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The First Congress, and the First Earmark?

Could the Capitol have gone to Trenton, N.J.? (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Could the Capitol have gone to Trenton, N.J.? (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Was Washington, D.C., the first great earmark?  

The Capitol building might not be sitting as the center of a city built along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers if a senator didn’t stand to make a nice profit.  

In one of the stories relayed by Fergus M. Bordewich in a new volume on “The First Congress,” Virginia’s James Madison cajoled members to support a deal with fellow founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton that provided for the assumption of state debts in exchange for support for the permanent capital city being located along the Potomac, rather in, say, Trenton, N.J.  

Madison got the votes in the House, and certainly helped with the Senate, as well.  

“The pivotal senator was the aristocratic Charles Carroll, who owned a ten-thousand-acre, slave-worked estate on the Maryland side of the Potomac,” Bordewich wrote. “In the House, Daniel Carroll was encouraged by Madison to believe, and possibly promised outright, that Georgetown would be included in the new federal district, doubtless spurring a surge in the wealth of his local property.”  

In an early case of members looking out for the economic interests of their own regions, Madison also got votes from those representing Alexandria, Va., and other spots along the Potomac.  

The book, which comes out Tuesday, says that if not for some really good timing, the deal to place Washington along the Potomac might never have come together at all. Jefferson and Hamilton — not having quite as acrimonious a relationship as later in life — ran into each other on the streets of New York, outside President George Washington’s house. That meeting, Bordewich explains, led to the dinner where the deal was ultimately struck.  

“Madison’s strategic patience, Jefferson’s fortuitous arrival on the scene and Hamilton’s exhaustion of his other options produced a bargain that could probably not have been accomplished earlier,” the book says. “That it took place at all seems obvious only with hindsight.”  

That’s one of many nuggets contained in the book, where Bordewich explores the tense debate and horsetrading that allowed the new legislative body to lay the foundation for government in 1789 and 1790, from the constitutional amendments that became the Bill of Rights through to the making of the first treaty with Native Americans.


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