The Catholic University of America

Ghosts of Washington
Freshman Convocation Comments of History Professor Leslie Tentler
Director, Center for American Catholic Studies
The Catholic University of America
Sept. 15, 2004

When Dean Chris Wheatley asked me to speak at this year's Freshman Convocation, my mind was flooded with memories of my own freshman year - not all of them pleasant. I seemed during that first year away from home to be either ecstatically happy or totally miserable, with few moods in between. In retrospect, however, I can see that my freshman year was a time of real intellectual awakening. I read Plato and Aristotle and the ancient Greek tragedies; heard an inaugural performance of Benjamin Brittan's War Requiem, was introduced to the civil rights movement. I even met the man I eventually married.

So what better topic for my Convocation address than reflections on my own freshman experience, perhaps with sage observations on how certain faculty members who seemed dull to me in those long-ago days - not to mention impossibly old - were actually quite important to my intellectual development. Then I remembered how my own children have typically responded to my autobiographical musings: their eyes glaze over, they murmur excuses for having to leave right now - because they are convinced that my youth unfolded in a world so dissimilar to their own that my experiences are pretty much irrelevant to their own negotiation of reality. They are partly wrong in this regard. But it's nonetheless true that each generation - indeed, each cohort of freshmen - has to figure the world out for itself.

So you won't be getting any more of my freshman reminiscences. What I want to reflect on instead is something that we do indisputably have in common: the city of Washington. Most of you are still strangers here, but it won't be long before you know the city well - the present-day city, that is. If you pay attention to historical markers - and Washington is filled with them - you'll quickly learn that today's Washington is a vastly changed place, even compared to the 1950s, when much of the city was still formally segregated by race.

Those historical markers can help you to imagine past Washingtons - to "see" in your mind the slave market that prior to 1850 stood directly across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian Castle or - on a happier note - the vast public market that once stood - noisy, smelly, full of life - on the site of the National Archives. If you make yourself a historically-conscious Washingtonian, you'll be able to explain the strange change of color that's evident on the Washington Monument about 1/3 of the way up the shaft. (Anti-Catholic demonstrations in 1853 caused construction on the monument to be halted for the rest of the decade.

The Civil War further extended the moratorium on construction, as did the turbulent Reconstruction years that followed. It was only in the mid-1870s, with the 100th birthday of the United States fast approaching, that Congress finally appropriated the necessary funds for construction to begin again, by which time the quarry from which the original monument stone had come had been exhausted. Stone from a new quarry was a slightly different color.) As a historically-conscious Washingtonian, you'll also know that the Lincoln Memorial-hallowed as the site of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech-had a racially segregated speakers' platform and a racially segregated audience at its dedication in 1922. In short, your Washington, like mine, will be filled with ghosts-vivid, almost embodied, memories of long-dead persons and events that helped to make the city what it is today. Most of these ghosts have things to teach us. (The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, to a historically-conscious Washingtonian, are powerful symbols of bigotry overcome.) Let me introduce just one such ghost and consider the lessons he offers.

This particular ghost is omnipresent in Washington's core area, by which I mean the Mall, Capitol Hill, the area around the White House, and the residential neighborhoods south of Florida Avenue and east of Georgetown. (Catholic University doesn't play host to this ghost, since Brookland was a distant suburb of Washington when the university opened in 1889.) The ghost in question is Pierre L'Enfant, who designed a plan for Washington in 1791 that - although not followed in every particular - largely explains why Washington's core looks the way it does. L'Enfant was a Frenchman who migrated to America for political reasons - a youthful idealist who championed representative government and opposed monarchy. He fought in the Revolutionary War, where he was both wounded and captured.

Because L'Enfant had had training in both art and architecture, something that almost no American at the time could claim, he quickly attracted the attention of such powerful men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were closely involved in choosing a site for the new nation's capital. Once the site had been chosen, L'Enfant was given the job of designing a city appropriate to the aspirations and ideals of the young United States.

As you probably know, he tried to embody the basic provisions of the US Constitution in his city plan: the superiority of the legislative (or "peoples'") branch is shown by the siting of the Capitol on the city's highest hill; the separation of powers among the various branches of government is shown by the distance between the Capitol and the White House; the federal system is evident in the principal avenues being named for the various states. But L'Enfant's was also a French sensibility. A beautiful city, in his view, was one laid out according to the principles of baroque city planning - one, in short, that looked as much as possible like the aristocratic precincts of Paris. So he gave Washington broad, diagonal boulevards; a plethora of parks and public squares, grand vistas, and a central mall - at least on paper.

Unfortunately, L'Enfant had the temperament that's popularly associated with genius - he was impatient, lacking in tact, and hated being told what to do. The ink was hardly dry on his plan before he was feuding with the three commissioners whom George Washington had appointed to supervise the construction of the new capital city and also with local landowners. As a result, President Washington fired him from his planner's job in 1792. But L'Enfant didn't leave Washington, which - we must remember - was in 1792 hardly more than woods and farmland. He remained there until his death in 1825, living for the most part in poverty and obscurity - a ragged, almost haggard, figure toward the end of his life, invariably seen in public with his equally haggard dog. The aging L'Enfant was eventually given a home by a charitable Maryland plantation owner; he was buried on that Maryland plantation when he died at the age of 70. After his death, L'Enfant was mostly forgotten. His plan was largely forgotten too, at least in the second half of the 19th century, when Congress treated the city of Washington - which it then governed directly - with astonishing disregard. Congress even permitted a railroad to be built across the Mall, complete with switching tracks, storage yards for coal, and a rail passenger station. (It was at this station, by the way, that President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881-another ghost for us to contend with.)

But then something remarkable happened. A new interest in city planning and beautification swept the nation, with a number of cities - Chicago and San Francisco among them -commissioning new city plans. Even the Congress was affected: in 1901, Congress established a commission to devise a plan for refurbishing Washington's central area. That commission resurrected the original L'Enfant plan, updating it, to be sure, but keeping its essential spirit. This commission is directly responsible, among other things, for today's Mall, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Rock Creek Park and the beautiful parkways on both sides of the Potomac. If Pierre L'Enfant were miraculously to return to today's Washington, there would be much that he would find alien - he died, after all, in 1825. But I think he would recognize today's city as spiritually his own. The beauty of central Washington - marred today, alas, by the imperatives of "homeland security" - is precisely the beauty that L'Enfant envisioned in 1791: the beauty of grand vistas, gleaming neo-classical buildings, formal public squares and gardens.

When L'Enfant's plan was resurrected in 1901, interest in L'Enfant himself was resurrected too. In 1909, his remains were removed from the Maryland plantation where he had been buried and brought to the Capitol Rotunda to lie in state. A memorial service followed, attended by many Washington dignitaries, and then a funeral procession to Arlington Cemetery, where L'Enfant was reburied. From his new gravesite, he has a fine view of the city he did so much to shape. You might pay him a visit at some point during the next four years and enjoy the view yourself!

So what does the ghost of Pierre L'Enfant have to say to us? In part, I suppose, his ghost is an enduring warning of the consequences of bad attitudes at work. Had L'Enfant been better able to get along with his superiors and collaborators, had he been able to accept supervision gracefully - his plan might have been more scrupulously followed in the 19th century. But what is most important about Pierre L'Enfant is the genius of his plan, which was rooted in L'Enfant's passionate love of beauty and his devotion to democratic political ideals. That genius was sufficient to cause his plan to be adhered to initially as Washington was being laid out and to be later resurrected as a guide to Washington's development in the 20th century. Ultimately, then, L'Enfant's ghost speaks to us of the triumph of idealism and generous vision, not to mention fidelity to one's calling. For all his flaws, L'Enfant was certainly faithful to his vocation. L'Enfant's ghost also reminds us of the multiple ways we are tied to the past: the visual delights of Washington and some of its frustrations, too - L'Enfant's design is not well suited to the automobile - have directly to do with a vision that dates from 1791. And perhaps we might learn from his ghost an important lesson in gratitude. As a nation, we've recently been hard on the French-seeming to regard them as our inevitable enemies. But the French have given us many gifts, not least of which are Pierre L'Enfant and our beautiful national capital.

So when you next catch an especially heart-stopping view of the Capitol dome or the Washington Monument, think of Pierre L'Enfant. Had he not planned Washington as he did, most of those views wouldn't exist. Be sure to remember him not simply as an artistic genius but also as an impoverished old man who believed that his great dream would die with him. Because it's likely that on occasion during these next four years you're going to feel the same way - profoundly discouraged about ever finding a place for yourself in this difficult world. You can then remind yourself of L'Enfant's ultimate triumph. Of course it would be nice to experience those triumphs while you're still alive to enjoy them, unlike poor Pierre L'Enfant. You'll have a decent chance of doing so if you learn to be a good team player.