Make no mistake: “Empire of Mud,” J.D. Dickey’s history of early Washington, D.C., is a bracing and graceful read.
Upon finishing its calamity-laden pages, however, one may conclude that a lot of people had a lot of years to get a job done and failed to do it — and that their failure haunts us in ways too numerous to count.
So if you can stomach learning how this beautiful, vexed city became a cat toy for national politicians and an ongoing rebuke of democracy, this is as good a place as any to start.
Dickey’s true subject is not the District of Columbia but its raffish, rowdy, gap-toothed precursor. Known as Washington City, it was a town compromised from its birth, a bastard offspring midwifed by some vague constitutional language about a “Seat of the Government” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 17) and by George Washington’s affection for a certain stretch of the Potomac River north of Mount Vernon.
Thanks to the Organic Act of 1801, residents never had anything in the way of federal voting rights, and with the occupying government doing as little as possible to fund or administer its territory, the city became, to nobody’s surprise, “a shambling mess.” Cows and hogs roamed freely through the streets. Waste poured into the nearest waterways. Malaria and yellow fever spread unchecked. Orphans begged for money on Pennsylvania Avenue. Fighting, dueling and cockfighting ran rampant, and lawlessness approached levels usually associated with Tombstone.
Pierre L’Enfant, the city’s onetime architect, peered at what remained of his creation and called it “a mere contemptible hamlet.” Who could blame him?
“Between the Capitol and the White House, where L’Enfant imagined elegant mansions for statesmen and diplomats, there were filthy tenements and hovels. Where he saw useful canals and beautiful fountains, there were sewers and stagnant water. Where he saw grand avenues for strolling, there were dirty lanes and broken pavements. Where he saw smart theaters, churches, banks and salons, there were squalid alleys, gambling halls and bordellos.”
The bureaucratic pallor of Federal Triangle conceals the site of a disease-ridden shantytown called Murder Bay.
Like many of his peers, L’Enfant managed to miss the largest blight of all. Washington City was, in Dickey’s words, “one of the nation’s most prominent depots of slave trading.” Slave pens operated in the shadow of the Capitol. Slave traders even kidnapped free blacks (a horror dramatized by the movie “12 Years a Slave”), and the so-called Black Code penalized African-Americans for such offenses as bathing in the river, riding horses and going out in public after 10 p.m.
Dickey doesn’t flinch from any of this, but his sharp reporting allows unexpected heroes to peep through. Postbellum mayor Sayles Bowen pushed through laws to open public accommodations to blacks and levy fines on businesses that turned away black customers.
Civil War nurse Hannah Ropes blew the lid off corrupt conditions at her hospital by taking her complaints directly to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Journalist and gadfly Anne Royall turned a muckraking eye on the corruption of Jackson-era Washington — and for her troubles nearly got dunked in the Potomac.
If there’s one figure who seems to elide past and future, it’s Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, a plumber who glad-handed his way to the top rungs of the Republican Party and became the city’s first authentic kingpin in the early 1870s. His reign was brief, but in less than three years he made Washington, by one estimate, the “best-lit and best-paved city in the United States,” with a “water supply more plentiful than that of New York.”
Shepherd also was a crook and fraud who steered development away from black neighborhoods, and engineered the breathtaking and bloodless coup we call the Organic Act of 1871. (Note the ominous recurrence of “organic.”)
That law, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, stripped both Washington City and neighboring Georgetown of their charters, did away with their mayors and city councils, and created in their stead a unified District of Columbia, ruled by an appointed governor.
“In exchange for a bold modern city,” Dickey writes, “Washingtonians lost the right to choose their local leaders, mired themselves in webs of debt and corruption, and relinquished the power to shape their city’s image and infrastructure.”
Home rule has since restored some measure of autonomy to the District, but its residents lack a vote in Congress, and to this day America must gobble down “the absurdity of running a democracy from a place that has no use for it.”
Dickey takes the title of his book from English novelist Anthony Trollope, who said that Washington was “the empire of King Mud, the Augean stables through which some American Hercules must turn a purifying river before the American people can justly boast either of their capital or of their government.”
A century and a half later, the stables look a lot cleaner, but we still await our Hercules.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His most recent book is “Roosevelt’s Beast.”
Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, D.C., by J.D. Dickey; 301 pages; Lyons; $26.95