Walk up the spiral staircase at the GW Museum, take a right into the first gallery, and you will be met with a pair of large (5’ x 6’) bird-eye's-view paintings of Washington, DC. Both represent the capital city in the 1820s and, at first glance, the two works look very similar, with comparable coloring, landscape, and style. That’s not suprising as both were done by the same artist and, significantly, the two pieces share the same view – looking down on the District from Arlington Heights. But, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the paintings represent different perspectives of the fledgling national Capitol – one aspirational, the other more realistic.
Anyone who reads The First Forty Years of Washington Society will form an image of Margaret Bayard Smith as a lively social butterfly and busybody. After all, her published letters seem like the nineteenth-century equivalent of a gossip column. What readers may not realize is that, just like her husband, Margaret was an accomplished writer. In nineteenth-century Washington, she was well-known as an author in her own right, not just a socialite.
When the stresses of life in Washington became too much, John Quincy Adams calmed his nerves by taking early-morning swims in the Potomac River. In a move that might be considered questionable by today’s standards, he especially liked to soak in the brisk, cold water wearing nothing but his own skin. According to local lore, it once got him into a bit of trouble: Anne Royall, a trailblazing journalist, caught him in a very awkward situation. But is there any truth in the tale?
When Anne Newport Royall went to court in 1829 for being a “public nuisance, a common brawler and a common scold,” there were mixed feelings. Some celebrated the news that she was finally getting what she deserved, like the Aurora & Pennsylvania Gazette, which said, “All decent people will be happy to hear that the imprudent virago, Anne Royall, is at last in a fair way to meet her deserts.” (A virago, for reference, is a loud overbearing woman. This wouldn’t be the last time she’d be chastised for unladylike behavior.) Others likened her trial to the persecution of Galileo by the Catholic Church, claiming that she will never surrender.
As the presidential election of 1828 approached, the nation’s emotions were running high. Andrew Jackson, the former Governor of Tennessee, was to challenge incumbent president John Quincy Adams. This was a partial rematch of the controversial four-way contest of 1824. Jackson won the most popular and electoral votes, but because no candidate won a majority, the election went to the House of Representatives, who chose second-place finisher John Quincy Adams. Jackson and his supporters were furious. Calling it the “Corrupt Bargain,” Jackson’s supporters accused fourth-place candidate Henry Clay of selling his supporters to Adams for the job of Secretary of State. This set the stage for the most vicious campaign ever seen at that point in American history.
In the 19th century, the North and South waged an important battle. No, not the Civil War- horse racing! Before the war between the states with military and espionage there was a stirring contest fought with the finest horses that either side could breed, and the first battle took place right in the heart of Washington D.C., at the National Course somewhere around 14th Street, north of Euclid Street and south of Columbia Heights.
A complicated sense of honor can get you killed. That’s why people like John Randolph of Roanoke update their wills before engaging in potentially suicidal duels, like the one Randolph had with Henry Clay in 1826. And, boy was Randolph’s idea of honor super complicated.
In the early 19th century, taking a life was as easy as taking offense. Just ask Commodore Stephen Decatur. On March 22, 1820, he was killed in a duel leaving (as some claim) his spirit to wander and perhaps seek retribution from the parties that coldly arranged his death.
Decatur was born in 1779 and had a mostly praise-worthy navy career, earning “the heart of a nation” and the malice of a few whose careers he stepped over to achieve his own greatness. One of these was Commodore James Barron.
Things got ugly between the two men with the help of two others who apparently wanted a piece of Decatur, too.