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On January 20th, millions of Americans descended on Washington to watch the first African-American be sworn in as president of the United States. But few of those celebrating in Washington, D.C. may know the real story of how our nation's capital came to be.
In "Washington: The Making of the American Capital," Fergus Bordewich examines the move from Philadelphia to D.C. and explores the political, racial and cultural landscape that surrounded the construction of the nation's seat of government. Fergus, welcome to the show.
Mr. FERGUS BORDEWICH (Author, "Washington: The Making of the American Capital"): Hi there, Tony. Thanks very much.
COX: I Hope I didn't butcher your name too much. I apologize if I did. This book delves deeply into all of the political powers struggles involved in the building of our nation's capital. Really briefly, first talk about how the capital was moved from Philadelphia to Washington.
Mr. BORDEWICH: Well, first, let's frame it a bit by way of saying that we got our capital on the Potomac River thanks to the politics of slavery and thanks to the hard physical labor of enslaved African-Americans in the 1790s. There was a terrific political battle in the early 1790s over where the nation's capital was going to be. Think of the United States as a - just a collection of little mini-states mostly at odds with each other and without any great unifying national symbol. The capital was supposed to be that unifying symbol.
Congress originally voted to place the capital in Pennsylvania, a free state in the north. However, as you can imagine, Southern slave owners were irate at the prospect of a free-state capital that would set freedom as the national paradigm. They lobbied very aggressively for a Southern capital. There were 32 different sites originally considered, but the capital wound up on the Potomac thanks to probably the country's first real backroom deal cut between Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
COX: Well, in fact, you talk a lot in the book about what you call corruption that surrounded the establishing of the capital where it was, and you mention, as you've just now done, that there were presidents involved - Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Hamilton. So how much was the corruption a part of this?
Mr. BORDEWICH: Well, George Washington himself was - as well as being our first president, simultaneously the president of something called the Potomac Company, which was a commercial enterprise dedicated to developing the Potomac River Valley as a great avenue, sort of the interstate highway of its day, into the heart of the continent. Now today, we would consider that a shocking and unethical conflict of interest. In those days it wasn't, and Washington himself was given the job of selecting the actual location for the capital. He placed it just across the Potomac from his home at Mount Vernon. And his vice-president, John Adams, later said rather grumpily that Washington increased the value of his own holdings by about a thousand percent.
COX: Interesting. You know, one of the things that we hear during Black History Month every year is about the contribution of Benjamin Banneker to the creation of the nation's capital. He, of course, was an African-American astronomer and surveyor. But in the book, you talk about another person from the British Virgin Islands by the name of William Thornton who you said in the book really deserves a lot more of the credit than was given to him and that Benjamin Banneker perhaps deserved a little less credit than what he's been getting.
Mr. BORDEWICH: Well, that's not to say I want to diminish the role that Banneker played. Banneker was a remarkable man, one of the most interesting and original men of his time, and as you said, yes, he was a largely self-taught mathematician and astronomer. The role that he played in the laying out of the national capital, District of Columbia, was as the senior assistant to the surveyor, and he performed an extremely important role by taking astronomical measurements that were essential to the surveying.
COX: That's the guy Ellicott, right?
Mr. BORDEWICH: That's right. Andrew Ellicott. The fact that Banneker was there, a free African-American man, recognized in his own time even by whites in the surrounding area as a remarkable individual, is reason in and of itself to give him a great deal of credit.
William Thornton, whom you mentioned - William Thorton was a white fellow who came from a Quaker background in the British Virgin Islands. He was sent to school in England, became radicalized as an abolitionist, and he came across the Atlantic to the new United States with a dream of emancipating enslaved people in North America and leading them to a new country in Africa. And ultimately, that country he had in mind became Liberia.
COX: But what specifically did he do, as our time is running short.
Mr. BORDEWICH: William Thornton designed the United States Capitol building. He was - did many, many things, but that is the thing that perhaps he deserves to be most remembered for. And he was also an ardent opponent of slavery, the slavery that he saw all around him in the national capital. And I don't want to ignore the fact that hundreds of enslaved men, a couple of women, probably, as well, were the ones who actually built the Capitol building and the White House.
COX: Which is quite the irony on the day that Barack Obama was sworn in as president on the steps of a building that was built with slave labor.
Mr. BORDEWICH: Yeah. I think - history tells us that we all in this country, black and white, have been prisoners of slavery and that its consequences remain right up to today still embedded in our cultural DNA.
COX: Well, let me stop you there only because our time has run out. It's a fascinating book, and I appreciate your coming on and sharing some of your knowledge with our audience.
Mr. BORDEWICH: Oh, thanks, Tony. And the book, again, if you don't mind my mentioning it, is "Washington: The Making of the American Capital."
COX: I was going to say it, but since you did, I guess I don't have to now. That was Fergus Bordewich. Thank you very much. He joined us from the studios of WGY in Albany, New York.
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