- George Washington's Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic by Adam Costanzo
Adam Costanzo's George Washington's Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic presents a well-researched, well-argued account of the development of the District of Columbia from its inception in the late 1780s through the era of Andrew Jackson. Making good use of a variety of official records, manuscript sources, and contemporary newspapers, Costanzo homes in on key conflicts between the political parties of the early republic over visions for the city and the nation, as well as the often tense interactions between the district's local population and their government neighbors, offering a convincing case for why Washington, D.C., evolved slowly through the War of 1812 and only came into its own after being burned and looted by the British army. While perhaps not as comprehensive a history as one might want, the monograph will nevertheless be of great interest to scholars of political economy and urban development during the early republic.
Costanzo argues that, for thirty years after its inception, "the federal city became a symbolic pawn in the contest between rival political groups" (p. 4). During the 1790s, Federalist administrations attempted to stimulate the District of Columbia's growth by encouraging economic development and large-scale speculation in city lots—for these visionaries, both the Potomac River's potential connections to the Ohio River Valley and the city's future role as capital of the new nation would attract a plethora of wealthy settlers. After 1800, the Thomas Jefferson administration shied away from supporting the city's development, instead preferring to focus on construction of government buildings, while limiting federal spending in order to protect the district from "the corrupting influences of the manufacturers, wage laborers, wealthy aristocrats, and ragged beggars who infested the large capital cities of Europe" (p. 63). Under Democratic-Republican control, the city grew in fits and starts, as private institutions took over efforts to attract new residents and build municipal improvements. Congress nearly abandoned the city altogether after its sack by British forces in 1814, and the debate over the fate of the District of Columbia raged throughout the next decade. Only with the westward expansion of the American state in the 1820s and 1830s did the status of the city settle, and under the Andrew Jackson administration the city of Washington became the symbolic and commercial capital of a burgeoning continental empire.
The monograph's parsing of how the national visions of the early political parties shaped the physical landscape of the capital provides valuable insight on many different aspects of politics and economic development. Many historians will find the book's account of land speculation—a topic often discussed in the rural West but rarely in the urban East—especially revealing. Further, the book's close interpretation of both the disputes and the avenues of cooperation between the public and private sectors in the District of Columbia enriches both our understanding of the development of early cities and our knowledge of how the early federal government grew not necessarily by competing with private interests but by co-opting them as well. [End Page 425]
Although the city's elite plays a role in the narrative, the city's larger population is mostly absent. George Washington's Washington provides tantalizing snapshots of the district's demographics at certain points, and the book is littered with examples of the capital's vernacular architecture, but rarely is the reader transported to the street level, where politicians rubbed elbows with tradesmen, laborers, enslaved people, and the rest of the population. For the most part, these people appear as the objects of debates held by elite landowners and congressmen, rather than as actors in their own right. Especially in light of recent scholarship on the lower and middling sorts...