Rallying Cry: How an Attack Helped Washington

Posted May 5, 2008 at 4:48pm

Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists on K Street may take for granted that their offices are in Washington.


But for more than two decades after French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant drew up the first plans for Washington, the city’s status as the capital remained fragile. Congress’ debate on the housing crisis might now be taking place in Philadelphia had the British not decided to torch Washington during the War of 1812 to teach the young nation a lesson.


The attack, however, had the opposite effect, as Les Standiford makes clear in his new book, “Washington Burning.” The historical narrative, which goes on sale today, explores the city’s precarious beginnings and the flawed but talented L’Enfant, whose 1791 design lives on today.


Standiford, director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami and author of 10 novels and several nonfiction works, said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sparked the idea for “Washington Burning.” He saw parallels between the attacks and the British advance on Washington in August 1814, in which the Redcoats also targeted buildings that were of symbolic value to the Americans, burning the president’s residence, the Capitol and the Treasury to the ground.


After Sept. 11, the prevalent question was, “How could people do such a thing?” Standiford recalled. “Then I thought, ‘They already have.’”


By 1814, Americans were well into a struggle with the British over issues left unresolved by the Revolution. There were rumors that the British were gathering on the shores of Maryland, Standiford wrote, but the August attack nonetheless came as a surprise because the port of Baltimore would have been the more logical tactical target. Washington was just getting established, and the decision to move the capital from Philadelphia had been controversial.


Strategists at the time “assumed that with the city’s esteem so low in the eyes of its own citizens, the British could scarcely find it a worthwhile target,” Standiford wrote.


But the British had also miscalculated — in their case on the effect the assault would have on the fledgling town. Citizens rallied around Washington in the wake of the attacks, Standiford wrote, solidifying the city’s position as the capital. Congress considered a proposal to move the government back to Philadelphia temporarily.


“In the outrage [over] that attack, the proposal was dismissed soundly,” Standiford said, “and that was the last time such a thought occurred to anybody.”


Standiford said that when he began research for the book, he intended to make the attack the centerpiece. But in the course of his studies, he realized that “in order to appreciate the destruction, you had to understand how [Washington] got to be there in the first place.” That led him to the eccentric L’Enfant, who captured his imagination and became a second focal point of the book.


By the time of the British attack, L’Enfant had long since fallen out of favor and was no longer involved in the city’s planning. In fact, he left that role already in 1792, after a dispute with commissioners. Unwilling to compromise with the commissioners, L’Enfant insisted that then-President George Washington either appoint new ones or grant him complete independence from the existing group. Neither of those plans sat well with Washington, who instead asked L’Enfant to resign.


Standiford describes that falling out in some detail, as well as a string of projects that followed. Many of those also ended in disputes, as the demanding architect refused to compromise or cut corners on his artistry in the name of practical considerations such as deadlines or budget considerations.


“Washington Burning” also depicts an architect made bitter by the settlement he was granted upon his forced resignation in 1792: 500 guineas (less than $2,500) and a lot of land of his choosing in Washington. When he died in 1825, the French-born city planner had just $25 to his name despite repeated petitions for extra compensation.


He was buried in Green Hill, Md., where he stayed until 1909, when his remains were transferred to the Capitol following an extended campaign by his supporters (he was the eighth person to lie in state beneath the Dome) and then to Arlington cemetery. Even then, it took another two years for the city planner to receive a monument at his tomb.


“People finally recognized that for all his weirdness, he was right all along,” Standiford said. “That’s a nice bit of artist’s revenge.”


Standiford is quick to acknowledge L’Enfant’s shortcomings. “He was a really difficult guy, there’s no question about it,” the author said. “I think it would have been very difficult to deal with him or have him as your employer.”


But the book is equally quick to point out the genius of L’Enfant’s design, which has endured to this day, despite the terrorists that by many accounts attempted to devastate it in 2001 with a fourth plane destined for the White House or Capitol.


“While the most able and revered of statesmen established the philosophical underpinnings and devised the laws that guide the United States, it was a self-trained architect and lover of liberty named L’Enfant who created the vessel that carries them down through time,” Standiford concluded in the book.


Standiford’s next project will be more literary in focus, looking at how Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” influenced the celebration of Christmas in Western culture. The author said it has been “nice to get away from the acrimony and political infighting” that was central to “Washington Burning.” But he added that he’s glad he undertook the study of the British attack. “In the end, it was very enjoyable,” he said.


Standiford will be in Washington next week to discuss his new book. He has stops planned at Politics and Prose Bookstore (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW) on May 13 and at Trover Shop (221 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) on May 14.