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The People Who Really Built Washington, DC

The Education of Paul Ryan

by CARLA BLANK

When Paul Ryan recently insinuated that the poor “in our inner cities,” are lazy, and revealed the source of his code for criticizing a “culture” of “men not working,” by citing Charles Murray’s infamous Bell Curve, where Murray argued that blacks are genetically inferior to whites, many were quick to point out Ryan’s gross and offensive inaccuracies.

We could charitably add that Ryan is likely a victim of a deficient education, as the full story of how our nation’s capital came to be is rarely included in elementary or secondary U. S. history courses. Could Paul Ryan not know that every day he goes to work as a member of Congress, he enters a building built by ancestors of those he targets with these kinds of inaccurate statements and his recent cruel budget offering, because the builders of Washington, D.C. were the poor, immigrants, and enslaved and free blacks?

The newly invented “Federal Territory” that would come to be known as Washington D.C. could not be justified as the nation’s center of finance, commerce, culture, fashion, and learning, as was the case with most European capital cities. Counter to those Northerners who wanted to maintain Philadelphia as the capital, it was chosen to appease slaveholding lawmakers who needed the capital’s location moved to the area south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where slavery was currently legal.

Southern Congressmen were already in a state of alarm because in the current capital city of Philadelphia, “any slave brought into the city could be held for no longer than six months, after which he or she was automatically manumitted.” Both Jefferson and Washington were concerned this ruling could cause them to lose, among other valuable slaves, their prized cooks as the quality of guests’ entertainment was an important asset to any public official.  Washington, a lavish entertainer, jested that his guests were turning his home into a tavern. In Jefferson’s case his cook, James Hemings, who had been trained to prepare fine French cuisine while Jefferson was serving the U.S. in France, was so irreplaceable that he even paid Hemings a salary to keep him content with his position.

Washington, D.C. functioned as a major hub of the domestic slave trade because of its location midway between the upper and lower South. Sightings of Africans in chains being transferred to a holding pen or to board a ship caused President James Madison’s secretary to complain, in 1809, about “the ‘revolting sight’ such ‘gangs of Negroes’ presented in the streets of the capital that prided itself on its democracy and freedom.” In fact, slave labor was widely employed on federal city projects from their beginnings in 1790, from ground breaking and initial construction continuing through replacement and renovations on the White House and capital buildings, until President Lincoln’s Compensated Emancipation Act became law April 16, 1862.

The combined skills of many laborers and craftsmen were necessary to build this new capital for the nation. Surveyors and draftsmen, mechanics, teamsters and wheelwrights, carpenters, brickmakers and bricklayers, stonecutters or stone masons and stone carvers, painters, plasterers, glass makers and glaziers, roofers, blacksmiths, axe-men and ditch diggers were some of the job titles for work needed to be done.  Americans from all states showed up to work at the site, and sometimes orders to supply custom-made items involved businesses as far away as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and other parts of Virginia. Recent European immigrants–from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy and Germany–were pressed into service, many arriving as indentured servants, enticed with offers of plentiful jobs.  Heads of American consuls in European capital cities were required to facilitate recruitment efforts. In a common arrangement, “A worker agreeing to come would immediately get 30 shillings to pay the expenses attendant to leaving England. The commissioners would pay passage and retain half the weekly wages until the passage money was paid off. In some cases a wife’s passage would be paid. Wages would be the same as what others already in the country with similar qualifications got.” The immigrants provided both skilled and unskilled labor. In 1792, British minister George Hammond complained that craftsmen were “being lured to bring over the latest techniques of British factories….”

Free blacks also were hired for skilled jobs and many enslaved blacks were rented from their owners to do the heavy lifting. To ready lands that were to become the wide boulevards and the canal running from Capitol Hill to the Eastern Branch, slaves were used to dig trenches and ditches. Slaves cleared trees and brush to ready the area now known as the National Mall. Slaves hauled lumber, bricks and other building supplies.  For the construction of the Capitol and the White House, slaves dug sandstone out of quarries in Aquia, Virginia, and transported it to Washington by ferries, where they placed the cut stone into wall formations.

According to U.S. Treasury documents discovered in 2000 by Ed Hotaling, a Washington-based television producer researching for a special program on the U.S. Capitol building and White House, those two buildings required 650 laborers, of whom 200 were immigrants from Ireland and Germany, 50 were free blacks, and 400 were slaves. The Treasury’s promissory notes specified payment to the slaves’ owners of $5 a month for each slave working on the construction. Irish and German immigrant laborers were paid $4.65 to $10.50 per week for their work. In 1794, Jerry Holland, a free black working as a measurer in the surveying department and called the best man for the job, was paid $5 a month, compared to $8 a month paid to his white coworkers. In 1797, seven stone carvers were paid $1.63 per day, representing a wage increase of 17 cents. In 1798, stone masons received 10 shillings a day, a return to their previous wage level, which had dropped to 8 shillings per day since the winter of 1795, when twelve masons out of thirty-two quit the job in protest of the wage cutbacks, thus reducing governments’ costs from $944 to $510. The overseer at the capitol, Samuel Smallwood, only got a raise of $3.00 a month in 1797. He logged a complaint that he could barely afford a diet consisting of “nothing more than salt meat for breakfast, dinner and supper which is neither palitabel (sic) nor constitutional….,” although he must  have been eating better than the men he was supervising, as his wage was far higher than theirs.  Later, Smallwood’s indispensable work was acknowledged with an increase reaching $40 per month.

In summer workers were often expected to work on the job six days a week, from sun-up to sundown; in winter, wages were reduced when not as much work could be accomplished due to harsh weather conditions. Many lived in shacks they built on the grounds near their construction assignments, much to the dismay of investors who felt they could not properly entice city lot buyers with such ragtag looking shanties nearby.  It was no wonder that even by Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, travelers new to the “federal city” had difficulty recognizing they were in the right location, even when standing in the center of town.

Work on the Capitol building ever continued, including additions by artists commissioned to create friezes, murals, frescoes, statues and mosaics to decorate the building’s interior. During the Civil War, although other capital construction projects were halted, President Lincoln personally approved ongoing work on a new iron dome, calculating that it would be seen as a metaphor, encouraging belief in the strength and ultimate preservation of the Union. His guess proved correct. Philip Reid (also spelled as Reed, b. circa 1820), the most famous enslaved African American laborer to work on the Capitol, is featured on the government website http://www.aoc.gov.

Philip Reid’s self-taught ingenuity and skills were critical to preparing Thomas Crawford’s full figured bronze sculpture of a woman, named Armed Liberty. Cast in five sections, each weighing over a ton, in Bladensburg, Maryland, at the Mills Foundry in 1860, Reid got the job because his supervisor, the foundry’s foreman, was striking for higher wages. Resuming work on the sculpture, in hiatus since the start of the Civil War, Reid was among the team of slaves who spent 31 days on the Capitol grounds in 1862, assembling the five sections into the completed 6-m/19.7-foot bronze figure. It continued to be displayed on the Capitol grounds December 2, 1863, when work on the new dome was sufficiently far along to support the bronze statue and its cast-iron pedestal wrapped with the nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum. With bronze points tipped with platinum, attached to her headdress and shoulders, to keep her and the building safe from lightning, Armed Liberty was hoisted into its place of honor, 288 feet above the east front plaza, where it continues to crown the Capitol today, though her name has been changed to Statue of Freedom.

It is not known if Reid was among the celebrants, as he had finally become a free man April 16, 1862, when the District of Colombia Compensated Emancipation Act was signed by President Lincoln.  However in 1865, S.D. Wyeth reported in The Federal City that “Mr. Reed, the former slave, is now in business for himself, and highly esteemed by all who know him.”

So one question to Paul Ryan is, if the former generations of African Americans did not do valuable work for this country, as just this one project demonstrates, why did economics historian Doug Henwood call the emancipation of slaves “the largest ex-appropriation of capital in history”?

Carla Blank is author ofRediscovering America: the Making of Multicultural America, 1900-2000 (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and co-editor of Pow-Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now (Da Capo, 2009). Her new book, “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel,” co-authored with Tania  Martin, will be published by Baraka Books in November, 2014.