the boardinghouses of early washington, d.c. -- 5/24/21

Today's selection -- from Langdon Cheves of South Carolina by Archie Vernon Huff, Jr. The lack of housing in the earliest days of Washington, D.C., meant that many elected officials lived together in boardinghouses. The camaraderie of those boardinghouses had a profound influence on voting:

"[South Carolina’s] new congressman [Langdon Cheves] arrived in Washington the last week in January 1811. For Cheves, who had served in the state legislature in the backcountry town of Columbia, the appearance of Wash­ington City, the national capital, was no great shock. Located on a series of hills on the northern shore of the Potomac River, the capital was actually three separate villages. On the northwest bank of Tibur Creek, a tributary of the Potomac, sat the president's house, surrounded by workmen's shanties and the executive of­fices. Nearby were homes of cabinet members and departmental clerks. Leading eastward across the Tibur was 'a desolate country road,' proudly named Pennsylvania Avenue, banked on each side by a row of poplars planted by Mr. Jefferson. Halfway between the president's house and the Capitol were a group of hotels and boarding houses. At the eastern end of the avenue, atop Capitol Hill, were the halls of Congress, 'twin boxes of white stone on a treeless heath.' The central section of the Capitol had not yet been constructed, and the Senate and House wings were joined by a covered walkway. Surrounding the Capitol were a series of boardinghouses where most of the members of Congress resided during the sessions, several taverns, tailors, bootmakers, a bookstore, and a few other assorted businesses. The view of Virginia from Capitol Hill was magnificent. At the foot of 'the Hill' lay the Potomac, 'a mile broad and its bosom transparent.' Beyond 'the Potomac the ground rises to a ridge that runs paral­lel with the river.' To Congressman Jonathan Roberts of Pennsyl­vania, it 'would be one of the grandest landscapes imaginable if culture joined with the beauties of nature.'

"The 'Representatives' Hall,' where Cheves took his seat on January 24, 1811, was in the south wing of the Capitol. On the ground floor were the clerk's office and a series of committee rooms. Upstairs was the House chamber, 'if ... not the most con­venient, ... among the grandest in the world.' Elliptical, it was 'surrounded with twenty-two or twenty-four Corinthian Columns -- Shaded on all sides with red flannel curtains.' Illumi­nation came from skylights which leaked so badly that puddles of water collected on the floor of the chamber during heavy rains. The speaker's chair was 'surrounded with the richest scarlet and green velvets and gold fringe.' The windows were framed in gilt and draped with scarlet curtains fringed with gold. Carpets 'of a Turkey kind' covered the floors.

"Cheves had to take whatever seat was vacant, since desks were occupied on a first-come basis. He soon became aware of the terrible acoustics of the chamber. 'Whispered confidences' could often be heard across the room, while thundering orations were sometimes inaudible. A member of the Tenth Congress had complained that members were 'voting on questions which they could not understand, much less the reasons offered for or against them.'

"The major issue before Congress was the international crisis. The House was in a quandary. Its members wished to preserve the integrity of the United States against both Britain and France. Although British impressment of American sailors had become less frequent, the British Orders in Council prohibited neutral trade with the continent, and Napoleon's Berlin and Milan De­crees forbade American trade with Great Britain. In May 1810 Congress had passed Macon's Bill No. 2, which halted United States trade with both European powers. If either nation repealed their coercive acts, the president was authorized to open trade with that nation. Rumors had begun to reach the United States centers of political activity in Congress. According to James S. Young, who has studied the political structure of Congress during this period, 'those who lived together, voted together with a high degree of regularity,' so that 'a national institution was a series of sectional conclaves.' The mess in which Cheves lived would be no exception to the general practice.

"Cheves and Lowndes settled into a 'comfortable mess,' where Mrs. Cheves and the Cheves children soon joined them. In the same house were John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay of Kentucky and Mrs. Clay, Felix Grundy of Tennessee, and Senator George M. Bibb of Kentucky. Each lodger had 'a comfortable chamber with a good fire.' On the ground floor were a common dining room and a parlor. The cost of room and board was from twelve to fifteen dollars a week. In the parlor the mess gathered every night for a caucus which lasted sometimes far into the morning. Lown­des complained that he had no time to 'read or think or even write to any of my constituents.' The room was clouded with the smoke of 'segars' which Cheves relished. Much of the strategy of the Twelfth Congress was planned in the parlor of the 'War Mess,' as it came to be called. Here the leaders of Congress came for consultation, as did Secretary of State James Monroe -- the liaison between the president and the House of Representatives. Lowndes discovered that 'one slides as naturally into politics' as ladies 'into scandal at the tea table,' and Washington soon recog­nized that the members of the War Mess were 'confessedly the best informed and most liberal men of their party.'"


Archie Vernon Huff, Jr.


Langdon Cheves of South Carolina


University of South Carolina Press


Coyright 1977 by the University of South Carolina


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