- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Today is the 200th anniversary of a president, John Adams, arriving in Washington to become the first resident of the executive mansion or White House, as it would be called eventually. It was a momentous occasion at the time but mostly for its negative, even punitive overtones. For the nation's capital in November 1800 was nothing for a congressman to write home about.

"I do not perceive," wrote Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcutt to his wife, "how the members of Congress can possibly secure lodgings, unless they consent to live like scholars in a college, or monks in a monastery, crowded 10 or 20 in one house, and utterly secluded from society… .

"There are, in fact, but few houses in any one place, and most of them small, miserable huts, which present an awful contrast to the public buildings. The people are poor, and, as far as I can judge, they live like fishes, by eating each other."

President Adams was only a bit more complimentary in his view of the new city. On a visit in early June, he didn't have the heart to write his beloved Abigail about the true state of the president's house, where they would reside in a few months. "You will form the best idea of it from inspection," he wrote Abigail instead. Indeed, the White House was unfinished without staircases, fences, yard or a supply of firewood and would remain so for some time. The audience or East Room was a shell without windows and would be used by Abigail as a drying room for clothes.

Washington was a wilderness town in November 1800. Only the north wing of the Capitol Building was completed, and Capitol Hill was conspicuous for its lack of amenities. There were only a few boarding houses, a tailor shop, one shoemaker store, a grocery, a stationery shop, a dry goods business, and an oyster house. Foreign diplomats who were used to much more refined surroundings were appalled. "My God," exclaimed a French minister. "What have I done to be condemned to reside in such a city."

Between the Capitol and president's house not one house intervened "or can intervene without devoting its wretched tenant to perpetual fevers" as a result of the swamplike conditions. Even the area from the president's house to Georgetown was univiting, according to John Cotton Smith, a representative from Connecticut. There was "a block of houses [that] had been erected, which bore the name of the Six Buildings. There were also two other blocks, consisting of two or three dwelling houses, in different directions, and now and then an isolated wooden habitation; the intervening spaces, and, indeed, the surface of the city generally, being covered with scrub-oak bushes on the higher grounds, and on the marshy soil either trees or some sort of shrubbery."

Abigail Adams' experience in finding the route to Washington illustrated that the nation's capital was scarcely a place on the map. "I arrived here on Sunday last," she wrote her daughter at the end of November 1800, "and without meeting any accident worth noticing, except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore, and going eight or nine miles on the Frederick Road, by which means we were obliged to go the other eight through the woods, where we wandered for two hours, without finding a guide or the path… . In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it, but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort in them."

To be sure, Washingtonians didn't view the city in such dire terms. In fact, they were absolutely convinced the town on the Potomac would soon be a capital city. "There appears to be a confident expectation," observed Secretary Wolcutt, "that the place will soon exceed any on the world… .

"[O]ne of the commissioners spoke of a population of 160,000 as a matter of course in a few years. No stranger can be here a day and converse with the proprietors, without conceiving himself in the company of crazy people."

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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