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The Washington Community Revisited

ISSUE:  Spring 1985

James Sterling Young’s Washington Community, 1800—1828 created something of a scholarly sensation when it was published in 1966 by Columbia University Press, and justly so.The Washington Community was that rarest of all things in modern academe: a book praised both by the historians for its thoroughness and the political scientists for its analytic insight. The American Historical Review called it “an important, long-overdue corrective to earlier misconceptions about the viability of American governmental processes” during the critical early years of the new nation.”So penetrating are his questions and so persuasive his answers concerning the relationships within and between the legislative and executive branches,” wrote the Political Science Quarterly, “that their power of illumination is nearly as great for the same relationships today.” Subsequent brickbats were inevitable, of course, the major assault coming in a 1975 American Journal of Political Sciencearticle by Allan G. Bogue and Mark Paul Barlaire of the University of Wisconsin. But even this represented an exception that affirmed the general rule. For one thing, it was an article, its length tribute in itself to the lasting formidability of Young’s work. For another, the authors’ criticisms were limited to one aspect of the book, its downplaying of the importance of political parties in early national government. “We must emphasize,” wrote Bogue and Barlaire, “that we do not intend to analyze Young’s general approach or major themes.”

That general approach and those major themes grew from the two primary concerns that animate The Washington Community.At one level, the book is about the new national government’s early, faltering steps from Constitution to capital. More generally, to quote the first words of Young’s preface, “This book is about people in power. The behavior of rulers is the subject of analysis, and the group of rulers who comprised the early Washington community is the unit of analysis.” If the first of these concerns engages us now with particular force because of the approaching bicentennial of the Constitution, the second touches us at all times. Washington remains a community—”the company town of the national government,” as Young would have it, with “an inner life of its own, a special culture which carries with it prescriptions and cues for behavior that may be far more explicit than those originating outside the [governing] group, and no less consequential for the conduct of government.” How that community has changed—and how it has stayed the same—have both affected and reflected the United States as a polity.


The early Washington that Young describes seems familiar to the modern observer in some ways, unfamiliar and even unimaginable in others. The story of how, as an anodyne to Southerners who disliked Alexander Hamilton’s assumption bill, the new capital came to be built at its Potomac location is well known. So is Major Pierre L’Enfant’s city plan, whose purpose was to embody the Constitution’s main principles in roads and buildings. Thus, to express physically the constitutional separation of powers, the Capitol, the Supreme Court building, and the White House were to be “separated by a considerable distance, and situated to command different aspects, avoiding mutual confrontation.” The idea that Washington’s sole reason for being was to represent the rest of the country was displayed in the wide avenues that were to radiate from the city in all directions, a symbolic invitation to citizens to come and be heard. No space would be left for the construction of productive enterprises: as constitutional government was to rest on the consent of the governed, so would its capital survive only through their contributions. The city plan was inconclusive about where the administrative departments were to be housed, but then so was the Constitution. Less familiar is the story of what happened when the seat of government actually was moved to Washington in 1800, a story that might well be titled: “Suppose They Gave a Capital and Nobody Came.” The expectation, Young notes, had been that Washington “would become the vital center of national life,” the “Rome of the New World” in the favored image of the day. In truth, “the governmental presence failed throughout the Jeffersonian era [of 1800—1828], and failed utterly, to attract the commerce, the wealth, and the population that were needed to make the capital prosper.” At the much-ballyhooed inaugural auction of land in Washington, attended by George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe, only 35 of 10,000 offered lots were sold. By 1820, Washington was more than 90 percent short of its projected population of 160,000.Physically it was dreadful.

Two unfinished stark white citadels [the Capitol and the White House] towered above the terrain from hilltops on opposite shores of a distant swamp, more like ruins amid the fallen fragments of their own stone than new and rising edifices. Where monuments had been planned, brush piles moldered and rubbish heaps accumulated. Where majestic avenues were to sweep, swaths of tree stumps stood, rough quarried stones marking the intersections. Where houses were to be built, barren hillocks, stripped of vegetation, rose like desert islands amid a sea of bogs and marshes. Cows grazed on future plazas and bullfrogs chorused on the mall. Wildlife overran the premises.

To the extent that the constitutional theme of L’Enfant’s plan came to life in this period, it was in caricature. Not just separate districts, but separate and self-sustaining communities formed around the homes of the two elected branches, divided from each other “by a mile-wide wilderness of viny thickets and virtually uninhabited moors” that made travel between the presidential and congressional sectors treacherous at best and near-impossible during the rainy season. Yet this arrangement came about, Young argues, because it was just how the governing group wanted things.

While legislators were attending the Sunday sermon in the Capitol, members of the executive branch observed the sabbath with services held in a corridor of the Treasury building. . . . The children of the executive community did not have to mingle with congressmen’s offspring, since each settlement was provided with schools. As the debates in the Capitol furnished the principal spectator sport for the Capitol Hill community, executives had their own commercial theater and a racetrack. . . . Congressional and executive residents kept apart even in death, each community having its own burial ground.

The Supreme Court, awaiting (until 1935, as it turned out, and then on a different site than originally was planned) the construction of its own building and forced to meet in the Capitol basement, did its best to follow suit, the justices living and socializing together and apart from the rest.

What underlay these curious arrangements was the cultural ambivalence toward centralized political authority that existed in such extreme form throughout the nation during this period. Jeffersonian America revered the Constitution but feared the potential for tyranny it saw lurking in the government the Constitution had created. Madison had given specific form to this fear when he wrote in Federalist No. 47 that “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands . . .may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” To members of each branch, clinging together seemed the best guarantee that they would stay strictly within their constitutionally proper roles, avoiding even the appearance of illegitimate power-seeking.

Congressmen, in particular, seemed obsessed with allaying any possible suspicion that they had tyrannical ambitions, either for themselves or their branch of government. Every effort was made to fragment power within the legislature. Young shows that members not only sought out boardinghouses where they could sojourn with like-minded (and thus politically “safe”) colleagues from their own state or region but caucused and sometimes voted with their bunkmates as well. So important were these boardinghouse groups to the life of Congress that “the early Congressional Directories, rather than listing members in alphabetical order, [by political party, ] or by state, listed them by boardinghouse, each group headed by the name of the boardinghouse keeper.” The congressional committee system also began to develop during this period, even though the light legislative workload hardly required such a division of labor. According to Young, one of its main effects was to introduce “a new set of ‘separate and rival interests’ into a congressional establishment already splintering into ever more numerous voting blocs.”

Living and working in such an atmosphere of popular suspicion (which, at least with regard to those who represented other parts of the nation, they often shared ), it is not surprising that most congressmen came to despise Washington. They “considered themselves to be outsiders there, mere sojourners at the seat of power.” An average of one third to two thirds left Congress every two years, many by resignation. (More senators resigned during this period than failed to be reelected.) Their actions represented no aversion to politics per se—some two thirds soon went on to hold state or local office—but simply to Washington. To such people, letting the city remain squalid and uncompleted seemed preferable to approving a “big-spending” program for improvement.

Their own suspect status aside, chief among the things Washingtonian that congressmen looked on with disfavor was the president, whose leadership otherwise could have been a source of interbranch cohesion in the new government. Whatever else congressmen may have felt about Congress, they were jealous of its institutional prerogatives with regard to the presidency.

Etiquette forbade the Chief Executive to set foot inside the legislative compound for any purposes but inauguration, attendance at a few other ceremonial functions, and to sign bills on the last day of the session, the last being an accommodation to Congress. . . . Confinement in the White House was a rule never broken by any Jeffersonian president for missions of persuasion, political negotiation, or leadership to Capitol Hill.

Early presidents could do little to change this situation. They lacked both a popular electoral mandate and a technological capacity to “go to the country” with direct appeals for support. As for political parties, which might have helped to tie a president’s co-partisans in Congress to him or to a shared platform, they played a “peripheral role, having no enduring formal organization, almost no caucuses on public policy questions, no legitimated leadership roles.” As president, Thomas Jefferson was a skillful and effective leader of Congress, but only because he led with such sleight of hand as to leave legislators thinking that they were not being led at all. Thus, although Jefferson had agents on Capitol Hill who advanced his proposals, their success depended on their association with the president being kept confidential. (When they were found out, their colleagues branded them with such epithets as “toads that live upon the vapor of the palace.”) President John Quincy Adams’ experience with Congress was more characteristic of this period.

It can be said of Adams as of Madison that the last Jeffersonian president could not have played a less significant role if he had been absent from Washington altogether. . . . Onefourth of the membership of Congress refused even to pay courtesy calls at the White House and the president’s son was assaulted by a Jackson man in the Capitol when he came to deliver a presidential message.

The problems of Jeffersonian presidents were not confined to Congress. Adams compared his relationship with his own cabinet to “the man with two wives—one plucking out his black hairs, and the “other the white, till none were left.” Nominations for president in this period were made by the congressional party caucuses (one of the few functions they performed), and, as likely candidates, cabinet secretaries naturally were more concerned with currying favor in Congress than with pleasing their nominal leader or cooperating with each other. Once, after President Monroe expressed reservations about some of Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford’s official appointments, Crawford raised his cane threateningly and called him “a damned infernal old scoundrel,” prompting Monroe to grab the fireplace tongs in self-defense. This was the last time the two men spoke, but Monroe dared not fire the congressionally popular secretary lest he incur the wrath of the legislature later on.(Crawford won the 1824 congressional caucus endorsement after spreading rumors that Adams, the secretary of state and his chief rival for the nomination, had appeared barefoot in church and forged changes in the original copy of the Constitution, but the nomination was regarded outside Washington as so outrageous that it hastened the end of the caucus.)

Important as cabinet secretaries were in early Washington, the organizations they headed were almost unimaginably tiny. The Washington “bureaucracy” of 1802 consisted of four small departments and the Post Office. The attorney general (there was no Justice Department) was a private lawyer for whom the United States of America was one client. The War, State, and Navy Departments combined employed 40 people in Washington, almost all of them clerical; Treasury and the Post Office employed 89.The president had no staff at all. Not until the 1820’s did civil servants outnumber congressmen in the capital; in 1829 the count stood 316 to 273.Yet, Young shows, even on so small a playing field, “institutionalized divergences among the fiscal point of view, the naval point of view, the organized army interest, and the organized foreign policy interest sufficed to create enduring sources of policy conflict and ‘perservering opposition’ within the executive branch.” Jefferson lamented the “jealousies,” “intrigues,” and “disagreement for disagreement’s sake” that marked interdepartmental relations.

Washington in its first 28 years, then, was like nothing so much as a Sinclair Lewis version of a small town, seething with petty rivalries, some of its most able and ambitious people unhappy and anxious to leave. Above all, it was isolated. Indeed, no single word better characterizes Jeffersonian Washington as portrayed by Young. For the governing group’s part, its members regarded themselves as “monks in a monastary,” cloistered away from healthy human society. L’Enfant’s broad avenues reaching out from capital to country were overgrown for lack of use.(Abigail Adams once got lost in the woods en route from Baltimore and “wandered two hours without finding the path” before stumbling upon a local guide.) In addition,

[t]he press galleries of the Capitol were empty in the Jeffersonian era. . . . No national associations made the government’s headquarters their headquarters, and few came on errands to Washington. Resident lobbyists, in the modern definition of the term, there were none.

From the citizenry’s perspective, Washington was in turn almost invisible. To the extent that law, order, and justice were maintained, roads and canals built, businesses chartered and supervised, children educated, and the poor cared for, it was mainly by state and local governments, if by government at all. Even national defense was entrusted primarily to the state militia—the tiny regular army consisted of the corps of engineers and a few frontier patrols. The national government’s daily “involvement in the internal life of the nation was limited largely to the collection and delivery of letters.”


Young’s brilliantly detailed and compelling description of the physically isolated small-town capital leads him to a conclusion that, considering the lack of defense or elaboration that accompanies it, must seem to him self-evidently true: national government in the Jeffersonian era was a failure.”Constitutional principles had triumphed, but at the cost of viable government.”

One’s instant inclination is to agree, but it may be an inclination born of the belief that such a government would not serve us well today. That is true but beside the point: the real test is how well the new government met the needs of its day. In this regard, a few cautionary bells from senior American history class may quite appropriately ring. Consider, for example, the assemblage of people who served the national government in this era. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams occupied the White House. Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C.Calhoun—three of the five greatest senators in history, as determined in 1957 by a Senate committee chaired by John F.Kennedy—made their mark during this period.(All four presidents and all three senators held other important offices as well, including secretary of state, speaker of the House of Representatives, and vice president.) John Marshall was chief justice of the Supreme Court; Samuel Chase and Joseph Story were among those who served as associate justices.

As we shall see, talented people do not always create good government. But in the Jeffersonian era, they did. They did so not by acting as 20th century observers like Young would want their own governors to act, but rather by meeting the challenges and fulfilling the popular expectations of their time. As political scientist Stephen Skowronek demonstrates in a recent book called Building a New American State, “The early American state maintained an integrated legal order on a continental scale; it fought wars, expropriated Indians, secured new territories, carried on relations with other states, and aided economic development. Despite the absence of a sense of the state, the state was essential to social order and social development.” More important than even these accomplishments was that the Washington community of 1800—1828 kept the nation and its new national government— their very newness, the experience of the last quarter century of modern postcolonialism teaches, a synonym for almost unsurvivable fragility—alive and intact. The popular fear was of a new state apparatus run wild; during the Jeffersonian era the popular fear was allayed. Young celebrates the coming of the Jacksonians in 1829, beginning a period in which Americans became excited about their government and old shibboleths about power broke down within the governing group. What we need to appreciate is how indispensable the “failure” of the Jeffersonians was to the “triumph” that followed.


The experience of reading The Washington Community, 1800—1828 inevitably sets one’s mind to comparisons with the capital of today. In almost every way, the cities seem strikingly different. If early Washington was, in Thomas Moore’s gibe, “This embryo capital, where Fancy sees/Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees,” in modern Washington the morasses are gone and the obelisks no longer fanciful. New Yorkers may be condescending and Washingtonians blase, but we outlanders on our tour buses know better. Washington is both a lovely and an impressive city.

Other contrasts, although less visible, are no less startling. Young’s congressmen could not wait to leave Washington; modern solons cannot wait to get there and, once arrived, cannot abide to leave. Since World War II, an average 84 percent of all senators and 91 percent of all members of the House of Representatives have sought reelection each time their terms expired. To assure success in this endeavor, they have appropriated large sums from the Treasury to hire staff to help them meet the many requests for aid they receive (and often solicit) from constituents in need. Such assistance sows seeds of gratitude that, it is hoped, can be harvested in the form of votes on election day. For most legislators, this is a reasonable expectation. An average 79 percent of reelection-seeking senators and 92 percent of their colleagues in the House win in each election. As for the staffers, whose number is 28,000 and rising and who tend to live near the Capitol, they provide fulfillment of sorts for John Winthrop’s vision of a “city on a hill.”

The modern presidency, too, is dramatically different from the early office portrayed by Young. Scholars oscillate wildly between warnings that the presidency is too powerful and too weak—”imperial,” then “imperiled.” Underlying both extremes, however, is the shared understanding that the presidency has become the center of national government, a situation utterly at odds with the one that prevailed in the Jeffersonian era. Woodrow Wilson marked one point of passage in the office’s development when he wrote in 1908 that “the president is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can”—the nationalization of American social and economic life had opened new doors of leadership to presidents that previously had been shut. A half century later, Richard Neustadt noted that doors by then had closed behind the presidency as well.

Nowadays he cannot be as small as he might like. . . . In instance after instance the exceptional behavior of our earlier “strong” presidents has now been set by statute as a regular requirement. . . . Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything. Laws and customs now reflect acceptance of him as the Great Initiator.

Equally remarkable is the new-style status of the president as First Celebrity. In this regard, Ronald Reagan is unique among presidents not in being an actor, only in being a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

Finding additional contrasts between early and modern Washington is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. What would Young’s Washingtonians make of the late-20th-century bureaucracy? L’Enfant, trying his best to design a city plan for the capital that would reflect constitutional principles, fretted over where to place the departments, which seemed equally the charge of both Congress and the president. Today that problem has been “solved” after a fashion. The buildings that house the departments (not to mention the regulatory agencies, independent agencies, and other species of bureaucratic organization) sprawl all over town and far out into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Bureaucracy is not anywhere on the city plan of modern Washington, but only because it is everywhere.

Nor can the Washington community of today complain, as its early 19th-century counterpart did, of being unobserved or unnoticed. Lobbyists swarm through the corridors of power. George F.Will has observed aptly that the best short course in modern American politics can be obtained by reading the numerous columns of entries that begin with the word “National” in the District of Columbia telephone directory. There the student will find—and here I quote consecutively from one randomly chosen section of the long list—such entries as:

National Association of Cosmetology Schools National Association of Counties National Association of Crop Insurance Agents National Association of Developmental Disabilities Council National Association of Dredging Contractors National Association of Enrolled Agents National Association of Federal Veterinarians National Association of Government Employees National Association of Health Underwriters National Association of Home Builders

Journalists and cameramen, acting as eyes and ears for the citizenry, also are pervasive in Washington, but then so are citizens themselves. Protest demonstrations, once the province of the political fringes, now seem as American as apple pie. The National Park Service annually issues 750 to 1,000 demonstration permits, many of them right-to-lifers, Equal Rights Amendment proponents, tractor-driving farmers, and other activists from heartland America.(As of September 1984, the president’s view across the street to Lafayette Park included such semipermanent protest signs as “Live by the Bomb, Die by the Bomb,” “God Is the Absolute,” and “Arrest Me. I Question the Validity of the Public Debt. Repeal Section 4, Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S.Constitution.”) But suspicious though he may be of politics and politicians, it is the rare American—including the protester—who has not at one time or another made a pilgrimage to the mecca of American civil religion, there to worship at its temples (the Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court building), honor its shrines (the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials), and stand in the presence of its sacred texts (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on display at the National Archive). L’Enfant’s wide avenues from the nation to its capital, once impassable with overgrowth, now are more likely to be jammed with the traffic of out-of-state automobiles.

If the national government’s remoteness from the everyday life of the young nation explains in some measure why Washington was as it was during its first 28 years, its pervasiveness probably helps to account for the changed capital of today. In American Politics in a Bureaucratic Age, Eugene Lewis skillfully evokes the presence of government in virtually every aspect of its citizens’ lives.

Most of us were born in hospitals at least parts of which were built and equipped by public funds administered by some public agency. The medical personnel who attended our births undoubtedly were educated from kindergarten through graduate school in institutions either wholly or partially supported and regulated by public agencies. Any medications were used only after they had received government approval. . . .

From birth to elementary school. . . [t]he economic conditions which either enhance or detract from our parents’ ability to support us are a function of governmental intervention through fiscal and monetary policies. Even the air we breathe and the water and food we consume are matters of direct state concern. . . .

[In school] what we learn, from whom we may learn it, and when we are supposed to learn are the legal responsibilities of a set of public agencies. Within the public primary and secondary schools, government agencies provide meals, dental services, eye examinations, and social service counseling for our families and ourselves should the need arise. . . .

An enormous number of us enter a labor market dominated by public policy decisions and providing employment opportunities either in public bureaucracies themselves or in private firms whose economic well-being is directly related to the actions of government agencies. . . . Our personal income from employment is likely to be reduced by one-quarter to one-third as a result of taxation in one form or another. . . . Too often during the past thirty-five years millions of us have become actual or potential involuntary public employees of the armed forces. . . .

So too are our later years likely to be heavily involved with [public] agencies. . . . Few of us can afford to pay for prolonged hospitalization and medical care if we are already dependent on government agencies to assist us in providing the necessities of everyday life.

Equally noteworthy, if more elusive in any enumeration of contrasts between early and modern Washington, is the capital’s changed place in American culture. One can make too much of what passes before one’s own front porch, but what I see from mine at Vanderbilt University may be worth remarking. Historically, Vanderbilt has been particularly successful in attracting a large share of the best students from the country’s geographical middle third—its “heartland,” if you will, and the ultimate arbiter of its cultural values. (Nicholas Lemann of The Atlantic says that his friends and his parents’ friends in New Orleans were surprised that he would go to Harvard when he had a chance to go to Vanderbilt.) Since I began teaching there in 1979, I have noticed that a large and growing share of the most ambitious of my students—those who want to pursue their lives and careers on the nation’s “fast track” instead of going back to join the hometown company or the family firm—regard Washington as the place they need to be. Until fairly recently, I doubt that this would have been the case. New York would have occupied the highest point on the young, middle-American success-seeker’s horizon.

The explanation for this change may have something to do with youth’s Milton-like fascination with the devil. Americans today—and here I speak both of my students and their parents—have the same love-hate infatuation with Washington that they used to have with New York. The Nashville Tennessean carries Betty Beale’s gossip column, not Liz Smith’s. Movies and television “mini-series” set in Washington abound, their titles suggesting the mix of prurient appeal and moral disapprobation that characterizes them—Blind Ambition, WashingtonBehind Closed Doors, The Seduction of Joe Tynan (but not The Right Stuff).And what example of sex-and-money debauchery in New York or even Hollywood has enthralled the nation like the long list of recent Washington scandals that runs from Fannie Fox and Elizabeth Ray to Abscam and the affairs of certain congressmen with their teen-aged pages?

For my students’ parents, the hate element in this love-hate relationship with Washington seems to predominate. They see and denounce the presence of federal bureaucrats and politicians as the fount of all evil in their businesses and communities, much as their own parents once decried the pernicious influence of New York’s Wall Street and Times Square. Not surprisingly, the majority of my students has absorbed these prejudices and shares them. But the really bright and ambitious ones—like the really bright and ambitious ones in any generation—seem to have decided that anything that gets their parents that mad must at the very least be exciting and important. And the more interested they get, the more they realize what a wide-open city Washington is for young men and women of talent. The staff people on the televised hearings who sit near the senators and cabinet heads whispering what to say next in their ears look exactly the way they do.


The obvious differences between Young’s Washington and the contemporary capital are what strike one instantly, but it is the similarities between the two cities, most of them subtle, that linger long after one has put the book down. Each year’s crop of new college texts on American government, for example, outdoes its predecessors in proclaiming the recent weakness of the political parties and the consequent decentralization of power in Washington—sound familiar? Today, of course, fragmentation manifests itself along public policy rather than boardinghouse lines. The two houses of Congress number 292 committees and subcommittees between them at latest count, each one devoted to some narrow slice of public policy, and each intensely jealous of its “turf.” Indeed, many subcommittees apparently do little more than occupy their appointed space; almost half of them meet four times or less and produce no legislation. Congress also is rich in unofficial caucuses, today’s closest equivalent to the boardinghouse groups. A member of the House can elect to join the Mushroom Caucus, the Steel Caucus, the Arts Caucus, the Alcohol Fuels Caucus, the Tourist Caucus, and any number of several dozen more. Senators have a similar array to choose from, and legislators of either house can affiliate with such joint caucuses as the Jewelry Manufacturing Coalition.

The bureaucracy, too, remains fragmented, perhaps even more than Congress. In a 1976 book called Are Government Organizations Immortal? political scientist Herbert Kaufman discovered that, yes, for all intents and purposes, they are. Of 175 bureaucratic agencies that were on the books in 1923, “no fewer than 148 of them (nearly 85 percent) were still going strong in 1973.” What is more, many dozens of new ones had been created in the intervening half century. The result, according to Kaufman, is that “when the organizations alive in 1973 are arranged according to date of birth and the cumulative numbers alive in each presidential term are plotted, the curve [on the graph] produces an exponential form,” that is, a line in the shape of a banana propped up on its left end, its ineluctable upwardness seeming to suggest that some force other than human intention has been at work. A strong argument can be made for a certain measure of “redundancy” in government, a “fail-safe” overlap in agencies similar to the dual braking system in cars. But one cannot help but be subdued by Kaufman’s analysis of the ultimate consequences of so much fragmentation:

Galvanizing administrative machinery made up of everlasting organizations would be a formidable task. . . . Moreover, the incessant addition of organizations to the immortal band would surely multiply the interactions and “interfaces” in the system, increasing the number of clearances, reviews, and accommodations required for any action and augmenting the number of potential vetoes throughout the network. . . . Exerting political and managerial influence on such a system would present a staggering challenge.


The sense of isolation one notices after spending even a few days in modern Washington is also reminiscent of The Washington Community, 1800—1828, although in a somewhat different form. Young described an isolated capital, but much of the isolation was physical: getting to and from Washington was simply very hard. That problem, quite clearly, is long gone. In its place, though, has developed a more insidious cultural isolation that, because public servants used to stay rooted in their home constituencies, never before existed. The distinction shines through in Howard Baker’s recent swan song to Congress in The New York Times Magazine, in which he compared his father’s generation of congressmen to his own:

Not so long ago members of Congress were real people with real jobs in real communities. They were truly representative of the people who elected them because they played an integral and active part in the civic and economic and social life of their constituencies. They went to Washington temporarily, and they came home. . . .

For all practical purposes, today’s members of Congress consider Washington home, and we’re tourists in our own constituencies. We’re committed year round to the legislative undertaking, . . .sequestered from our fellow citizens by public law and the Potomac River.

Washington’s cultural isolation is sustained by more than the near pervasive desire of members of Congress to live in the capital, a desire whose fulfillment they have legislated to make both necessary (by forbidding themselves from earning outside income) and feasible (by voting themselves healthy salaries and perquisites). It is rooted, too, in the city’s utter and highly unusual obsession with politics—not just as vocation, which is understandable, but as avocation. This unhealthy condition is at no time more apparent than on Sunday morning. While the nation worships in church, relaxes with family, and overpopulates the golf courses, Washington reads the Sunday Post and Times and watches “This Week with David Brinkley.”

The cultural isolation of the nation’s capital also is fed by its economic structure. Washington has few multimillionaires because it has little of the business and industry that generate great fortunes. It also has—and for the same reason—no blue-collar working class in the usual sense of the word.(The exception, not surprisingly, is printers.) In short, the capital of the globe’s largest capitalist nation has an economic structure devoid of the basic elements of a capitalist economy. This, in a narrow sense, is just what L’Enfant (and the framers) intended. What they did not expect, however, was that the capital would develop such a vast and prosperous upper middle class out of its labors as a representative government. Indeed, residents of the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs now enjoy the highest average family income in the nation, almost half again as high as that earned by people living in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas.

Government’s status as the company in this company town contributes to Washington’s isolation-inducing atypicality in other ways. Nelson Polsby gets at part of the problem in an essay titled, with a tip of the hat to Young, “The Washington Community, 1960—1980”:

The indexing of government pensions [to inflation] and the perceived need for more government during times of economic and other crises [have] made Washington, by and large, an economically counter-cyclical city, mostly cushioned against the economic shocks that could visit a manufacturing town.

In other words, not only is bad news for the nation not bad news for Washington, it often is good news. Economic woe in the heartland prompts corporations, unions, local governments, and others to hire on more Washington lobbyists, lawyers, and grantsmen to persuade the national government to help them.(Associations now employ 80,000 people in Washington; 4,000 individual corporations have representatives there; and the District of Columbia bar has grown from 10,925 members in 1973 to more than 37,000 in 1983, according to Robert H.Salisbury.) The new or enlarged programs that Congress creates to meet these demands in turn create jobs for new civil servants, promotions for old ones, and contracts for the “beltway bandits” (the consulting firms that rim the capital along Interstate 495).

To be sure, this is representative government as it is supposed to work, but one cannot help noting the perversity of it all: hard times for the nation, boom times for its capital. In recent decades, only two national crises really have been felt in Washington—the race riots of 1968, which tore up large parts of the city, whose usually “invisible” majority is black, and the gasoline shortages of 1974 and 1979, which inconvenienced Washington’s distinctly automobile-dependent commuters even more than it did the rest of us. Vietnam would have been felt much earlier had not Congress, through student deferments, exempted the sons of the governing class.


A third and final important similarity between Jeffersonian and modern Washington is the presence of vast numbers of talented people. In Congress, notes the current speaker of the House, “We have more Rhodes Scholars and more Sorbonnes and more doctorates and more masters of every description. They’re young, qualified, highly educated people.” The White House in any administration is filled with equally talented presidential staff aides, their high levels of energy and ability tested and proven through the long campaign that won them the office. Modern civil servants are the products of an extremely competitive merit-hiring process. Outside government, too, in both public interest groups and privateinterest law firms, attorneys who ranked high in their Ivy League graduating classes predominate. The press corps is better educated and more experienced than ever before, and like its counterparts in Congress, the bureaucracy, the White House, and the lobbies, its ranks number the survivors of rigorous competition with their professional colleagues, most of whom also want to be in Washington. The effects of the capital’s new status as the national fast track are evident almost everywhere.

With isolation, as with decentralization, an apparent contrast between old and new Washington masks an underlying and more important similarity. When it comes to talent, however, it is the similarity that is apparent and a subtle difference that is more profound. As we saw, the national government of 1800—1828, contrary to Young, worked quite well. The national government of today does not, certainly not in the eyes of most Americans. Survey data indicate that since the 1960’s majorities of the public have believed that the federal government is “run by a few big interests” and can be trusted “only some of the time.” They also feel that “the people in government waste a lot of money” and “don’t seem to know what they’re doing.”

The talent of its governors largely accounts for the success of government in the early period. Curiously, the talent of its governors explains much of the failure of the present one. Most all of those bright and highly educated congressmen, for example, are convinced that they should be leaders, not followers or even members of a team, so Congress goes in 535 different ways instead of one (as the president would prefer) or two (as each party’s leaders would have it). A slightly different sort of mismatch between talent and accomplishment can be found in the White House. The skills honed and proven in a successful campaign for the presidency are formidable, but they are mainly skills of combat. In the White House, however, the task no longer is to defeat one’s opponents, but to win them over to the president’s side, which calls for talent of a different order. Elsewhere in government, new-style highly qualified bureaucrats often slide into lethargy or formalism, a condition that has prompted Nicholas Lemann to compare the civil service to “an overcrowded banquet where you have to fight to get a seat but can feast in peace once seated.” Reporters, most notably the White House press corps, chronically confuse their ability with their importance, and when they feel that public officials do not treat them as members of a co-equal “fourth branch of government,” all too often carry their resentment and cynicism into their reporting. As for Washington’s lawyers, no observation is more apposite than that of Michael Kinsley: “anthropologists of the next century will look back in amazement at an arrangement whereby the most ambitious and brightest members of each generation were siphoned off the productive work force, trained to think like a lawyer, and put to work chasing one another around in circles.”

The warping of talent’s usual effect (good performance) into something more closely resembling its opposite is hard to account for in full, but easy to explain in part, perhaps in large part. Young’s Washingtonians came to the capital to serve. This judgment is born not of ancestor worship, but realism—how else to account for their willingness to suffer the miserable conditions that awaited them there? They pitched in (those who stayed, that is; the less hardy and altruistic left early on), and built, virtually from the ground up, a government that met the expectations of its time, including the nation’s need for reassurance that its liberties were not about to be placed in jeopardy.

Today’s émigrés to Washington have other purposes in mind. Washington has not just now become attractive to bright and talented people, of course—the 1930’s and early 1960’s were years in which the capital’s lure was equally strong, and living there no longer a hardship. But the appeal of the New Deal and the New Frontier, like that which drew Washington’s founding generation, was to idealism. What is different today is that the ambitious head Potomac-ward not so much to do good for others as to do well for themselves. The personal concerns that drive them make the overlap between the “me generation” and the recent rush to public service understandable. Only the effects are anomalous.


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