Saturday, October 11, 2008

Washington Burning: The Creation of Our Nation's Capital

In 1791, in a quaint Philadelphia town house near Sixth and Market Streets, just a short walk from Chestnut Street where his congress would meet, President George Washington approved a plan to move the nation's capital to an undeveloped plain of undulating hills along the Potomac River. Coincidentally, this new plan would place the president's house and Congress over a mile apart. But with the hiring of Peter Charles L'Enfant, that mile and the rest of the 10-square mile plot would become one of the grandest cities this nation will ever see.

I had never thought much about Washington, D.C. I understand its importance. I've stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, in awe of the White House. I've seen the reflection pool and pictured Martin Luther King proudly shouting "I have a dream!". I've seen the Washington monument and thought of "the republic for which it stands". But I had never given thought to the blank canvas that existed on the banks of the Potomac River a little more than 200 years ago and the planning and work that had gone into creating it. Until now.

Washington Burning by Les Standiford, is a book that has made me appreciate our nation's capital more than ever.

What starts out as a story of the building of our capital city becomes an excellent account of history and the roller-coaster life of the cities original designer, P. Charles L'Enfant.

L'Enfant is a very curious character, one who in my opinion deserves way more recognition in American history than he's received. His visions of grandeur, as expensive as they may be, eventually do come to fruition under the tutelage of other designers. L'Enfant's life seems to parallel the ebb and flow of the making of the city, it's demise during the War of 1812 and it's eventual resurgence.

Standiford has a knack for helping the reader to visualize the correspondence between the rotating architects commissioned to finish the job L'Enfant started, and each of the founding fathers who had a say in the city's planning. His ability to describe war movements and the "what if's" in history compare to Michael Shaara's account of Gettysburg in The Killer Angels.

Each chapter is a small vignette of the history of the making of Washington D.C.. Standiford often goes into great detail, demonstrating his ability to research and describe only what is most important. Washington Burning brings out great stories of George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James & Dolly Madison. The intimacy of these stories and those of some lesser known characters make Washington Burning a great read.

For more information about the author Les Standiford, you can visit his website at, or read his blog.

Here is a link to the book on if you're interested in purchasing it.


In doing some of my own research on the topic I came across this website, which is a well written account Washington's history by Bob Arnebeck:

And if you're super curious, like me, and you're wondering how Washington D.C. got it's name. Then you can check out this link by Arnebeck who describes the christening well:

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Rebecca said...

I've always found the history of Washington D.C. fascinating. I have been learning a lot lately about our capital that I didn't know the White House was burned down during the War of 1812 and the construction of the Washington Monument was delayed because of the Civil War, things like that.

I'll be on the lookout for that book for sure!

klkatz said...

hey rebecca,
it's currently 10 bucks on don't know if you can beat that price.

Free Music said...

well it is tough time for us also

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