The Ruins of Washington

Like so many blind people my grandfather was a passionate sightseer; not to mention a compulsive guide. One of my first memories is of driving with him to a slum in southeast Washington. “All this,” he said, pointing at the dilapidated red brick buildings, “was once our land.” Since I saw only shabby buildings and could not imagine the land beneath, I was not impressed.

Years later I saw a map of how the District of Columbia had looked before the District’s invention. Georgetown was a small community on the Potomac. The rest was farmland, owned by nineteen families. I seem to remember that the Gore land was next to that of the Notleys—a name that remains with me since my great-grandfather was called Thomas Notley Gore. Most of these families were what we continue to call—mistakenly—Scots-Irish. Actually, the Gores were Anglo-Irish from Donegal. They arrived in North America at the end of the seventeenth century and they tended to intermarry with other Anglo-Irish families—particularly in Virginia.

George Washington not only presided over the war of separation from Great Britain (revolution is much too strong a word for that confused and confusing operation) but he also invented the federal republic whose original constitution reflected his powerful will to create the sort of government which would see to it that the rights of property will be forever revered. He was then congenial if not party to the deal that moved the capital of the new republic from the city of Philadelphia to the wilderness not far from his own Virginia estate.

When a grateful nation saw fit to call the capital-to-be Washington City, the great man made no strenuous demur. Had he not already established his modesty and republican virtue by refusing the crown of the new Atlantic nation on the ground that to replace George III with George I did not sound entirely right? Also, and perhaps more to the point, Washington had no children. There would be no Prince of Virginia, ready to ascend the rustic throne at Washington City when the founder of the dynasty was translated to a higher sphere.

Although Washington himself did not have to sell or give up any of his own land, he did buy a couple of lots as speculation. Then he died a year before the city was occupied by its first president-in-residence, John Adams. The families that had been dispossessed to make way for the capital city did not do too badly. The Gores who remained sold lots, built houses and hotels; and became rich. The Gores who went away—my grandfather’s branch—moved to the far West, in those days, Mississippi. It was not until my grandfather was elected to the Senate in 1907 that he was able to come home again—never to leave until his death in 1949. He lived most of his life in Rock Creek Park, then as now a beautiful wild piece of countryside at the city’s heart, with a rapid shallow stream or creek (pronounced “crick”)…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.