British Travelers to the Federal City 1791-1891

Howard W. Gunlocke Rare Book and Special Collections Room

Books from the Collection of Willis Van Devanter

Introduction to the Exhibition:

Washington has always been a town where visitors are important.  As a completely planned city it long boasted no commerce but the federal government and the necessary services to accommodate that government and those who worked for, catered to, extracted from, visited, or otherwise had dealings with Washington and its people.  This exhibition deals with the visitors from abroad--specifically British visitors who, because they shared our language and some of our background, could best comment on American ideas and practice.

British travelers came first as observers to ascertain the possibilities of profitable settlement in the New World.  Some had already decided that success awaited them and came as entrepreneurs, only to be disappointed, and returned home to rail against us.  Some came as diplomats; a few actors came to ply their trade; others came as correspondents for English newspapers; Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau sought copyright protection for British authors. 

The overall consensus regarding Washington was favorable.  No traveler in the early period could fathom why beautiful and majestic public buildings were built far apart with no houses in between.  Nor could they understand why the city had not expanded along the Potomac riverfront instead of to the west of the Capitol.

But almost to a man (and woman), they agreed that the Capitol was a noble building (Morris Birbeck called it “an affectation of splendor”).  They welcomed the openness of Washington society; many met the President, who in many cases, gave them private interviews.  And Presidential levees (receptions) were usually open to all.

Georgetown, settled before Washington, was fully appreciated by many observers, especially because it was a built-up town without the vast, wasted spaces deplored by visitors to Washington.  Yet there was a bustling trade in Georgetown, which, as John Melish observed, was in consequence of the rapid settlement of the back country.

The College Georgetown was well spoken of by all visitors.  Charles Dickens declared it “delightfully situated.”

Especially interesting are the comments by several travelers on the education of black children in Washington.  F. Barham Zincke relates that he was taken by surprise by the attainments of four-hundred black children.  He observed: “I never saw a school in England in which so much readiness was shown in answering questions as to the meaning of words that occurred in the reading lesson….”

The role of women in government employment was praised by nineteenth-century travelers.  Thomas Hughes was struck by the female employees of the Treasury Department—“mostly young and many pretty….They earn one thousand dollars a year on average….”

Servants were very hard to come by.  Richard Cobden noted in the 1830s that servants were Irish, English, or German, and that native Americans would not “undertake the duties of a menial servant, even for their President.”

John Finch in 1832 observed a Sunday session in the House of Representatives which featured a religious service.  One wonders what happened to the Establishment Clause.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically according to the year in which the traveler visited.  As a native Washingtonian it has been a distinct pleasure to share in Georgetown University’s celebration of the District of Columbia’s bicentennial.  Many thanks are due to the patient staff of the Lauinger Library for their assistance in making this display possible.

Willis Van Devanter
November 1991