Author: Politics of Slavery Shaped Nation's Capitol

In his new book, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, Fergus Bordewich reveals how Washington, D.C., became the nation's seat of power and — perhaps a lesser-known fact — how the historic enslavement of African-Americans played a role in that designation. Bordewich talks about his new book.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley and you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, what musical artists are on your iPod? Well, singer Lizz Wright shares with you the songs she wants in her ears. That's coming up.

But first, Washington, D.C. officially became the nation's capital in 1800, a year after George Washington's death. The former president was the force behind the city's creation during a decade-long process full of political deal making, land schemes and financial shenanigans.

In his book, "Washington: The Making of the American Capital," author Fergus Bordewich says it was slaves who actually built the city, and the location of Washington was chosen to protect the institution of slavery. Mr. Bordewich joins us now in the studio. Welcome to the show.

Mr. FERGUS BORDEWICH (Author, "Washington: The Making of the American Capital"): Hi, Cheryl. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORLEY: Well, we know Washington today as the seat of our government, a powerful city full of monuments and of course, the buildings that house our government, the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court. But it's been a long time in the making, and selecting Washington was quite controversial, as you point out in your book. Of course, prior to Washington there were some temporary homes for the government, namely Philadelphia and New York. So how competitive was the selection process?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Well, it was extraordinarily competitive. There were at least 30 different sites that were considered for the government - for the national capital, ranging from Kingston, New York, which is a hundred miles north of New York City, down to Annapolis, Maryland. There were bitter political battles over these competitive sites.

Princeton, New Jersey was one contender and Thomas Jefferson, however, wrote scathingly about how the rates were too high and the people in Princeton couldn't be trusted. And Lancaster, Pennsylvania advertised the cheapness of its firewood as a come-on.

And one of my favorite possible prospects was Mott Haven, which is today the tip of the south Bronx in New York City, which might very well have been our national capital if New York had won out.

CORLEY: Well, the idea for the capital came at the end of the 18th century. In 1790, George Washington was 58 years old and as you point out in your book, that was elderly by the standards of the day. Congress gave him personal responsibility for capital, gave him years to make it happen. Ten years. So how really ambitious was this idea?

Mr. BORDEWICH: It was extraordinarily ambitious. No government, other than Russia, had previously invented a capital out of nothing. And particularly for the United States, which was a third-world country of its time. We imported everything from belt buckles to paint brushes to match sticks from Europe. We didn't manufacture anything very much here in the United States. Our currency was next to worthless. The states were at odds with each other. Nobody really knew if the national experiment was going to work or not.

The constitution was signed three years earlier. This dream of creating a city was, in the minds of many people, probably most a pipe dream. Right until 1800, most people probably didn't think it was going to work.

CORLEY: I was just going to say, well, embedded in the story about the capital is the central role that slavery's protectors, many of them this country's Founding Fathers, of course, as well as slaves played in the formative years. How really critical were slaves to the creation of the capital? What specifically did they do?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Well, slavery, the institution of slavery was embedded from the beginning in this entire history, as it was embedded in the United States as a nation from the beginning, even though in later generations we've gone to some lengths to whitewash how deeply it was embedded or intertwined with the founding. The politics of slavery put the capital here on the Potomac. Congress had already voted to place the national capital in the free state of Pennsylvania.

The politics of slavery, the interests of southern slave owners, their desire to protect their human property by getting the national capital out of the free air of the north was the paramount reason the capital was located here on the Potomac. Once the government had made a commitment to place the capital here, who was going to build it? These two states, Maryland and Virginia, because you have to remember that a slice of Virginia was originally part of the District of Columbia.

These were slave states. The labor here was primarily slave labor, and in the 1790s when these buildings that are marvelous symbols, genuine symbols of American democracy - the U.S. Capitol, the White House, other government buildings - when they were built they were built by slaves. This was a slave labor camp.

CORLEY: So clearing trees...

Mr. BORDEWICH: Yes. Cutting roads, filling timbers, sawing planks, baking bricks, mixing mortar, driving carts, erecting walls, including a fair bit of the skilled labor. There were enslaved African-Americans whose remuneration - they, of course, weren't paid. Their masters were paid. But the remuneration for their labor was in fact more than that of some white workers on the same project.

CORLEY: And you said the masters are the ones who ended up with the money?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Of course.

CORLEY: It was interesting to me that you said that Philadelphia or Pennsylvania, at least, had been voted on at first to be the site of the capital. What brought people away from that idea?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Well, a couple of factors. One is that there was a great deal of jealousy of Philadelphia and its wealth, but primarily there was tremendous anxiety in the slave-owning states that the free air of Philadelphia would infect not only their own enslaved property, that is of legislators, but that it would influence legislators themselves, that the men who staffed the government would be drawn primarily from the free states, as those who staffed the government in its early days here on the Potomac were primarily from southern states.

And what was happening in Philadelphia, though, was extraordinary. There was a revolution taking place in Philadelphia. It wasn't just another city. It was the first place in the United States where African-Americans in large numbers were being emancipated. The promoters of the Potomac capital were very fond of calling this still largely imaginary city "the metropolis of America."

The real metropolis of America was Philadelphia. It was a multi-cultural, multi-national city where African-Americans, for the very first time, were establishing autonomous institutions, churches, social organizations, schools, self-help organizations of all kinds, and where white Americans were for the very first time coping with the reality of free African-Americans and learning how to create a society together.

CORLEY: So freedom was the paradigm there?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Precisely. It was the paradigm and it therefore would have become the paradigm for the national government.

CORLEY: If you've just joined us, you're listening to Tell Me More. I'm Cheryl Corley. I'm speaking with author Fergus Bordewich about his book "Washington: The Making of the American Capital." Well, Peter Charles L'Enfant, of course, is credited with designing the city, as well as coming up with some of the initial plans for the main halls of power, Congress and the White House. Benjamin Banneker was a free black man often described as having quite a large role in designing the city. What was his actual role?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Benjamin Banneker is an extraordinary individual. You delve into his real life story, it's far more fascinating than his legend. In the days when Baltimore itself was surrounded by a palisade to defend the city against potential Indian attacks, so this was the Wild West where he grew up in the early 1700s. He was a self-taught, largely self-taught astronomer, mathematician, a poet. Late in life he produced the most popular almanacs in America, which was quite an achievement at that time, given that he was an African-American, all the more remarkable.

He became friends with a family, the Ellicott's. Andrew Ellicott was hired by George Washington to survey the federal district here on the Potomac. Andrew Ellicott invited Benjamin Banneker to come along with him as a senior assistant. What Benjamin Banneker was doing was taking astronomical readings, so he spent the entire night with a telescope poking up through a hole in the roof of his tent, taking extremely complex readings of the passage of the planets overhead, which readings were essential to the surveyors to do their job.

CORLEY: I see.

Mr. BORDEWICH: There's a legend that Banneker was part of the actual planning, that he worked with L'Enfant in the design of the federal district. That is not true, but that takes nothing away from this remarkable individual who was recognized even in his own time by whites in the slave-owning culture here on the Potomac as an individual so extraordinary that he defied racist assumptions of the time. Local newspapers even made that observation.

CORLEY: Of course, during this time people were defending the country's new constitution and the ideals that espouse - liberty, of course, being one of them. And how did slaveholders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson deal with what seems like pretty obvious contradictions?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Well, they dealt with it in different ways, mostly with a great deal of internal stress. Thomas Jefferson was schizophrenic on the subject, frankly. Thomas Jefferson's mind was capacious enough to hold every possible position in thinking about race, African-Americans and slavery. His soaring language of the Declaration of Independence became a battle-flag for the abolitionist movement, and rightly so.

On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson harbored truly loathsome personal feelings about black people, which he put on record, Notes on the State of Virginia. It's very difficult to read some of his observations today, which he recorded in what he certainly regarded as scientific objectivity but are today fairly appalling. He himself, despite his deeply heartfelt vision of liberty for humankind, freed no slaves at all, except for those who were the family of Sally Hemmings, his mistress.

George Washington, by comparison, who we tend to think of as perhaps a great stone face, a marble monument lashed to a horse. Washington, much less reflective man than Jefferson, who began life as a very typical, fairly arrogant Virginia planter, at the end of his life had evolved into an abolitionist and he wrestled very, very deeply with himself over the question of slavery. He wanted the paradigm of this country to be one of freedom. When it came to the crunch, he did not do the right thing by liberating his own enslaved people when he became president. He thought about it, he knew it was the right thing to do, and he didn't do it.

CORLEY: Well, you said in the end that Washington, all he could do was liberate himself from slavery. What did you mean by that?

Mr. BORDEWICH: Yes. What I meant is that in his will, he freed all the slaves whom he owned in his own name. He couldn't free those who were in the name of his wife, Martha Washington. He didn't have that power. Or in the name of his step-children. But he did liberate his own human property, and he did it in a heartfelt, honest way, except that he waited until his death to do so and in that sense he liberated himself. It was a process - a slow process of liberation.

But imagine the clout he would have had, the father of his country, the great unifying human symbol of the nation, the clout he would have had, the influence would have had, had he freed his own slaves and said, America is about freedom, it's not about tolerating slavery.

CORLEY: Fergus Bordewich is the author of "Washington: The Making of the American Capital." It is available in most major bookstores. Mr. Bordewich, thank you for joining us today.

Mr. BORDEWICH: Thank you, Cheryl. It's been a pleasure.

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