inhabitants, most of the leading members of its municipal government, and a significant portion of its business establishment are African American” (p. 275).As Washington’s viability at its beginnings was a matter of widespread doubt, it is good that this book’s fascinating epilogue calls attention to two later occasions when the capital seemed likely to move: in 1814, after the British burned the city during the War of 1812, and then after the Civil War, when Midwesterners called for the capital of the expanding nation to be placed in a more central location like Saint Louis.As a native Washingtonian, born in the old Columbia Hospital in Washington’s West End, I read Washington: The Making of the American Capital with interest. The book benefits from a 16-page insert containing maps, portraits, and photographs that take one from L’Enfant’s original design map of 1791 to the completion of the Capitol Dome in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. It is a well-written and interesting history of Washington, D.C. If some readers find Bordewich’s focus on the role of slavery in the founding of the city excessive, perhaps it is a necessary corrective to the way in which African Americans were “written out” of the history of Washington, and of the United States, in times past.

  • Patrick Abdalla
    2019-05-16 02:31

    This is one of the most fascinating books I've ever read.

  • Ben
    2019-05-02 04:42

    I was hoping for more of a urban planning/design/construction history of the city where this was more of a political/financial history of the city. I'll try to set aside this initial disappointment and review it from that perspective. It seemed a counter-arguement to Grand Avenues by Berg. Berg was much more pro-L'Enfant, the Frenchman who designed the city. Bordewich was much harder on L'Enfant, although he admitted that L'Enfant's plan to finance the capital would've worked better as he foresaw the failure of the speculators, and, without describing it at all, he glorified L'Enfant's plan. Berg, although when L'Enfant was off the project he basically was as well, dealt with a longer timeline as well. He went into detail about the conference of architects and landscape architects in the 1900's. Bordewich mentioned the British burning the Capital and White House in 1814 (Dolly Madison left in such a hurry she left a half-cooked dinner which the British soldiers enjoyed) but the book was basically over with the election of 1800.Bordewich had issues at times with staying on topic. He devoted an entire chapter to the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia that I failed to see the necessity to devoting more than a few paragraphs too. Also, at times he seemed to want to write a book about slavery and the african-american condition at the time. The parts about how slavery affected the decision-making of the capital were interesting. The rest weren't as necessary. When he did stay on topic, it was enlightening. All the back room dealing and quid pro quo agreements that eventually landed the capital on the Potomac show that politics really hasn't changed all that much over the following 200+ years.Lastly, he described someone as "a sort of Donald Trump of the 1790s", explaining he got things done then spent a chapter writing about how he didn't actually get anything done. Also, I have a personal thing against nonfiction writers using exclamation points outside of quotations. I just feel like history writers shouldn't get that excited.

  • Michael
    2019-05-06 11:00

    Bordewich’s narrative about the “making” of Washington DC is quite an engaging read. Evidencing a strong critical demeanor – occasionally bordering on angst – the author covers the agendas and foibles of such figures as L’Enfant, the commissioners, the speculators, and the Founding Fathers as the Potomac deal developed. Also significant is the laudable focus on the central role of African Americans – free and enslaved – in the building of the city. There’s such an emphasis, in fact, that I’m surprised this doesn’t at least inform the book's subtitle. The inclusion of a Benjamin Banneker portrait – Mt Rushmore-like – alongside three of the white dudes that show up on our currency is the only tell-tale sign of Bordewich’s serious presentation of the issues around slavery, Philadelphia’s abolitionist milieu, and the impossibility of DC’s realization without such forced labor. To balance his focus on this oft-ignored contribution (which, unfortunately must cope with an obvious dearth of archival documentation), Bordewich openly portrays the bumbling incompetence, graft, and/or self-interest that tended to undermine the supposed noble intentions granted to many of the original movers, shakers, and (literally) Big Wigs involved. It’s very entertaining - I could easily imagine our contemporary political elite repeating this near-fiasco today (if only they could figure out how to collect taxes from billionaires).My only disappointment (as is typical, through not reading the book jacket description) is that – after recently reading a biography about L’Enfant – I had hoped that this book would cover a longer period of Washington’s development. I somehow thought that Bordewich would conclude with Marion Barry’s pipe or something. But alas, the timeline is exactly the same; tons of attention to the first ten ill-fated years with a quick segue to Grant’s decision to finally fund this damn thing once and for all. Nonetheless, this is certainly a terrific story of our Capital’s origins.

  • Mary
    2019-05-04 04:46

    "The collapse of the speculative bubble brought land sales and construction almost to a halt. Thousands of the best lots were encumbered by liens and tied up in litigation." Phoenix in 2008? How about Washington, DC, in the mid-1790s? I don't know why I was so surprised by this unexpected storyline of Bordewich's book, especially since I believe one of the fundamental lessons of history is that human nature doesn't really change much over time. The parallels to the America of 2011 are uncanny, even down to the fact that the location of the capital--which is now seen as the embodiment of partisanship and the locus of out-of-control spending--was born of a compromise in an intensely partisan battle over the nation's massive founding debt. I was a little disappointed that the book focused so much on political and real estate battles at the expense of design and planning issues, though nearly everything in it was new (and most of it fascinating) to me. And I think the criticism made by some readers that the book inappropriately foregrounds the role of slaves and slavery in the building of Washington is unfounded, considering that the institution was central to the politics of site selection and development.

  • Joseph
    2019-05-12 10:56

    First off this was a good book, but in saying that it could have probably been better if it stuck to the title and didn't go on tangents. This was supposed to be about how the American Capital came about, all the troubles, etc. The background he did leading up to the decision of Congress to pick Washington DC is top notch. But the author tended to go on tangents about Washington, Jefferson and a bunch of other people on their relationships with slaves, which really didn't have anything to do with the main story. I didn't know that some slaves were used in building the early buildings and houses in DC, which was good to use in the book. But when he started writing about how a slave ran away from Washington in Philly I thought this is not reallly on "The Makinug of the American Capital," but more on Washington the man. But overall a good book and there were a lot of new and interesting facts on our US history.

  • Barb
    2019-05-02 04:54

    Interesting look at the creation of Washington, DC. The author tended to go on tangents, some of which were interesting (the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia--which was pertinent but probably not deserving of the number of pages it received). He focused a LOT on the involvement of slavery in both the politics and actually building of DC, and while I definitely agree that slavery was crucial to this story, he seemed to focus on it while neglecting other parts of the story. The ending--that is, the actual construction of the city--was glossed over. I did enjoy the portrayal of George Washington in it.Overall, a pretty good book. I'd have recommended some developmental editing, though.

  • Dana
    2019-05-15 04:47

    Bordewich turns a tale, the making of the American capital, from a seemingly inconsequential footnote of early American history into a very enjoyable account of early American politics, economics, and culture. Coming into this book, I did not imagine the major role that the location of the capital on the Potomac banks had on the course of American history. Major themes that Bordewich intertwined within the capital's history and that of a nascent United States are those of the politics of slavery, financial corruption, and probably the most salient, an effervescent hope in American resiliency and progress.

  • Kate
    2019-05-26 05:41

    Being a newcomer to D.C., I want to know all I can about my new city. This book enlightens in so many ways. While other reviewers may quibble about the many seeming tangents the author covers, I disagree. Bordewich does a stellar job of explaining the complex society out of which our Capitol was born. Understanding the nature of Philadelphia, the mindset of our slave-owning founding fathers, the roots of Northern-Southern hostility, financial speculation, and many other facets is the best way to understand the origins of our country.

  • Clifford
    2019-05-06 09:53

    Compelling account of the planning and initial founding of the city of Washington, DC. Many of the world's great cities have developed organically, built around a trading outpost, a river junction, etc. Washington, DC is one of the very few major cities whose site was carefully selected (in this case by George Washington himself) and plotted by a designer/architect. This book also gives considerable treatment to the role of slave labor in building the US capital city, and to the uneasy relationship with slavery on the part of several of the nation's Founding Fathers.

  • Licking County Library
    2019-05-04 07:51

    Recommended by Deirdre M. , Hebron LibraryDeirdre's Review:Interesting but sometimes tedious story that focuses on the political intrigue and extensive use of slaves in building the city of Washington D. C. The author unfortunately left this reader wanting a broader timeline of the city's history than was given and more variety in his discussion. He that seemed to focus on certain few buildings when a more broad and far-reaching history would have been preferred.

  • Marcus Lundberg
    2019-04-29 07:51

    a nice read, but spent too much space discussing biographical details of those involved than the main driving forces for the creation of a federal capital and its consequences on American politics. Compared to Americans that have read American history I know a lot less about the general driving forces of American history, so I sometimes feel like I am missing the big picture and get only the details.

  • Paul Pellicci
    2019-05-07 06:35

    This book was easy to read and hard to put down. Not a work of art, but it was educational. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington's deal to put the Capitol in the swamp to keep it south of Philadelphia and New York. Insight into George Washington's real estate ventures and Masonic ritual.And with all that and more they built a city.

  • Chris
    2019-05-01 08:47

    I found this book infinitely fascinating and would have awarded 4-stars had it been more focused. The author spent much of the time covering the role of slavery in the politics of the period. That being said, I found the book very enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone looking for a fresh perspective on the period.

  • Christine
    2019-05-21 02:37

    Okay so far it is interesting. It was last months book club book.I got to page 68 and have retired it to the bathroom. It has interesting facts that I didn't know, very wordy. I think the book could be half the size.

  • Converse
    2019-05-20 07:54

    How the site of the U.S. capital was decided, the failed attempt to fund its construction through private real estate development, and its consequent rocky start until government money was appropriated.

  • JGP
    2019-05-17 08:42

    A bit dry in places but very interesting overall. I learned a lot about how the location for the capital was selected and how the city was ultimately designed and built. Intriguing part of our history that many of us never learn about.

  • Aliza
    2019-05-24 05:32

    I really enjoyed the beginning and the end, ie the parts about DC. There was way too much tangential storyline about slavery and I felt the narrative was too much about African Americans and the capital. The book's title could have been about that.

  • J Mark Brinkmoeller
    2019-05-19 07:55

    Terrific as have been all the books authored by Mr. Fergus Bordewich. The role slavery commanded amidst the politics of deciding on a location for the capital and the impact of land speculators in stunting the growth of Washington were particularly rewarding elements in this book.

  • JodiP
    2019-05-20 09:47

    This was a fascinating look at the creation of our capital, from choosing the site, to figuring out how to pay for it, to who built it (Black people! Surprise!) Someday, I will go there, and will have to read this before I go to better appreciate the city.