Friday, February 27, 2009

Taxation without Representation!

Left: The imposing Northern Liberties Market.

If you live in Washington, you know that "taxation without representation" is a semi-official slogan for the District; there is a great deal of resentment within the city about our lone, non-voting representative in Congress. For the moment, the idea of giving voting rights to the residents of the capital is again on the Congressional agenda, and whether or not anything comes of the newest effort to grant representation to the people here, at least the arguments laid against the legislation are entertaining. Consider, for example, the longstanding idea that the work of politicians should be conducted in an environment free from the turmoil and posturing of politics.

Painfully ironic? Yes. Legitimate? Maybe.

In 1857, the Know-Nothing party was gaining strength across the country and specifically in Washington, DC. The Know-Nothings were the party of xenophobia, and worked to undermine the rights of immigrants in the United States. On June 1, 1857, when the polls opened for the mayoral election in Washington, Know-Nothings across the city attempted to physically bar naturalized foreign-born citizens from voting. In addition to local thugs, a large group of Plug Uglies (a gang which existed in many cities in the US) from Baltimore came to the District by train to help enforce the Know-Nothings' intimidation scheme. To prove that they were serious, the Plug Uglies brought a number of firearms and a brass cannon loaded with cobblestones.

The Know-Nothing riot, exacerbated by the Plug Uglies, compelled the otherwise inert President Buchanan to call in the Marines. A confrontation ensued outside of the Northern Liberties Market (today Mt. Vernon Square), where the polls had closed early in the day because of the rioting. The Plug Uglies were ultimately dispersed, but not before exchanging fire with the Marines, resulting in nearly two dozen casualties.

Elections, admittedly, can get rowdy. But hey, democracy is messy, right?

Source: George Rothwell Brown, Washington: A Not Too Serious History (Baltimore: Norman Publishing Company, 1930).

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

What the Francis Scott Key Happened to that House?

“Lost!? What do you mean lost? How big is this house, and who lost it?” I exclaimed, while sitting in my doctor’s office, discussing history’s mysteries. My doctor replied, “Francis Scott Key’s house was a two or three story brick house, and they were planning to relocate it. They dismantled it and lost it in the process. Nobody knows where it is now.” Huh, go figure. The house of an American hero and author of the “Star Spangled Banner” was lost. We concluded that the Key homestead must have been placed in an undisclosed government warehouse along with the Ark from Indiana Jones.

Weeks later, I was walking across the Key Bridge into Georgetown when I stumbled upon the small Francis Scott Key Memorial Park. A plaque in the park stated that this was the location of the original Key residence. The story my doctor told me resurfaced in my mind. We know the house was lost, but who lost it and why was it to be relocated in the first place?

Built in 1803, the house was located at 3516-18 M Street, NW. Key was residing at this house in 1814 when he headed to Baltimore to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner of the British. Taken prisoner himself, Key watched the Battle of Baltimore from the Chesapeake Bay. When the smoke cleared, Key was inspired to write the poem that would one day become the United States of America’s national anthem.

The Key family vacated the house in the 1830s due to the turbulence of the then operating C&O Canal. Time passed, and the house fell into disrepair. Admiral George Dewey, hero of the Civil and Spanish-American War, led the first effort to preserve the Key House in the early 1900s. The Francis Scott Key Memorial Association was a commercial operation dedicated to preserving the house. Revenue was generated through house tours and general donations. Certificates were granted to those making donations (see image). Demonstrating the popularity of the song in American culture, it’s worth noting that preservation efforts began prior to when the “Star Spangled Banner” was made the national anthem in 1931.

The Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of engineers between 1917 and 1923. The government purchased the Key home in 1930. Little effort was made to restore it. Traffic congestion in Georgetown in the 1940s brought a push for the demolition of the Key House in order to make room for a clover entryway onto the Bridge. Though the Historical Society of Washington, DC fought hard to preserve the building, the home eventually fell victim to the ever-increasing freeways of the 1950s. Once dismantled, Congress passed a bill that would finance the reassembly of the house and give it to The Historical Society. However, this bill was vetoed by President Harry Truman for budgetary reasons. And so the house disappeared during roadway construction and was last seen in 1947. Personally, I’m still holding out for the undisclosed government warehouse theory.

Sources: The Historical Society of Washington, DC, “About Us,” 2008,

F. Regis Noel, “Preservation of the Residence of Francis Scott Key,” Washington, DC: Columbia Historical Society, January 1947.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Still Thinking about the Inauguration?

If the wait between our presidential election in November and subsequent inauguration in January seemed interminable, we can at least seek comfort in the knowledge that our forebears had much longer to wait. Prior to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, Americans had to wait until March to see their new president sworn in. So, while President Obama has been in office for a month, at this time in 1829 Andrew Jackson still had two weeks of thumb-dwiddling to endure; and while he did not have to watch the nation's economy slowly dissolve, he did have to witness the seeds of discord being sown within his administration.

On New Year's day of 1829, Jackson's Secretary of War, John Eaton, had married a woman named Margaret Timberlake. Mrs. Eaton was the subject of abundant rumors in Washington concerning her supposed indiscretions while married to her first husband. Eaton himself was believed to have been one of her lovers while she had still been married. In the months before Jackson's inauguration, the Eatons had called at the home of John Calhoun, who was to be Jackson's Vice President. They were greeted coolly by Calhoun's wife, Floride, and were not, as was customary at the time, repaid with a recipricol visit from the Calhouns.

News of the Eatons' rejection soon spread through the city, and by February 26, John Quincy Adams, still president of the nation, would write that Washington was, "much scandalized by the ascendancy of Mrs. Eaton." By the time Jackson finally took the oath of office, deep divides over Margaret Eaton, and the sexual scandal she represented, would already have split Jackson's cabinet irrevocably. Ultimately, the vast majority would resign in protest to Eaton's continued service as Secretary of State.

Source: Jon Meacham, American Lion: Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008).
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Your Suggestions

Live in DC or visit the city often? Found a neat little museum or an unknown old house? Read a good book about DC history lately? We're always looking for suggestions of lesser-known sites to visit and stories to read concerning Washington history. Let us know in the comments section of this post.

What's in a Name?

As a blog about DC history, we of course worked hard to seek out the most obscure pseudonym this city has witnessed in her over 200 year history. We settled on The Ten Miles Square, which is one of the epithets the city's namesake applied to the new capital in his letters. Outside of being a cool name for the city used by George Washington, The Ten Miles Square is also a convenient reminder that the nation's founders carved out a tiny center of power in the middle of nowhere. When the city began, it was truly little more than an indistinguishable square in a marshy forest. A few things have changed since then...