Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Washington: The Making of the American Capital  by Fergus Bordewich








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Fergus Bordewich’s new book, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, tells the story of the selection and creation of the capital of the United States. This is a political tale about the characters and the issues that swirled around in the late 18th century. Bordewich presents the impact of individuals, both those well-known and those unknown to general readers, and is likely to present information that a reader hasn’t come across elsewhere. I was enlightened, for example, by what I learned about Pierre L’Enfant, and what he did and didn’t do for Washington. At times, the story becomes tedious, and readers looking to learn about the challenges of construction and building won’t find much here. For insight into people and issues, this book soars. Tales of money, power, and scheming offset those times the book seems tedious or repetitive. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 5, “The Metropolis of America,” pp. 122-124:


As the activists of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society worked to create a place for freed slaves in America, William Thornton continued to dream of leading them back to Africa in clouds of glory. In October 1790 he left his new fifteen-year-old wife, Anna Maria, in Phila­delphia and returned to Tortola to see his dying mother; he remained there for two years. There had been changes since his boyhood. Quaker influ­ence had faded, weakened by isolation, intermarriage with non-Quakers, and the growing conflict between Quaker antislavery and the economic imperatives of the plantation economy. The atmosphere was tense. Just before Thornton's return, slaves on a local plantation had rioted when false reports of a general emancipation circulated and were savagely put down. Thornton shocked the island's colonial council by attempting to convince them to enact an emancipation plan for the island's slaves. They "hint me to be a dangerous member of society when I mention things concerning the blacks," he wrote with a twinge of amusement (and per- haps pride) to the British abolitionist Granville Sharp.

While on Tortola, Thornton received the unwelcome news from friends in England that the colony of former British slaves they had dispatched to the coast of Sierra Leone had proved a disaster of monu­mental proportions. Of the first contingent of 450 settlers, 84 had died from sickness before the ships even left England. Another 96 had died from illness and exposure soon after their arrival. Others were cap­tured by native rulers and sold back into slavery. Many of the settlers who remained had abandoned the colony and relocated for safety—to the unutterable dismay of the philanthropists who had organized the settlement—to slave factories elsewhere on the coast. Even the whites who had been sent out to serve the colony had entered the service of slave traders, lured by large salaries. Sharp warned Thornton that this catastrophe must dissuade him from all thought of moving to Africa. But Thornton's unquenchable optimism remained undiminished. Des­tiny had touched his shoulder. Nothing, including his most amiable d affectionate wife, he wrote back to Sharp, could "have any effect in ying my soul in any part of the world except Africa."

It was also at this time that Thornton learned of the design compe­tition for the United States Capitol. He threw himself into the project, which brought him welcome distraction from the continuing mockery of his fellow island whites. The pungent smell of sugar being rendered into molasses and rum filled the humid air as, day and night, he worked at his sketches, oblivious to the thrum of rain on the giant bulletwood trees, and the thud of waves on the shore of nearby Sea Cow Bay. From his room, he could see beyond the plantation's wattle-and-daub slave quarters and squat whitewashed warehouses to mountainsides silvery and undulating with sugarcane, and the turquoise expanse of the Carib­bean, where islands shimmered like dream images in the haze. Thornton later described his creative process to a friend, Anthony Fothergill: /’First I thought of the amazing extent of our country, and of the apartmen­ts that the representatives of a very numerous people would one day require. Secondly, I consulted the dignity of appearance, and made minutiae give way to a grand outline, full of broad prominent lights and broad deep shadows. Thirdly, I sought for all the variety of architecture that could be embraced in the forms I had lain down, without mixing small parts of the large of the same kind; and keeping the whole regu­lar, in range, throughout the building. Finally I attended to the minute parts; that we might not be deemed deficient in those touches which a painter would require in the finishing."

In his lively imagination, the clean classical lines of democracy's temple-to-be on the Potomac perhaps lent something of their grandeur to his dreamlike vision of a black colony on the African coast: twinned images of better worlds, one white, one black, united by idealism, but bifurcated irrevocably by race. For Thornton, as for his friend Thomas Jefferson, the vision was a comforting refuge from sordid reality, and from the guilt and fear that freighted every scheme for emancipation. As long as Thornton conceived of African Americans as a problem to be solved, like the design of the Capitol's entablature, or the disposition of its water closets, he felt himself on firm moral and emotional ground. Like nearly all white men of his time, he could not see former slaves as people capable of charting their own destiny, with their own voices that deserved to be heard. Blinkered by his own ambitions for black Americans, he failed to understand the extraordinary revolution that was taking place in Philadelphia, which would become the national capital by default if the promoters on the Potomac failed to achieve their goal. There, former slaves were making clear that they had much to say indeed.


The role of slaves is one area in which Bordewich helps complete the historical record, and provide information for readers that may have been glossed over or ignored by others. Washington: Making the American Capital tells a fascinating story of special interest to those who can’t get enough about the founders of the United States and the challenges they overcame.


Steve Hopkins, July 18, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2008 issue of Executive Times


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