Good morning, it’s Wednesday, September 18, 2013, and 225 years ago today, George Washington helped lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. Although Congress is held in these days, September 18 is a fitting day to contemplate the admittedly imperfect marvel of representative democracy, as symbolized by our nation’s glorious capitol.
I’ll have a further word on this idea in a moment. First, I’d direct you, as I do each weekday, to our , which aggregates an array of columns and stories spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors this morning, including the following:
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Electorate Makeup Will Be Key to Midterm Outcome. With seven weeks to go till Election Day, Adele Malpass the more reliable, and pivotal, blocs of voters.
Historic Midterm Trends Tell Us…Nothing. Doug Usher research showing how difficult it is to predict wave elections.
Bipartisan Bill Would Boost Infrastructure, Trim Debt. Reps. Mike Kelly and Lacy Clay of the GAIIN Act.
Prosecutors, Judges Undermine the Rule of Law. In RealClearPolicy, Michael Zigismund that having immigration judges in the Department of Justice, within the executive branch, threatens the independence of the judiciary.
SEC Decision Begins Process of Reforming Corporate Governance. Also in RCPolicy, Timothy Doyle a recent move to change the way investors are represented in the shareholder proposal process.
There‘s No Such Thing as “Government Money.” RealClearMarkets editor John Tamny that the 2008 bailouts were an unfortunate rejection of the financial markets’ message.
Two Books That Illuminate Banking and Bank Crises. Also in RCM, Paul Kupiec has .
RealClear Book of the Week: “The Virtue of Nationalism.” Max Diamond offers an of Yarom Hazony’s recent work.
California‘s Fuel Economy Power Grab Hijacks the American Car. In RealClearEnergy, Ken Cuccinelli that the state’s Clean Air Act waiver sets an irresponsible precedent.
Happy Birthday, U.S. Air Force! In RealClearHistory, Brandon Christensen how the service branch came to be.
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The plan to construct a capitol building, and a new capital city to house it, was cooked up in 1790 between President Washington and his secretary of state, a polymath by the name of Thomas Jefferson. These two Virginians, who disagreed on so much else, shared a vision for the building. “It ought,” Washington wrote in a 1792 letter to Jefferson, “to be upon a scale far superior to anything in this country.”
The capital city then consisted mainly of a Potomac River waterfront where present-day Georgetown sits. The rest, including modern day Capitol Hill, was mostly uninhabited forests and fields and, closer to the river, swampland. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, tapped by the president to design the new city, opted to house Congress on high ground. His plans called for “Congress House” to be built on a place he (but no one else) called “Jenkins Hill,” after a man who owned the land but had never lived on it.
Reviewing L’Enfant’s work pre-publication, Jefferson crossed out the words “Congress House,” replacing them with the word “Capitol” throughout the document. This simple edit, notes author , had the effect of “endowing the building with the primacy it would never relinquish.”
Meanwhile, George Washington launched a contest, with $500 going to the winner, for a design. Seeing nothing he liked, Washington extended the deadline into 1793, eventually choosing the plans drawn up by an amateur architect named William Thornton. One of the also-rans, Stephen Hallet, the only formally trained architect of the bunch, was given a $500 consolation prize and asked to critique Thornton’s work. Naturally, he found it wanting.
This led to bickering, recriminations, special pleadings, backroom dealings and, well, politics. If it never quite resulted in gridlock, that bane of late 20th and early 21st century governance, that was due to the personal interest shown by Washington, who essentially operated as the general contractor. “Anyone who ran afoul of the boss could expect to be quickly sacked,” Gugliotta wrote. “L’Enfant needed only five months to fall out of favor. Hallet, never Washington’s first choice, lasted nine months.”
Somehow it got built, just as somehow it has survived. On September 18, 1793, when Washington personally laid the cornerstone, bands played marching music and a crowd followed behind, some flying flags and cheering. After the ceremonial laying of the stone, the event devolved into a barbecue and picnic — think tailgating outside a football stadium — as newly minted Americans reveled in the idea of a building for representatives elected by the people, not chosen by a king or a far-off power.
In succession would come architects George Hadfield (1795-1798) and then James Hoban (1798-1802), the designer of the White House. Benjamin Henry Latrobe would sign on in 1803. His work was interrupted when the British torched the Capitol in 1814, but a fierce rainstorm helped quell the blaze, and in 1818 Latrobe handed the reins to Boston architect Charles Bulfinch to carry the project home.
By 1850, it was clear that a growing country needed a larger Capitol, and an appropriation was duly shepherded through Congress by a Southern senator named Jefferson Davis. After his subsequent plans to halve the size of the nation were thwarted, the United States kept growing — the capitol complex along with it.
Numerous additions have followed. Numerous depredations, too. In 1856, segregationist Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina viciously attacked abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber with a metal-tipped cane, nearly killing him.
In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists unfurled a flag and began blazing away from the gallery at members of the 83rd Congress who were on the House floor debating legislation. Five lawmakers were wounded, none killed. In 1998, a paranoid schizophrenic entered the Capitol and began firing away, killing two U.S. Capitol Police officers.
On 9/11, one of the two hijacked planes aimed for the Washington area was believed to be intended for the Capitol. It was in the aftermath of that foiled attack that House members and senators, Democrat and Republican, joined hands to sing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. George Washington would have approved.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter .