[Book Review] Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of the New Federal City, 1790-1840 by Robert J. Kapsch

David Schley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Washington, D.C., got off to a rocky start. As told in Robert J. Kapsch's Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of the New Federal City, 1790-1840, the capital's early history was marked by follies and failures, pipe dreams and protests. Kapsch, a historian of engineering, focuses principally on the decades between the passage of the Residence Act of 1790, which selected the site for the new nation's capital, and the repair and reconstruction efforts that followed the burning of public buildings by British troops in 1814. The narrative centers on the transition from an eighteenth-century mode of construction led by "gentleman planters" to one orchestrated by professionally trained "architect-engineers" (p. 3). Along the way, Kapsch examines the supply chains, building techniques, financial expedients, and political wrangling that went into making the city.

In the 1780s, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson envisioned a new capital city for the new republic, one that could match London or Paris in pomp and grandeur. In addition to serving as a seat of government, the new metropolis, they hoped, would become an entrepot for the agricultural products of the Northwest Territory. After Congress authorized this plan in 1790, Washington and Jefferson promised to create the city from scratch in just ten years—a daunting prospect given the lack of funds and the remoteness of the Potomac River site from raw materials and skilled workers. They compounded their difficulties by choosing local landowners—"individuals of the gentleman class," whose only qualifications were their wealth and their personal ties to Washington—as commissioners to oversee this project (p. 9).

Entrusting lofty ambitions to dilettantish amateurs yielded shambolic results. Plans to raise funds by selling lots in the city fell through when speculators scooped up the land at bargain prices. Visions of the District of Columbia as a hub for trade proved chimerical as Georgetown's port silted up and canal [End Page 426] projects floundered. And the new city's isolated location precipitated both labor shortages and abuse. The commissioners used an enslaved workforce drawn from local plantations for much of the arduous early work but looked farther afield for skilled free workers. When craftsmen arrived at the worksite, they found limited supplies, inept managers, and absentee commissioners who periodically failed to meet payroll. These conditions led to serious labor disputes and ultimately left the city in an unfinished state in 1800 when the federal government moved in. The commissioners took revenge on their disgruntled workmen by imposing wage cuts and summary dismissals. Professional designers and architects such as Pierre L'Enfant and Benjamin H. Latrobe fared little better, struggling to realize their visions in the face of the commissioners' contempt and elected officials' unrealistic expectations.

Building Washington unfolds these stories across ten chapters in which Kapsch documents seemingly every controversy and mishap that befell the construction process. Yet this exhaustive attention to detail makes the book's biggest lacuna—slavery—all the more surprising. Kapsch recognizes the presence of forced labor at Washington worksites, but he does not delve into its practice or implications. Readers are left to wonder how the work of enslaved people shaped the capital and how their role in construction changed over time. The book also does not address how the politics of slavery influenced Washington's early development. The new city's location between two slave states is attributed euphemistically to George Washington's desire to "provide balance between northern and southern interests," and the commissioners are termed "large-scale landowners of the region," without acknowledging their commitments to slavery (pp. 1, 9). The public buildings of the new capital may have been designed to "reflect the uniqueness and greatness of the American democratic ideal," but their creation was marred by incompetence and exploitation (p. 258).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)426-427
Number of pages2
JournalJournal of Southern History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


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