The site of the present City of Washington was chosen with three special views: firstly, that being on the Potomac it might have the full advantage of water-carriage and a sea-port; secondly, that it might be so far removed from the sea-board as to be safe from invasion; and, thirdly, that it might be central alike to all the States. It was presumed, when Washington was founded, that these three advantages would be secured by the selected position. As regards the first, the Potomac affords to the city but few of the advantages of a sea-port. Ships can come up, but not ships of large burden. The river seems to have dwindled since the site was chosen, and at present it is, I think, evident that Washington can never be great in its shipping. Statio benefida carinis can never be its motto. As regards the second point, singularly enough Washington is the only city of the Union that has been in an enemy’s possession since the United States became a nation. In the war of 1812 it fell into our hands, and we burned it. As regards the third point, Washington, from the lie of the land, can hardly have been said to be centrical at any time. Owing to the irregularities of the coast it is not easy of access by railways from different sides. Baltimore would have been far better. But as far as we can now see, and as well as we can now judge, Washington will soon be on the borders of the nation to which it belongs, instead of at its center. I fear, therefore, that we must acknowledge that the site chosen for his country’s capital by George Washington has not been fortunate.
I have a strong idea, which I expressed before in speaking of the capital of the Canadas, that no man can ordain that on such a spot shall be built a great and thriving city. No man can so ordain even though he leave behind him, as was the case with Washington, a prestige sufficient to bind his successors to his wishes. The political leaders of the country have done what they could for Washington. The pride of the nation has endeavored to sustain the character of its chosen metropolis. There has been no rival, soliciting favor on the strength of other charms. The country has all been agreed on the point since the father of the country first commenced the work. Florence and Rome in Italy have each their pretensions; but in the States no other city has put itself forward for the honor of entertaining Congress. And yet Washington has been a failure. It is commerce that makes great cities, and commerce has refused to back the general’s choice. New York and Philadelphia, without any political power, have become great among the cities of the earth. They are beaten by none except by London and Paris. But Washington is but a ragged, unfinished collection of unbuilt broad streets, as to the completion of which there can now, I imagine, be but little hope.
Of all places that I know it is the most ungainly and most unsatisfactory: I fear I must also say the most presumptuous in its pretensions. There is a map of Washington accurately laid down; and taking that map with him in his journeyings, a man may lose himself in the streets, not as one loses one’s self in London, between Shoreditch and Russell Square, but as one does so in the deserts of the Holy Land, between Emmaus and Arimathea. In the first place no one knows where the places are, or is sure of their existence, and then between their presumed localities the country is wild, trackless, unbridged, uninhabited, and desolate. Massachusetts Avenue runs the whole length of the city, and is inserted on the maps as a full-blown street, about four miles in length. Go there, and you will find yourself not only out of town, away among the fields, but you will find yourself beyond the fields, in an uncultivated, undrained wilderness. Tucking your trowsers up to your knees you will wade through the bogs, you will lose yourself among rude hillocks, you will be out of the reach of humanity. The unfinished dome of the Capitol will loom before you in the distance, and you will think that you approach the ruins of some western Palmyra. If you are a sportsman, you will desire to shoot snipe within sight of the President’s house. There is much unsettled land within the States of America, but I think none so desolate in its state of nature as three-fourths of the ground on which is supposed to stand the City of Washington.
The City of Washington is something more than four miles long, and is something more than two miles broad. The land apportioned to it is nearly as compact as may be, and it exceeds in area the size of a parallelogram four miles long by two broad. These dimensions are adequate for a noble city, for a city to contain a million of inhabitants. It is impossible to state with accuracy the actual population of Washington, for it fluctuates exceedingly. The place is very full during Congress, and very empty during the recess. By which I mean it to be understood that those streets which are blessed with houses are full when Congress meets. I do not think that Congress makes much difference to Massachusetts Avenue. I believe that the city never contains as many as eighty thousand, and that its permanent residents are less than sixty thousand.
But, it will be said, was it not well to prepare for a growing city? Is it not true that London is choked by its own fatness, not having been endowed at its birth or during its growth with proper means for accommodating its own increasing proportions? Was it not well to lay down fine avenues and broad streets, so that future citizens might find a city well prepared to their hand?
There is no doubt much in such an argument, but its correctness must be tested by its success. When a man marries it is well that be should make provision for a coming family. But a Benedict, who early in his career shall have carried his friends with considerable self-applause through half a dozen nurseries, and at the end of twelve years shall still be the father of one rickety baby, will incur a certain amount of ridicule. It is very well to be prepared for good fortune, but one should limit one’s preparation within a reasonable scope. Two miles by one might, perhaps, have done for the skeleton sketch of a new city. Less than half that would contain much more than the present population of Washington; and there are, I fear, few towns in the Union so little likely to enjoy any speedy increase.
Three avenues sweep the whole length of Washington: Virginia Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Massachusetts Avenue. But Pennsylvania Avenue is the only one known to ordinary men, and the half of that only is so known. This avenue is the backbone of the city, and those streets which are really inhabited cluster round that half of it which runs westward from the Capitol. The eastern end, running from the front of the Capitol, is again a desert. The plan of the city is somewhat complicated. It may truly be called “a mighty maze, but not without a plan.” The Capitol was intended to be the center of the city. It faces eastward, away from the Potomac — or rather from the main branch of the Potomac, and also unfortunately from the main body of the town. It turns its back upon the chief thoroughfare, upon the Treasury buildings, and upon the President’s house, and, indeed, upon the whole place. It was, I suppose, intended that the streets to the eastward should be noble and populous, but hitherto they have come to nothing. The building, therefore, is wrong side foremost, and all mankind who enter it, Senators, Representatives, and judges included, go in at the back door. Of course it is generally known that in the Capitol is the chamber of the Senate, that of the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Judicial Court of the Union. It may be said that there are two centers in Washington, this being one and the President’s house the other. At these centers the main avenues are supposed to cross each other, which avenues are called by the names of the respective States. At the Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, Delaware Avenue, and Maryland Avenue converge. They come from one extremity of the city to the square of the Capitol on one side, and run out from the other side of it to the other extremity of the city. Pennsylvania Avenue, New York Avenue, Vermont Avenue, and Connecticut Avenue do the same at what is generally called President’s Square. In theory, or on paper, this seems to be a clear and intelligible arrangement; but it does not work well. These center depots are large spaces, and consequently one portion of a street is removed a considerable distance from the other. It is as though the same name should be given to two streets, one of which entered St. James’s Park at Buckingham Gate, while the other started from the Park at Marlborough, House. To inhabitants the matter probably is not of much moment, as it is well known that this portion of such an avenue and that portion of such another avenue are merely myths — unknown lands away in the wilds. But a stranger finds himself in the position of being sent across the country knee deep into the mud, wading through snipe grounds, looking for civilization where none exists.
All these avenues have a slanting direction. They are so arranged that none of them run north and south, or east and west; but the streets, so called, all run in accordance with the points of the compass. Those from east to west are A Street, B Street, C Street, and so on — counting them away from the Capitol on each side, so that there are two A streets and two B streets. On the map these streets run up to V Street, both right and left — V Street North and V Street South. Those really known to mankind are E, F, G, H, I, and K Streets North. Then those streets which run from north to south are numbered First Street, Second Street, Third Street, and so on, on each front of the Capitol, running to Twenty-fourth or Twenty-fifth Street on each side. Not very many of these have any existence, or, I might perhaps more properly say, any vitality in their existence.
Such is the plan of the city, that being the arrangement and those the dimensions intended by the original architects and founders of Washington; but the inhabitants have hitherto confined themselves to Pennsylvania Avenue West, and to the streets abutting from it or near to it. Whatever address a stranger may receive, however perplexing it may seem to him, he may be sure that the house indicated is near Pennsylvania Avenue. If it be not, I should recommend him to pay no attention to the summons. Even in those streets with which he will become best acquainted, the houses are not continuous. There will be a house, and then a blank; then two houses, and then a double blank. After that a hut or two, and then probably an excellent, roomy, handsome family mansion. Taken altogether, Washington as a city is most unsatisfactory, and falls more grievously short of the thing attempted than any other of the great undertakings of which I have seen anything in the States. San Jose, the capital of the republic of Costa Rica, in Central America, has been prepared and arranged as a new city in the same way. But even San Jose comes nearer to what was intended than does Washington.
For myself, I do not believe in cities made after this fashion. Commerce, I think, must select the site of all large congregations of mankind. In some mysterious way she ascertains what she wants, and having acquired that, draws men in thousands round her properties. Liverpool, New York, Lyons, Glasgow, Venice, Marseilles, Hamburg, Calcutta, Chicago, and Leghorn have all become populous, and are or have been great, because trade found them to be convenient for its purposes. Trade seems to have ignored Washington altogether. Such being the case, the Legislature and the Executive of the country together have been unable to make of Washington anything better than a straggling congregation of buildings in a wilderness. We are now trying the same experiment at Ottawa, in Canada, having turned our back upon Montreal in dudgeon. The site of Ottawa is more interesting than that of Washington, but I doubt whether the experiment will be more successful. A new town for art, fashion, and politics has been built at Munich, and there it seems to answer the expectation of the builders; but at Munich there is an old city as well, and commerce had already got some considerable hold on the spot before the new town was added to it.
The streets of Washington, such as exist, are all broad. Throughout the town there are open spaces — spaces, I mean, intended to be open by the plan laid down for the city. At the present moment it is almost all open space. There is also a certain nobility about the proposed dimensions of the avenues and squares. Desirous of praising it in some degree, I can say that the design is grand. The thing done, however, falls so infinitely short of that design, that nothing but disappointment is felt. And I fear that there is no look-out into the future which can justify a hope that the design will be fulfilled. It is therefore a melancholy place. The society into which one falls there consists mostly of persons who are not permanently resident in the capital; but of those who were permanent residents I found none who spoke of their city with affection. The men and women of Boston think that the sun shines nowhere else; and Boston Common is very pleasant. The New Yorkers believe in Fifth Avenue with an unswerving faith; and Fifth Avenue is calculated to inspire a faith. Philadelphia to a Philadelphian is the center of the universe; and the progress of Philadelphia, perhaps, justifies the partiality. The same thing may be said of Chicago, of Buffalo, and of Baltimore. But the same thing cannot be said in any degree of Washington. They who belong to it turn up their noses at it. They feel that they live surrounded by a failure. Its grand names are as yet false, and none of the efforts made have hitherto been successful. Even in winter, when Congress is sitting, Washington is melancholy; but Washington in summer must surely be the saddest spot on earth.
There are six principal public buildings in Washington, as to which no expense seems to have been spared, and in the construction of which a certain amount of success has been obtained. In most of these this success has been more or less marred by an independent deviation from recognized rules of architectural taste. These are the Capitol, the Post-office, the Patent-office, the Treasury, the President’s house, and the Smithsonian Institution. The five first are Grecian, and the last in Washington is called — Romanesque. Had I been left to classify it by my own unaided lights, I should have called it bastard Gothic.
The Capitol is by far the most imposing; and though there is much about it with which I cannot but find fault, it certainly is imposing. The present building was, I think, commenced in 1815, the former Capitol having been destroyed by the English in the war of 1812-13. It was then finished according to the original plan, with a fine portico and well proportioned pediment above it — looking to the east. The outer flight of steps, leading up to this from the eastern approach, is good and in excellent taste. The expanse of the building to the right and left, as then arranged, was well proportioned, and, as far as we can now judge, the then existing dome was well proportioned also. As seen from the east the original building must have been in itself very fine. The stone is beautiful, being bright almost as marble, and I do not know that there was any great architectural defect to offend the eye. The figures in the pediment are mean. There is now in the Capitol a group apparently prepared for a pediment, which is by no means mean. I was informed that they were intended for this position; but they, on the other band, are too good for such a place, and are also too numerous. This set of statues is by Crawford. Most of them are well known, and they are very fine. They now stand within the old chamber of the Representative House, and the pity is that, if elevated to such a position as that indicated, they can never be really seen. There are models of them all at West Point, and some of them I have seen at other places in marble. The Historical Society, at New York, has one or two of them. In and about the front of the Capitol there are other efforts of sculpture — imposing in their size, and assuming, if not affecting, much in the attitudes chosen. Statuary at Washington runs too much on two subjects, which are repeated perhaps almost ad nauseam: one is that of a stiff, steady-looking, healthy, but ugly individual, with a square jaw and big jowl, which represents the great general; he does not prepossess the beholder, because he appears to be thoroughly ill natured. And the other represents a melancholy, weak figure without any hair, but often covered with feathers, and is intended to typify the red Indian. The red Indian is generally supposed to be receiving comfort; but it is manifest that he never enjoys the comfort ministered to him. There is a gigantic statue of Washington, by Greenough, out in the grounds in front of the building. The figure is seated and holding up one of its arms toward the city. There is about it a kind of weighty magnificence; but it is stiff, ungainly, and altogether without life.
But the front of the original building is certainly grand. The architect who designed it must have had skill, taste, and nobility of conception; but even this is spoiled, or rather wasted, by the fact that the front is made to look upon nothing, and is turned from the city. It is as though, the facade of the London Post-office had been made to face the Goldsmiths’ Hall. The Capitol stands upon the side of a hill, the front occupying a much higher position than the back; consequently they who enter it from the back — and everybody does so enter it — are first called on to rise to the level of the lower floor by a stiff ascent of exterior steps, which are in no way grand or imposing, and then, having entered by a mean back door, are instantly obliged to ascend again by another flight — by stairs sufficiently appropriate to a back entrance, but altogether unfitted for the chief approach to such a building. It may, of course, be said that persons who are particular in such matters should go in at the front door and not at the back; but one must take these things as one finds them. The entrance by which the Capitol is approached is such as I have described. There are mean little brick chimneys at the left hand as one walks in, attached to modern bakeries, which have been constructed in the basement for the use of the soldiers; and there is on the other hand the road by which wagons find their way to the underground region with fuel, stationery, and other matters desired by Senators and Representatives, and at present by bakers also.
In speaking of the front I have spoken of it as it was originally designed and built. Since that period very heavy wings have been added to the pile — wings so heavy that they are or seem to be much larger than the original structure itself. This, to my thinking, has destroyed the symmetry of the whole. The wings, which in themselves are by no means devoid of beauty, are joined to the center by passages so narrow that from exterior points of view the light can be seen through them. This robs the mass of all oneness, of all entirety as a whole, and gives a scattered, straggling appearance, where there should be a look of massiveness and integrity. The dome also has been raised — a double drum having been given to it. This is unfinished, and should not therefore yet be judged; but I cannot think that the increased height will be an improvement. This, again, to my eyes, appears to be straggling rather than massive. At a distance it commands attention; and to one journeying through the desert places of the city gives that idea of Palmyra which I have before mentioned.
Nevertheless, and in spite of all that I have said, I have had pleasure in walking backward and forward, and through the grounds which lie before the eastern front of the Capitol. The space for the view is ample, and the thing to be seen has points which are very grand. If the Capitol were finished and all Washington were built around it, no man would say that the house in which Congress sat disgraced the city.
Going west, but not due west, from the Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue stretches in a right line to the Treasury chambers. The distance is beyond a mile; and men say scornfully that the two buildings have been put so far apart in order to save the secretaries who sit in the bureaus from a too rapid influx of members of Congress. This statement I by no means indorse; but it is undoubtedly the fact that both Senators and Representatives are very diligent in their calls upon gentlemen high in office. I have been present on some such occasions, and it has always seemed to me a that questions of patronage have been paramount. This reach of Pennsylvania Avenue is the quarter for the best shops of Washington — that is to say, the frequented side of it is so, that side which is on your right as you leave the Capitol. Of the other side the world knows nothing. And very bad shops they are. I doubt whether there be any town in the world at all equal in importance to Washington which is in such respects so ill provided. The shops are bad and dear. In saying this I am guided by the opinions of all whom I heard speak on the subject. The same thing was told me of the hotels. Hearing that the city was very full at the time of my visit — full to overflowing — I had obtained private rooms, through a friend, before I went there. Had I not done so, I might have lain in the streets, or have made one with three or four others in a small room at some third-rate inn. There had never been so great a throng in the town. I am bound to say that my friend did well for me. I found myself put up at the house of one Wormley, a colored man, in I Street, to whose attention I can recommend any Englishman who may chance to want quarters in Washington. He has a hotel on one side of the street and private lodging-houses on the other, in which I found myself located. From what I heard of the hotels, I conceived myself to be greatly in luck. Willard’s is the chief of these; and the everlasting crowd and throng of men with which the halls and passages of the house were always full certainly did not seem to promise either privacy or comfort. But then there are places in which privacy and comfort are not expected — are hardly even desired — and Washington is one of them.
The Post-office and the Patent-office, lie a little away from Pennsylvania Avenue in I Street, and are opposite to each other. The Post-office is certainly a very graceful building. It is square, and hardly can be said to have any settled front or any grand entrance. It is not approached by steps, but stands flush on the ground, alike on each of the four sides. It is ornamented with Corinthian pilasters, but is not over-ornamented. It is certainly a structure creditable to any city. The streets around it are all unfinished; and it is approached through seas of mud and sloughs of despond, which have been contrived, as I imagine, to lessen, if possible, the crowd of callers, and lighten in this way the overtasked officials within. That side by which the public in general were supposed to approach was, during my sojourn, always guarded by vast mountains of flour barrels. Looking up at the windows of the building, I perceived also that barrels were piled within, and then I knew that the Post-office had become a provision depot for the army. The official arrangements here for the public were so bad as to be absolutely barbarous. I feel some remorse in saying this, for I was myself treated with the utmost courtesy by gentlemen holding high positions in the office, to which I was specially attracted by my own connection with the post-office in England. But I do not think that such courtesy should hinder me from telling what I saw that was bad, seeing that it would not hinder me from telling what I saw that was good. In Washington there is but one post-office. There are no iron pillars or wayside letter-boxes, as are to be found in other towns of the Union — no subsidiary offices at which stamps can be bought and letters posted. The distances of the city are very great, the means of transit through the city very limited, the dirt of the city ways unrivaled in depth and tenacity, and yet there is but one post-office. Nor is there any established system of letter-carriers. To those who desire it letters are brought out and delivered by carriers, who charge a separate porterage for that service; but the rule is that letters should be delivered from the window. For strangers this is of course a necessity of their position; and I found that, when once I had left instruction that my letters should be delivered, those instructions, were carefully followed. Indeed, nothing could exceed the civility of the officials within; but so also nothing can exceed the barbarity of the arrangements without. The purchase of stamps I found to be utterly impracticable. They were sold at a window in a corner, at which newspapers were also delivered, to which there was no regular ingress and from which there was no egress, it would generally be deeply surrounded by a crowd of muddy soldiers, who would wait there patiently till time should enable them to approach the window. The delivery of letters was almost more tedious, though in that there was a method. The aspirants stood in a long line, en cue, as we are told by Carlyle that the bread-seekers used to approach the bakers’ shops at Paris during the Revolution. This “cue” would sometimes project out into the street. The work inside was done very slowly. The clerk had no facility, by use of a desk or otherwise, for running through the letters under the initials denominated, but turned letter by letter through his hand. To one questioner out of ten would a letter be given. It no doubt may be said in excuse for this that the presence of the army round Washington caused, at that period, special inconvenience; and that plea should of course be taken, were it not that a very trifling alteration in the management within would have remedied all the inconvenience. As a building, the Washington Post-office is very good; as the center of a most complicated and difficult department, I believe it to be well managed; but as regards the special accommodation given by it to the city in which it stands, much cannot, I think, be said in its favor.
Opposite to that which is, I presume, the back of the Post-office, stands the Patent-office. This also is a grand building, with a fine portico of Doric pillars at each of its three fronts. These are approached by flights of steps, more gratifying to the eye than to the legs. The whole structure is massive and grand, and, if the streets round it were finished, would be imposing. The utilitarian spirit of the nation has, however, done much toward marring the appearance of the building, by piercing it with windows altogether unsuited to it, both in number and size. The walls, even under the porticoes, have been so pierced, in order that the whole space might be utilized without loss of light; and the effect is very mean. The windows are small, and without ornament — something like a London window of the time of George III. The effect produced by a dozen such at the back of a noble Doric porch, looking down among the pillars, may be imagined.
In the interior of this building the Minister of the Interior holds his court, and, of course, also the Commissioners of Patents. Here is, in accordance with the name of the building, a museum of models of all patents taken out. I wandered through it, gazing with listless eye now upon this and now upon that; but to me, in my ignorance, it was no better than a large toy-shop. When I saw an ancient, dusty white hat, with some peculiar appendage to it which was unintelligible, it was no more to me than any other old white hat. But had I been a man of science, what a tale it might have told! Wandering about through the Patent-office I also found a hospital for soldiers. A British officer was with me who pronounced it to be, in its kind, very good. At any rate it was sweet, airy, and large. In these days the soldiers had got hold of everything.
The Treasury chambers is as yet an unfinished building. The front to the south has been completed, but that to the north has not been built. Here at the north stands as yet the old Secretary of State’s office. This is to come down, and the Secretary of State is to be located in the new building, which will be added to the Treasury. This edifice will probably strike strangers more forcibly than any other in the town, both from its position and from its own character. It Stands with its side to Pennsylvania Avenue, but the avenue here, has turned round, and runs due north and south, having taken a twist, so as to make way for the Treasury and for the President’s house, through both of which it must run had it been carried straight on throughout. These public offices stand with their side to the street, and the whole length is ornamented with an exterior row of Ionic columns raised high above the footway. This is perhaps the prettiest thing in the city, and when the front to the north has been completed, the effect will be still better. The granite monoliths which have been used, and which are to be used, in this building are very massive. As one enters by the steps to the south there are two flat stones, one on each side of the ascent, the surface of each of which is about twenty feet by eighteen. The columns are, I think, all monoliths. Of those which are still to be erected, and which now lie about in the neighboring streets, I measured one or two — one which was still in the rough I found to be thirty-two feet long by five feet broad, and four and a half deep. These granite blocks have been brought to Washington from the State of Maine. The finished front of this building, looking down to the Potomac, is very good; but to my eyes this also has been much injured by the rows of windows which look out from the building into the space of the portico.
The President’s house — or the White House as it is now called all the world over — is a handsome mansion fitted for the chief officer of a great republic, and nothing more. I think I may say that we have private houses in London considerably larger. It is neat and pretty, and with all its immediate outside belongings calls down no adverse criticism. It faces on to a small garden, which seems to be always accessible to the public, and opens out upon that everlasting Pennsylvania Avenue, which has now made another turn. Here in front of the White House is President’s Square, as it is generally called. The technical name is, I believe, La Fayette Square. The houses round it are few in number — not exceeding three or four on each side, but they are among the best in Washington, and the whole place is neat and well kept. President’s Square is certainly the most attractive part of the city. The garden of the square is always open, and does not seem to suffer from any public ill usage; by which circumstance I am again led to suggest that the gardens of our London squares might be thrown open in the same way. In the center of this one at Washington, immediately facing the President’s house, is an equestrian statue of General Jackson. It is very bad; but that it is not nearly as bad as it might be is proved by another equestrian statue — of General Washington — erected in the center of a small garden plat at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, near the bridge leading to Georgetown. Of all the statues on horseback which I ever saw, either in marble or bronze, this is by far the worst and most ridiculous. The horse is most absurd, but the man sitting on the horse is manifestly drunk. I should think the time must come when this figure at any rate will be removed.
I did not go inside the President’s house, not having had while at Washington an opportunity of paying my personal respects to Mr. Lincoln. I had been told that this was to be done without trouble, but when I inquired on the subject I found that this was not exactly the case. I believe there are times when anybody may walk into the President’s house without an introduction; but that, I take it, is not considered to be the proper way of doing the work. I found that something like a favor would be incurred, or that some disagreeable trouble would be given, if I made a request to be presented, and therefore I left Washington without seeing the great man.
The President’s house is nice to look at, but it is built on marshy ground, not much above the level of the Potomac, and is very unhealthy. I was told that all who live there become subject to fever and ague, and that few who now live there have escaped it altogether. This comes of choosing the site of a new city, and decreeing that it shall be built on this or on that spot. Large cities, especially in these latter days, do not collect themselves in unhealthy places. Men desert such localities — or at least do not congregate at them when their character is once known. But the poor President cannot desert the White House. He must make the most of the residence which the nation has prepared for him.
Of the other considerable public building of Washington, called the Smithsonian Institution, I have said that its style was bastard Gothic; by this I mean that its main attributes are Gothic, but that liberties have been taken with it, which, whether they may injure its beauty or no, certainly are subversive of architectural purity. It is built of red stone, and is not ugly in itself. There is a very nice Norman porch to it, and little bits of Lombard Gothic have been well copied from Cologne. But windows have been fitted in with stilted arches, of which the stilts seem to crack and bend, so narrow are they and so high. And then the towers with high pinnacled roofs are a mistake — unless indeed they be needed to give to the whole structure that name of Romanesque which it has assumed. The building is used for museums and lectures, and was given to the city by one James Smithsonian, an Englishman. I cannot say that the City of Washington seems to be grateful, for all to whom I spoke on the subject hinted that the Institution was a failure. It is to be remarked that nobody in Washington is proud of Washington, or of anything in it. If the Smithsonian Institution were at New York or at Boston, one would have a different story to tell.
There has been an attempt made to raise at Washington a vast obelisk to the memory of Washington — the first in war and first in peace, as the country is proud to call him. This obelisk is a fair type of the city. It is unfinished — not a third of it having as yet been erected — and in all human probability ever will remain so. If finished, it would be the highest monument of its kind standing on the face of the globe; and yet, after all, what would it be even then as compared with one of the great pyramids? Modern attempts cannot bear comparison with those of the old world in simple vastness. But in lieu of simple vastness, the modern world aims to achieve either beauty or utility. By the Washington monument, if completed, neither would be achieved. An obelisk with the proportions of a needle may be very graceful; but an obelisk which requires an expanse of flat-roofed, sprawling buildings for its base, and of which the shaft shall be as big as a cathedral tower, cannot be graceful. At present some third portion of the shaft has been built, and there it stands. No one has a word to say for it. No one thinks that money will ever again be subscribed for its completion. I saw somewhere a box of plate-glass kept for contributions for this purpose, and looking in perceived that two half-dollar pieces had been given — but both of them were bad. I was told also that the absolute foundation of the edifice is bad — that the ground, which is near the river and swampy, would not bear the weight intended to be imposed on it.
A sad and saddening spot was that marsh, as I wandered down on it all alone one Sunday afternoon. The ground was frozen and I could walk dry-shod, but there was not a blade of grass. Around me on all sides were cattle in great numbers — steers and big oxen — lowing in their hunger for a meal. They were beef for the army, and never again, I suppose, would it be allowed to them to fill their big maws and chew the patient cud. There, on the brown, ugly, undrained field, within easy sight of the President’s house, stood the useless, shapeless, graceless pile of stones. It was as though I were looking on the genius of the city. It was vast, pretentious, bold, boastful with a loud voice, already taller by many heads than other obelisks, but nevertheless still in its infancy — ugly, unpromising, and false. The founder of the monument had said, Here shall be the obelisk of the world! and the founder of the city had thought of his child somewhat in the same strain. It is still possible that both city and monument shall be completed; but at the present moment nobody seems to believe in the one or in the other. For myself, I have much faith in the American character, but I cannot believe either in Washington City or in the Washington Monument. The boast made has been too loud, and the fulfillment yet accomplished has been too small!
Have I as yet said that Washington was dirty in that winter of 1861-62? Or, I should rather ask, have I made it understood that in walking about Washington one waded as deep in mud as one does in floundering through an ordinary plowed field in November? There were parts of Pennsylvania Avenue which would have been considered heavy ground by most hunting-men, and through some of the remoter streets none but light weights could have lived long. This was the state of the town when I left it in the middle of January. On my arrival in the middle of December, everything was in a cloud of dust. One walked through an atmosphere of floating mud; for the dirt was ponderous and thick, and very palpable in its atoms. Then came a severe frost and a little snow; and if one did not fall while walking, it was very well. After that we had the thaw; and Washington assumed its normal winter condition. I must say that, during the whole of this time, the atmosphere was to me exhilarating; but I was hardly out of the doctor’s hands while I was there, and he did not support my theory as to the goodness of the air. “It is poisoned by the soldiers,” he said, “and everybody is ill.” But then my doctor was, perhaps, a little tinged with Southern proclivities.
On the Virginian side of the Potomac stands a country-house called Arlington Heights, from which there is a fine view down upon the city. Arlington Heights is a beautiful spot — having all the attractions of a fine park in our country. It is covered with grand timber. The ground is varied and broken, and the private roads about sweep here into a dell and then up a brae side, as roads should do in such a domain. Below it was the Potomac, and immediately on the other side stands the City of Washington. Any city seen thus is graceful; and the white stones of the big buildings, when the sun gleams on them, showing the distant rows of columns, seem to tell something of great endeavor and of achieved success. It is the place from whence Washington should be seen by those who wish to think well of the present city and of its future prosperity. But is it not the case that every city is beautiful from a distance?
The house at Arlington Heights is picturesque, but neither large nor good. It has before it a high Greek colonnade, which seems to be almost bigger than the house itself. Had such been built in a city — and many such a portico does stand in cities through the States — it would be neither picturesque nor graceful; but here it is surrounded by timber, and as the columns are seen through the trees, they gratify the eye rather than offend it. The place did belong, and as I think does still belong, to the family of the Lees — if not already confiscated. General Lee, who is or would be the present owner, bears high command in the army of the Confederates, and knows well by what tenure he holds or is likely to hold his family property. The family were friends of General Washington, whose seat, Mount Vernon, stands about twelve miles lower down the river and here, no doubt, Washington often stood, looking on the site he had chosen. If his spirit could stand there now and look around upon the masses of soldiers by which his capital is surrounded, how would it address the city of his hopes? When he saw that every foot of the neighboring soil was desecrated by a camp, or torn into loathsome furrows of mud by cannon and army wagons — that agriculture was gone, and that every effort both of North and South was concentrated on the art of killing; when he saw that this was done on the very spot chosen by himself for the center temple of an everlasting union, what would he then say as to that boast made on his behalf by his countrymen, that he was first in war and first in peace? Washington was a great man, and I believe a good man. I, at any rate, will not belittle him. I think that he had the firmness and audacity necessary for a revolutionary leader, that he had honesty to preserve him from the temptations of ambition and ostentation, and that he had the good sense to be guided in civil matters by men who had studied the laws of social life and the theories of free government. He was justus et tenax propositi; and in periods that might well have dismayed a smaller man, he feared neither the throne to which he opposed himself nor the changing voices of the fellow-citizens for whose welfare he had fought. But sixty or seventy years will not suffice to give to a man the fame of having been first among all men. Washington did much, and I for one do not believe that his work will perish. But I have always found it difficult — I may say impossible — to sound his praises in his own land. Let us suppose that a courteous Frenchman ventures an opinion among Englishmen that Wellington was a great general, would he feel disposed to go on with his eulogium when encountered on two or three sides at once with such observations as the following: “I should rather calculate he was; about the first that ever did live or ever will live. Why, he whipped your Napoleon everlasting whenever he met him. He whipped everybody out of the field. There warn’t anybody ever lived was able to stand nigh him, and there won’t come any like him again. Sir, I guess our Wellington never had his likes on your side of the water. Such men can’t grow in a down-trodden country of slaves and paupers.” Under such circumstances the Frenchman would probably be shut up. And when I strove to speak of Washington I generally found myself shut up also.
Arlington Heights, when I was at Washington, was the headquarters of General McDowell, the general to whom is attributed — I believe most wrongfully — the loss of the battle of Bull’s Run. The whole place was then one camp. The fences had disappeared. The gardens were trodden into mud. The roads had been cut to pieces, and new tracks made everywhere through the grounds. But the timber still remained. Some no doubt had fallen, but enough stood for the ample ornamentation of the place. I saw placards up, prohibiting the destruction of the trees, and it is to be hoped that they have been spared. Very little in this way has been spared in the country all around.
Mount Vernon, Washington’s own residence, stands close over the Potomac, about six miles below Alexandria. It will be understood that the capital is on the eastern, or Maryland side of the river, and that Arlington Heights, Alexandria, and Mount Vernon are in Virginia. The River Potomac divided the two old colonies, or States as they afterward became; but when Washington was to be built, a territory, said to be ten miles square, was cut out of the two States and was called the District of Columbia. The greater portion of this district was taken from Maryland, and on that the city was built. It comprised the pleasant town of Georgetown, which is now a suburb — and the only suburb — of Washington. The portion of the district on the Virginian side included Arlington heights, and went so far down the river as to take in the Virginian City of Alexandria. This was the extreme western point of the district; but since that arrangement was made, the State of Virginia petitioned to have their portion of Columbia back again, and this petition was granted. Now it is felt that the land on both sides of the river should belong to the city, and the government is anxious to get back the Virginian section. The city and the immediate vicinity are freed from all State allegiance, and are under the immediate rule of the United States government — having of course its own municipality; but the inhabitants have no political power, as power is counted in the States. They vote for no political officer, not even for the President, and return no member to Congress, either as a senator or as a Representative. Mount Vernon was never within the District of Columbia.
When I first made inquiry on the subject, I was told that Mount Vernon at that time was not to be reached; that though it was not in the hands of the rebels, neither was it in the hands of Northerners, and that therefore strangers could not go there; but this, though it was told to me and others by those who should have known the facts, was not the case. I had gone down the river with a party of ladies, and we were opposite to Mount Vernon; but on that occasion we were assured we could not land. The rebels, we were told, would certainly seize the ladies, and carry them off into Secessia. On hearing which, the ladies were of course doubly anxious to be landed. But our stern commander, for we were on a government boat, would not listen to their prayers, but carried us instead on board the “Pensacola,” a sloop-of-war which was now lying in the river, ready to go to sea, and ready also to run the gantlet of the rebel batteries which lined the Virginian shore of the river for many miles down below Alexandria and Mount Vernon. A sloop-of-war in these days means a large man-of-war, the guns of which are so big that they only stand on one deck, whereas a frigate would have them on two decks, and a line-of-battle ship on three. Of line-of-battle ships there will, I suppose, soon be none, as the “Warrior” is only a frigate. We went over the “Pensacola,” and I must say she was very nice, pretty, and clean. I have always found American sailors on their men-of-war to be clean and nice looking — as much so I should say as our own; but nothing can be dirtier, more untidy, or apparently more ill preserved than all the appurtenances of their soldiers.
We landed also on this occasion at Alexandria, and saw as melancholy and miserable a town as the mind of man can conceive. Its ordinary male population, counting by the voters, is 1500, and of these 700 were in the Southern army. The place had been made a hospital for Northern soldiers, and no doubt the site for that purpose had been well chosen. But let any woman imagine what would be the feelings of her life while living in a town used as a hospital for the enemies against whom her absent husband was then fighting. Her own man would be away — ill, wounded, dying, for what she knew, without the comfort of any hospital attendance, without physic, with no one to comfort him; but those she hated with a hatred much keener than his were close to her hand, using some friend’s house that had been forcibly taken, crawling out into the sun under her eyes, taking the bread from her mouth! Life in Alexandria at this time must have been sad enough. The people were all secessionists, but the town was held by the Northern party. Through the lines, into Virginia, they could not go at all. Up to Washington they could not go without a military pass, not to be obtained without some cause given. All trade was at an end. In no town at that time was trade very flourishing; but here it was killed altogether — except that absolutely necessary trade of bread. Who would buy boots or coats, or want new saddles, or waste money on books, in such days as these, in such a town as Alexandria? And then out of 1500 men, one-half had gone to fight the Southern battles! Among the women of Alexandria secession would have found but few opponents.
It was here that a hot-brained young man, named Ellsworth, was killed in the early days of the rebellion. He was a colonel in the Northern volunteer army, and on entering Alexandria found a secession flag flying at the chief hotel. Instead of sending up a corporal’s guard to remove it, he rushed up and pulled it down with his own hand. As he descended, the landlord shot him dead, and one of his soldier’s shot the landlord dead. It was a pity that so brave a lad, who had risen so high, should fall so vainly; but they have made a hero of him in America; have inscribed his name on marble monuments, and counted him up among their great men. In all this their mistake is very great. It is bad for a country to have no names worthy of monumental brass; but it is worse for a country to have monumental brasses covered with names which have never been made worthy of such honor. Ellsworth had shown himself to be brave and foolish. Let his folly be pardoned on the score of his courage, and there, I think, should have been an end of it.
I found afterward that Mount Vernon was accessible, and I rode thither with some officers of the staff of General Heintzelman, whose outside pickets were stationed beyond the old place. I certainly should not have been well pleased had I been forced to leave the country without seeing the house in which Washington had lived and died. Till lately this place was owned and inhabited by one of the family, a Washington, descended from a brother of the general’s; but it has now become the property of the country, under the auspices of Mr. Everett, by whose exertions was raised the money with which it was purchased. It is a long house, of two stories, built, I think, chiefly of wood, with a veranda, or rather long portico, attached to the front, which looks upon the river. There are two wings, or sets of outhouses, containing the kitchen and servants’ rooms, which were joined by open wooden verandas to the main building; but one of these verandas has gone, under the influence of years. By these a semicircular sweep is formed before the front door, which opens away from the river, and toward the old prim gardens, in which, we were told, General Washington used to take much delight. There is nothing very special about the house. Indeed, as a house, it would now be found comfortless and inconvenient. But the ground falls well down to the river, and the timber, if not fine, is plentiful and picturesque. The chief interest of the place, however, is in the tomb of Washington and his wife. It must be understood that it was a common practice throughout the States to make a family burying-ground in any secluded spot on the family property. I have not unfrequently come across these in my rambles, and in Virginia I have encountered small, unpretending gravestones under a shady elm, dated as lately as eight or ten years back. At Mount Vernon there is now a cemetery of the Washington family; and there, in an open vault — a vault open, but guarded by iron grating — is the great man’s tomb, and by his side the tomb of Martha his wife. As I stood there alone, with no one by to irritate me by assertions of the man’s absolute supremacy, I acknowledged that I had come to the final resting-place of a great and good man — of a man whose patriotism was, I believe, an honest feeling, untinged by any personal ambition of a selfish nature. That he was pre-eminently a successful man may have been due chiefly to the excellence of his cause, and the blood and character of the people who put him forward as their right arm in their contest; but that he did not mar that success by arrogance, or destroy the brightness of his own name by personal aggrandizement, is due to a noble nature and to the calm individual excellence of the man.
Considering the circumstances and history of the place, the position of Mount Vernon, as I saw it, was very remarkable. It lay exactly between the lines of the two armies. The pickets of the Northern army had been extended beyond it, not improbably with the express intention of keeping a spot so hallowed within the power of the Northern government. But since the war began it had been in the hands of the seceders. In fact, it stood there in the middle of the battle-field, on the very line of division between loyalism and secession. And this was the spot which Washington had selected as the heart and center, and safest rallying homestead of the united nation which he left behind him. But Washington, when he resolved to found his capital on the banks of the Potomac, knew nothing of the glories of the Mississippi. He did not dream of the speedy addition to his already gathered constellations of those Western stars — of Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa; nor did he dream of Texas conquered, Louisiana purchased, and Missouri and Kansas rescued from the wilderness.
I have said that Washington was at that time — the Christmas of 1861-62 — a melancholy place. This was partly owing to the despondent tone in which so many Americans then spoke of their own affairs. It was not that the Northern men thought that they were to be beaten, or that the Southern men feared that things were going bad with their party across the river; but that nobody seemed to have any faith in anybody. McClellan had been put up as the true man — exalted perhaps too quickly, considering the limited opportunities for distinguishing himself which fortune had thrown in his way; but now belief in McClellan seemed to be slipping away. One felt that it was so from day to day, though it was impossible to define how or whence the feeling came. And then the character of the ministry fared still worse in public estimation. That Lincoln, the President, was honest, and that Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, was able, was the only good that one heard spoken. At this time two Jonahs were specially pointed out as necessary sacrifices, by whose immersion into the comfortless ocean of private life the ship might perhaps be saved. These were Mr. Cameron, the Secretary of War, and Mr. Welles, the Secretary of the Navy. It was said that Lincoln, when pressed to rid his cabinet of Cameron, had replied, that when a man was crossing a stream the moment was hardly convenient for changing his horse; but it came to that at last, that he found he must change his horse, even in the very sharpest run of the river. Better that than sit an animal on whose exertions he knew that he could not trust. So Mr. Cameron went, and Mr. Stanton became Secretary of War in his place. But Mr. Cameron, though put out of the cabinet, was to be saved from absolute disgrace by being sent as Minister to Russia. I do not know that it would become me here to repeat the accusations made against Mr. Cameron, but it had long seemed to me that the maintenance in such a position, at such a time, of a gentleman who had to sustain such a universal absence of public confidence, must have been most detrimental to the army and to the government.
Men whom one met in Washington were not unhappy about the state of things, as I had seen men unhappy in the North and in the West. They were mainly indifferent, but with that sort of indifference which arises from a break down of faith in anything. “There was the army! Yes, the army! But what an army! Nobody obeyed anybody. Nobody did anything! Nobody thought of advancing! There were, perhaps, two hundred thousand men assembled round Washington; and now the effort of supplying them with food and clothing was as much as could be accomplished! But the contractors, in the mean time, were becoming rich. And then as to the government! Who trusted it? Who would put their faith in Seward and Cameron? Cameron was now gone, it was true; and in that way the whole of the cabinet would soon be broken up. As to Congress, what could Congress do? Ask questions which no one would care to answer, and finally get itself packed up and sent home.” The President and the Constitution fared no better in men’s mouths. The former did nothing — neither harm nor good; and as for the latter, it had broken down and shown itself to be inefficient. So men ate, and drank, and laughed, waiting till chaos should come, secure in the belief that the atoms into which their world would resolve itself would connect themselves again in some other form without trouble on their part.
And at Washington I found no strong feeling against England and English conduct toward America. “We men of the world,” a Washington man might have said, “know very well that everybody must take care of himself first. We are very good friends with you — of course, and are very glad to see you at our table whenever you come across the water; but as for rejoicing at your joys, or expecting you to sympathize with our sorrows, we know the world too well for that. We are splitting into pieces, and of course that is gain to you. Take another cigar.” This polite, fashionable, and certainly comfortable way of looking at the matter had never been attained at New York or Philadelphia, at Boston or Chicago. The Northern provincial world of the States had declared to itself that those who were not with it were against it; that its neighbors should be either friends or foes; that it would understand nothing of neutrality. This was often mortifying to me, but I think I liked it better on the whole than the laisser-aller indifference of Washington.
Everybody acknowledged that society in Washington had been almost destroyed by the loss of the Southern half of the usual sojourners in the city. The Senators and members of government, who heretofore had come front the Southern States, had no doubt spent more money in the capital than their Northern brethren. They and their families had been more addicted to social pleasures. They are the descendants of the old English Cavaliers, whereas the Northern men have come from the old English Roundheads. Or if, as may be the case, the blood of the races has now been too well mixed to allow of this being said with absolute truth, yet something of the manners of the old forefathers has been left. The Southern gentleman is more genial, less dry — I will not say more hospitable, but more given to enjoy hospitality than his Northern brother; and this difference is quite as strong with the women as with the men. It may therefore be understood that secession would be very fatal to the society of Washington. It was not only that the members of Congress were not there. As to very many of the Representatives, it may be said that they do not belong sufficiently to Washington to make a part of its society. It is not every Representative that is, perhaps, qualified to do so. But secession had taken away from Washington those who held property in the South — who were bound to the South by any ties, whether political or other; who belonged to the South by blood, education, and old habits. In very many cases — nay, in most such cases — it had been necessary that a man should select whether he would be a friend to the South, and therefore a rebel; or else an enemy to the South, and therefore untrue to all the predilections and sympathies of his life. Here has been the hardship. For such people there has been no neutrality possible. Ladies even have not been able to profess themselves simply anxious for peace and good-will, and so to remain tranquil. They who are not for me are against me, has been spoken by one side and by the other. And I suppose that in all civil war it is necessary that it should be so. I heard of various cases in which father and son had espoused different sides in order that property might be retained both in the North and in the South. Under such circumstances it may be supposed that society in Washington would be considerably cut up. All this made the place somewhat melancholy.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55