New York has long been the capital of many slices of American life. But from April 1789 to August 1790, it was America’s political capital as well. At a time when Washington, D.C., was still a swamp, George Washington slept, and served, in Manhattan.
Washington’s arrival in New York for his first inauguration in the spring of 1789 was the end of a triumphal progress from Mount Vernon. He made the last leg of his journey, across the harbor from New Jersey, on a ceremonial barge, manned by 13 oarsmen on each side. A Spanish frigate saluted it with guns larger than any the United States possessed; porpoises frolicked alongside. A quartet of singers aboard a sloop hailed the president-elect with an updated version of “God Save the King”:
Joy to our native land,
Let every heart expand,
For Washington’s at band,
With glory crowned.
Washington landed at the bottom of Wall Street, and walked, through dense, cheering crowds, to a rented house.
The adulatory welcome, Washington wrote in his diary, “filled my mind with sensations as painful ... as they were pleasing,” because, in characteristically modest fashion, he found himself “contemplating the reverse of this scene,” which might come about even “after all my efforts to do good.” He was still solemn a week later, when he was inaugurated at the original Federal Hall, which stood at the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets. One senator described him as “grave, almost to sadness”; another as “agitated and embarrassed.” In a short address, he told his listeners that “the destiny of the republican model of government” was “staked on the experiment entrusted to the[ir] hands.” His earnest performance, wrote a congressman, “seemed to me an allegory in which virtue was personified and addressing those whom she would make her votaries.”
Since at the highest level of government, only John Jay, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, were New Yorkers, virtue’s votaries were obliged to find lodgings in the city. Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, put up in a tavern on Broadway, for seven dollars a week. James Madison, a mere member of the House of Representatives, but an intimate of the president, lived in a boarding house on Maiden Lane. John Adams, the vice president, took a house in Greenwich Village, then farmland. Washington began his stay in New York on Cherry Street (on a spot now covered by the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge), moving in February to another rented house on Broadway, below Trinity Church.
He asked a friend traveling in Europe to buy some “neat and fashionable” ornaments for the presidential dinner table, and got 12 porcelain allegories of the arts and sciences, with a centerpiece depicting “Apollo Instructing the Shepherds.” Despite these adornments, the French minister found the president’s residence chetive (mean).
Though New York had bounced back from a bad war—the city had burned in 1776—it was not a particularly comfortable place, even by the standards of the day. Philadelphia, thanks to Benjamin Franklin, had swept streets. New Yorkers dumped their offal in the gutters, to be eaten by pigs and wild dogs, and the Supreme Court met above the bleating animals of a Broad Street farmers’ market. Abigail Adams complained that it was “impossible to get a servant from the highest to the lowest grade that does not drink.” An influenza epidemic in May of 1790 laid Madison low, and nearly killed Washington.
When he was not ill, the president relaxed by riding a 14-mile circuit to Morningside Heights and back. He attended plays at the John Street Theater and at his residence, where he saw an amateur performance of Julius Caesar. He also went to the circus. In the summer of 1790, he took Jefferson and Hamilton on a three-day fishing trip off Sandy Hook.
One of the most important tasks of the first Washington administration was to develop an etiquette appropriate to a new model of government. The universal desire to find republican forms was complicated by the lack of republican precedents and, more subtly, by the esteem in which Washington personally was held. During his first days in office, he wrote to a friend in Virginia, “I was unable to attend to any business whatsoever, for gentlemen, consulting their own convenience rather than mine, were calling from the time I rose from breakfast—often before—until I sat down to dinner.” Washington’s solution was to hold a reception from three to four on Tuesday afternoons, for anyone who chose to come. He tried to strike a balance between ceremony and informality. When an eager aide announced Washington’s entrance at a reception by crying, “The President of the United States!” Washington rebuked him: “You have taken me in once, but by God, you shall never take me in a second time.” Thereafter, Washington was to be found posted in the reception room in formal dress—black coat and dress sword in a white leather scabbard—as the callers came in. “Gentlemen,” he wrote, “often in great numbers, come and go, chat with each other, and act as they please. A porter shows them into the room, and they retire from it when they choose. . . . What pomp there is in all this I am unable to discover.” But others had no trouble discovering the pomp. The very idea of public appearances at stated times reminded Senator William Maclay, a bumptious rube from Pennsylvania, of “an Eastern lama.”
New Yorkers, blasé then as now, took the receptions in stride. One wintry Tuesday, when Congress was out of session, Washington dressed and positioned himself—but nobody came. It is hard to say what is most remarkable about that incident: that anyone could meet the president, that nobody chose to, or that the president whom New Yorkers neglected to meet was not Bill Clinton or George Bush, but George Washington.
New York had a direct interest in the most important policy decision of the administration’s first year. This was the famous bargain whereby the southern states, particularly Virginia, agreed to let the Federal Government assume state debts (mostly northern) that were still outstanding from the Revolution. In return, the northerners backed moving the capital to the banks of the Potomac.
Washington’s wartime struggles to supply and pay his troops had made him a confirmed foe of weak credit and paper money, and Hamilton had come up with a detailed plan to put the country on a sound financial footing. Madison, however, did not want state debts assumed, and the House balked. One day in June 1790, Jefferson ran into Hamilton on Broadway, outside Washington’s house: “His look was sombre, haggard, and dejected beyond description—even his dress uncouth and neglected. He asked to speak with me. We stood in the street near the door.” Hamilton threatened to resign unless the House came round. So Jefferson asked Madison and Hamilton to dinner the next night, and “encouraged them to consider the thing together. . . . It was observed, I forget by which of them, that as the pill [of assuming northern debts] would be a bitter one to the Southern states, something should be done to soothe them.” Moving the capital to the Potomac was thought to be sufficiently soothing. The deal makers brought Pennsylvania along by agreeing to let Philadelphia be the interim capital. Rufus King, one of New York’s senators, wept on the floor of the Senate when the arrangement became public. But Hamilton’s defection left the partisans of New York leaderless. Hamilton wrote King that the Potomac site was “bad, but it will insure the funding system.”
So, after passing through the new nation’s two largest and most flourishing cities, the seat of government would move to the woods.
Politics aside, most of the arguments used to justify leaving New York for the Potomac were either overly optimistic or wrong. Washington hoped that the made-to-order capital would become a national metropolis. He wanted a federally supported university built there, and he believed that once the river had been improved by locks it would become part of a thriving trans-Appalachian trade artery. But the university and the trade never materialized. Other southerners argued that the new city would be more centrally located, which was true only as the crow flew. Because New York was a port, it was easier to get to even from southern cities like Charleston and Savannah.
What were the cultural consequences of the move? Would America have profited from having our political and cultural elites in the same city, like London or Paris? The historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, in The Age of Federalism, argue that by shunting its politicians to a squalid tidewater Brasilia, America lost the chance of having “a national capital as the matrix for the growth of . . . society’s self-knowledge.” If the government had stayed in New York, where business had already gravitated, and where art and intellect would ultimately spring up, “the daily transactions among the men and women associated with these disparate fields of energy—transactions trivial as well as official, corrupt as well as virtuous, after dark as well as in daylight . . . would not have occurred in quite such ’separate spheres.’” But politicians and intellectuals went their separate ways, with the result that intellectuals do not understand power, while politicians go to the Kennedy Center.
This attractive daydream of an American London or Paris ignores the problem of scale. Even in 1790, when the population of the United States was scarcely four million, the settled portions of the country were already more extensive than Britain or France. In a nation with so many theres there, it may have been just as well to have the lawmakers meet in the functional equivalent of nowhere.
We also have some test cases of how American culture fares in the shadow of power, and how power is exercised by the cultured. Henry Adams spent his mature years on Lafayette Park wishing he were in the White House; Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton, actually got there. The examples are not inspiring. Adams’s smoldering resentment almost ruined his prose; Wilson’s theories and rigidities ruined Europe.
Finally, New Yorkers are entitled to ask if we would want the government here. Would the city be improved by an overlay of dullards from the Midwest—or Arkansas? Many of us came from such places to New York because we found them uninteresting. Would we find their congressmen, and their congressmen’s legislative assistants, any more interesting? To say, “We’ll take Manhattan, / The Bronx, and Staten / Island too” implies that someone else will take the Federal Department of Transportation.
In May 1790, a commission appointed by New York City began work on a third house for the president, below Bowling Green. It was finished in 1791, but by then George Washington had already left, never to return. He, at least, was a loss.