17 Jan 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: The Stranger on Capitol Hill

Reading about Washington in general, and Capitol Hill in particular, from 200 plus years ago is always a treat. The changes that have come over the place in the intervening years is rather remarkable. Even more fun is when the writer pulls no punches, and tells us what it was really like. One such writer was Charles William Janson, who visited the United States from Britain in 1806 and published his findings in a book named The Stranger in America the following year. The section on the nation’s capital starts off pretty brutally:

The entrance, or avenues, as they are pompously called, which lead to the American seat of government, are the worst roads I passed in the country; and I appeal to every citizen who has been unlucky enough to travel the stages north and south leading to the city, for the truth of the assertion.

He goes on to add that the houses are no better, being incomplete, even if they appear otherwise from afar. And while some owners have cleared their lots, others have simply fenced them and tried – and failed – to grow crops on them.

Janson went all the way to Mount Vernon, adding this picture to the book (HathiTrust)

As for the land beyond? Well, he uses the dreaded S-word:

The country adjoining [the city] consists of woods in a state of nature, and in some places of mere swamps, which give the scene a curious patch-work appearance.

While he roams all across the city much of which receives the same brutal treatment, he is a bit more positive when writing of our section of the city – or at least its most prominent building:

The Capitol, of which two wings are now finished, is of hewn stone, and will be a superb edifice, worthy of its name. The architect who built the first wing, left the country soon after its completion; the corresponding part was carried on the direction of Mr. Latrobe, an Englishman; from whose taste and judgment much may be expected in finishing the centre of the building; the design of which, as shewn to me by Doctor Thornton, is truly elegant.

But most interesting is when he speaks of an incident that occurred on Capitol Hill, when he met some of the envoys sent by the Tunisian Bey (that’s him, above) to negotiate with the United States after their scuffle regarding Mediterranean shipping.

One evening, during the last spring, I went to Stelle’s Hotel, on the Capitol Hill, in order to secure a place in the stage-coach, or rather waggon, to Baltimore. In the bar-room I found the two degraded secretaries, and third Turk, in the most perfect harmony with several Christians. They were engaged in trials of personal strength, such as wrestling, &c. I was informed that the Mahometans were at first very forward in introducing this athletic exercise, and prided themselves on their muscular force; but they had been so often tripped up by the agility of smaller Christians, and their breech had so sensibly suffered by suddenly coming in contact with the floor, that they were afraid lest the feet of their opponents should effect that which could not always be done by the arm. They are great drunkards, for they were every ten or fifteen minutes drinking gin, unadulterated by water; and I found myself under the necessity of contributing towards their intoxication.

Needless to say, there are many other fun anecdotes in the book, which we will look at in future!

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