THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. VII. — JANUARY, 1861.—NO. XXXIX.
WASHINGTON is the paradise of paradoxes,— a city of magnificent distances, but of still more magnificent discrepancies. Anything may be affirmed of it, everything denied. What it seems to be it is not; and although it is getting to be what it never was, it must always remain what it now is. It might be called a city, if it were not alternately populous and uninhabited; and it would be a wide-spread village, if it were not a collection of hospitals for decayed or callow politicians. It is the hybernating-place of fashion, of intelligence, of vice, — a resort without the attractions of waters either mineral or salt, where there is no bathing and no springs, but drinking in abundance and gambling in any quantity. Defenceless, as regards walls, redoubts, moats, or other fortifications, it is nevertheless the Sevastopol of the Republic, against which the allied army of Contractors and ClaimAgents incessantly lay siege. It is a great, little, splendid, mean, extravagant, poverty-stricken barrack for soldiers of fortune and votaries of folly.
Scattered helter-skelter over an immense surface, cut up into scalene triangles, the oddity of its plan makes W ashington a succession of surprises which never fail to vex and astonish the stranger, be he ever so highly endowed as to the phrenological bump of locality. Depending upon the hap-hazard start the ignoramus may chance to make, any particular house or street is either nearer at hand or farther off than the ordinary human mind finds it agreeable to believe. The first duty of the new-comer is to teach his nether extremities to avoid instinctively the hypothenuse of the streettriangulation, and the last lesson the resident fails to learn is which of the shortcuts from point to point is the least lengthy. Beyond a doubt, the cornelrs of the streets were constructed upon a cold and brutal calculation of the greatest possible amount of oral sin which disappointed haste and irritated anxiety are capable of committing; nor is any relief to the tendency to profanity thus engendered afforded by the inexcusable nomenclature of the streets and avenues, — a nomenclature in which the resources of the alphabet, the arithmetic, the names of all the States of the Union, and the Presidents as well, are exhausted with the most unsystematic profligacy. A man not gifted with supernatural acuteness, in striving to get from Brown’s Hotel to the General Post-Office, turns a corner and suddenly finds himself nowhere, simply because he is everywhere, — being at the instant upon three separate streets and two distinct avenues. And, as a further consequence of the scalene arrangement of things, it happens that the stranger in Washington, however civic his birth and education may have been, is always unconsciously performing those military evolutions styled marching to the right or left oblique,— acquiring thereby, it is said, that obliquity of the moral vision which sooner or later afflicts every human being who inhabits this strange, lop-sided city-village.
So queer, indeed, is Washington City in every aspect, that one newly impressed by its incongruities is compelled to regard Swift’s description of Lilliputia and Sydney Smith’s account of Australia as poor attempts at fun. For, leaving out of view the pigmies of the former place, whose like we know is never found in Congress, what is there in that Australian bird with the voice of a jackass to excite the feeblest interest in the mind of a man who has listened to the debates on Kansas ? or what marvel is an amphibion with the bill of a duck to him who has gazed aghast at the intricate anatomy of the bill of English ? It is true that the ignorant Antipodes, with a total disregard of all theories of projectiles, throw their boomerangs behind their backs in order to kill an animal that stands or runs before their faces, or skim them along the ground when they would destroy an object flying overhead. And these feats seem curious. But an accomplished “ Constitutional Adviser” can perform feats far more surprising with a few lumps of coal or a number of ships-knees, which are but boomerangs of a larger growth. Another has invented the deadliest of political missiles, (in their recoil,) shaped like mules and dismantled forts, while a third has demolished the Treasury with a simple miscalculation. Still more astonishing are the performances of an eminent functionary who encourages polygamy by intimidation, purchases redress for national insult by intercepting his armies and fleets with an apology in the mouth of a Commissioner, and elevates the Republic in the eyes of mankind by conquering at Ostend even less than he has lost at the Executive Mansion.
In truth, the list of Washington anomalies is so extensive and so various, that no writer with a proper regard for his own reputation or his readers’ credulity would dare enumerate them one by one. Without material injury to the common understanding, a few may be mentioned; but respect for public opinion would urge that the enormous whole be summed up in the comparatively safe and respectful assertion, that the one only absolutely certain thing in Washington is the absence of everything that is at all permanent. The following are some of the more obnoxious astonishments of the place.
Traversing a rocky prairie infested with hacks, you arrive late in the afternoon at a curbed boundary, too fatigued in body and too suffocated with dust to resent the insult to your common-sense implied in the announcement that you have merely crossed what is called an Avenue. Recovered from your fatigue, you ascend the steps of a marble palace, and enter but to find it garrisoned by shabby regiments armed with quills and steel pens. The cells they inhabit are gloomy as dungeons, but furnished like parlors. Their business is to keep everybody's accounts but their own. They are of all ages, but of a uniformly dejected aspect. Do not underrate their value. Mr. Bulwer has said, that, in the hands of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword. Suffer yourself to be astonished at their numbers, but permit yourself to withdraw from their vicinity without questioning too closely their present utility or future destination. No personal affront to the public or the nineteenth century is intended by the superfluity of their numbers or the inadequacy of their capacities. Their rapid increase is attributable not to any incestuous breeding in-and-in among themselves, but to a violent seduction of the President and the Heads of Department by importunate Congressmen ; and you may rest assured that this criminal multiplication fills nobody with half so much righteous indignation and virtuous sorrow as the clerks themselves.
Emerging from the palace of quilldrivers, a new surprise awaits you. The palace is surmounted by what appear to be gigantic masts and booms, economically, but strongly rigged, and without any sails. In the distance, you see other palaces rigged in the same manner. The effect of this spectacle is painful in the extreme. Standing dry-shod as the Israelites were while crossing the Red Sea, you nevertheless seem to be in the midst of a small fleet of unaccountable sloops of the Saurian period. You question whether these are not the fabulous “ Ships of State” so often mentioned in the elegant oratory of your country. You observe that these ships are anchored in an ocean of pavement, and your no longer trustworthy eyes search vainly for their helms. The nearest approach to a rudder is a chimney or an unfinished pillar; the closest resemblance to a pilot is a hodcarrying workman clambering up a gangway. Dismissing the nautical hypothesis, your next effort to relieve your perplexity results in the conjecture that the prodigious masts and booms may be nothing more than curious gibbets, the crosspieces to which, conforming rigidly to the Washington rule of contrariety, are fastened to the bottom instead of the top of the upright. Your theory is, that the destinies of the nation are to be hanged on these monstrous gibbets, and you wonder whether the laws of gravitation will be complaisant enough to turn upside down for the accommodation of the hangman, whoever he may be. It is not without pain that you are forced at last to the commonplace belief that these remarkable mountings of the Public Buildings are neither masts nor booms, but simply derricks,—mechanical contrivances for the lifting of very heavy weights. It is some consolation, however, to be told that the weakness of these derricks has never been proved by the endeavor to elevate by means of them the moral character of the inhabitants of Washington. Content yourself, after a reasonable delay for natural wonderment, to leave the strange scene. This shipping-like aspect of the incomplete Departments is only a nice architectural tribute to the fact that the population of Washington is a floating population. This you will not be long in finding out. The oldest inhabitants are here to-day and gone tomorrow, as punctually, if not as poetically, as the Arabs of Mr. Longfellow. A few remain, —parasitic growths, clinging tenaciously to the old haunts. Like tartar on the teeth, they are proof against the hardest rubs of the tooth-brush of Fortune.
As with the people, so with live houses. Though they retain their positions, seldom abandoning the ground on which they were originally built, they change almost hourly their appearance and their uses, -— insomuch that the very solids of the city seem fluid, and even the stables are mutable,— the horse-house of last week being an office for the sale of patents, or periodicals, or lottery-tickets, this week, with every probability of becoming an oyster-cellar, a billiard-saloon, a cigarstore, a barber’s shop, a bar-room, or a faro-bank, next week. And here is another astonishment. You will observe that the palatial museums for the temporary preservation of fossil or fungous penmen join walls, virtually, with habitations whose architecture would reflect no credit on the most curious hamlet in tide-water Virginia. To your amazement, you learn that all these houses, thousands in number, are boarding-houses. Of course, where everybody is a stranger, nobody keeps house. It would be pardonable to suppose, that, out of so many boarding-houses, some would be in reality what they are in name. Nothing can be farther from the fact. These houses contain apartments more or less cheerless and badly furnished, according to the price (always exorbitant, however small it may be) demanded for them, and are devoted exclusively to the storage of empty bottles and demijohns, to large boxes of vegetableand flower-seeds, to great piles of books, speeches, and documents not yet directed to people who will never read them, and to an abominable odor of boiling cabbages. This odor steals in from a number of pitch-dark tunnels and shafts, misnamed passages and staircases, in which there are more books, documents, and speeches, other boxes of seeds, and a still stronger odor of cabbages. The piles of books are traps set here for the benefit of the setters of broken legs and the patchers of skinless shins, and the noisome odors are propagated for the advantage of gentlemen who treat diseases of the larynx and lungs.
It would appear, then, that the so-called boarding-houses are, in point of fact, private gift-book stores, or rather, commission-houses for the receiving and forwarding of a profusion of undesirable documents and vegetations. You may view them also in the light of establishments for the manufacture and distribution of domestic perfumery, payment for which is never exacted at the moment of its involuntary purchase, but is left to be collected by a doctor, who calls upon you during the winter, levies on you with a lancet, and distrains upon your viscera with a compound cathartic pill.
It is claimed, that, in addition to the victims who pay egregious rents for boarding-house beds in order that they may have a place to store their documents and demijohns, there are other permanent occupants of these houses. As, for example, Irish chambermaids, who subtract a few moments from the morning half-hour given to drinking the remnants of your whiskey, and devote them to cleaning up your room. Also a very strange being, peculiar to Washington boarding-houses, who is never visible at any time, and is only heard stumbling up-stairs about four o’clock in the morning. Also beldames of incalculable antiquity,— a regular allowance of one to each boarding-house — who flit noiselessly and unceasingly about the passages and up and down the stairways, admonishing you of their presence by a ghostly sniffle, which always frightens you, and prevents you from running into them and knocking them down. For these people, it is believed, a table is set in the houses where the boarders proper flatter their acquaintances that they sleep. It must be so, for the entire male population is constantly eating in the oystercellars. Indeed, if ocular evidence may be relied on, the best energies of the metropolis are given to the incessant consumption of" half a dozen raw,” or “ four fried and a glass of ale.” The bar-rooms and eating-houses are always full or in the act of becoming full. By a fatality so unerring that it has ceased to be wonderful, it happens that you can never enter a Washington restaurant and find it partially empty, without being instantly followed by a dozen or two of bipeds as hungry and thirsty as yourself, who crowd up to the bar and destroy half the comfort you derive from your lunch or your toddy.
But, although everybody is forever eating oysters and drinking ale in myriads of subterranean holes and corners, nobody fails to eat at other places more surprising and original than any you have yet seen. In all other cities, people eat at home or at a hotel or an eating-house; in Washington they eat at bank. But they do not eat money,—-at least, not in the form of bullion, or specie, or notes. These Washington banks, unlike those of London, Paris, and New York, are open mainly at night and all night long, are situated invariably in the second store, guarded as jealously as any seraglio, and admit nobody but strangers, — that is to say, everybody in Washington. This is singular. Still more singular is the fact, that the best food, served in the most exquisite manner, and (with sometimes a slight variation) the choicest wines and cigars, may be had at these banks free of cost, except to those who choose voluntarily to remunerate the banker by purchasing a commodity as costly and almost as worthless as the articles sold at ladies’ fairs, — upon which principle, indeed, the Washington banks are conducted. The commodity alluded to is in the form of small discs of ivory, called “ chips ” or “ cheeks ” or “ shad ” or “ skad,” and the price varies from twenty-five cents to a hundred dollars per “ skad.”
It is expected that every person who opens an account at bank by eating a supper there shall buy a number of “ shad,” but not with the view of taking them home to show to his wife and children. Yet it is not an uncommon thing for persons of a stingy and ungrateful disposition to spend most of their time in these benevolent institutions without ever spending so much as a dollar for “shad,” but eating,drinking, and smoking, and particularly drinking, to the best of their ability. This reprehensible practice is known familiarly in Washington as “bucking ag’inst the sideboard,” and is thought by some to be the safest mode of doing business at bank.
The presiding officer is never called President. He is called “ Dealer,”— perhaps from the circumstance of his dealing in ivory,—and is not looked up to and worshipped as the influential man of banking-houses is generally. On the contrary, he is for the most part contemned by his best customers, whose heart’s desire and prayer are to break his bank and ruin him utterly.
Seeing the multitude of boarding-houses, oyster-cellars, and ivory-banks, you may suppose there are no hotels in Washington. You are mistaken. There are plenty of hotels, many of them got up on the scale of magnificent distances that prevails everywhere, and somewhat on the maritime plan of the Departments. Outwardly, they look like colossal docks, erected for the benefit of hacks, large fleets of which you will always find moored under their lee, safe from the monsoon that prevails on the open sea of the Avenue. Inwardly, they are labyrinths, through whose gloomy mazes it is impossible to thread your way without the assistance of an Ariadne’s clue in the shape of an Irishman panting under a trunk. So obscure and involved are the hotel-interiors, that it would be madness for a stranger to venture in search of his room without the guidance of some one far more familiar with the devious course of the narrow clearings through the forest of apartments than the landlord himself. Now and then a reckless and adventurous proprietor undertakes to make a day’s journey alone through his establishment, He is never heard of afterwards, — or, if found, is discovered in a remote angle or loft, in a state of insensibility from bewilderment and starvation. If it were not for an occasional negro, who, instigated by charitable motives or love of money, slouches about from room to room with an empty coal-scuttle as an excuse for his intrusions, a gentleman stopping at a Washington hotel would be doomed to certain death. In fact, the lives of all the guests hang upon a thread, or rather, a wire; for, if the bell should fail to answer, there would be no earthly chance of getting Into daylight again. It is but reasonable to suppose that the wires to many rooms have been broken in times past, and it is well known in Washington that these rooms are now tenanted by skeletons of hapless travellers whose relatives and friends never doubted that they had been kidnapped or had gone down in the Arctic.
The differential calculus by which all Washington is computed obtains at the hotels as elsewhere, with this peculiarity, — that the differences are infinitely great, instead of infinitely small. While the fronts are very fine, showy, and youthful as the Lecompton Constitution, the rears are coarse, common, and old as the Missouri Compromise. The furniture in the rooms that look upon Pennsylvania Avenue is as fresh as the dogma of Squatter Sovereignty ; that in all other rooms dates back to the Ordinance of'87. Some of the apartments exhibit a glaring splendor; the rest show beds, bureaus, and washstands which hard and long usage has polished to a sort of newness. Specimens of ancient pottery found on these washstands are now in the British Museum, and are reckoned among the finest of Bayard's collections at Nineveh. The dining-rooms are admirable examples of magnificent distance. The room is long, the tables are Long, the kitchen is a long way off, and the waiters a long time going and coming. The meals are long, — so long that there is literally no end to them; they are eternal. It is customary to mark certain points in the endless route of appetite with mile-stones named breakfast, dinner, and supper; but these points have no more positive existence than the imaginary lines and angles of the geometrician. Breakfast runs entirely through dinner into supper, and dinner ends with coffee, the beginning of breakfast. Estimating the duration of dinner by the speed of an ordinary railroad-train, it is twenty miles from soup to fish, and fifty from turkey to nuts. But distance, however magnificent,, does not lend enchantment to a meal. The wonder is that the knives and forks are not made to correspond in length with the repasts, — in which case the latter would be pitchforks, and the former John-Brown pikes.
The people of Washington are as various, mixed, dissimilar, and contrasted as the edifices they inhabit. Within the like area, which is by no means a small one, the same number of dignitaries can be found nowhere else on the face of the globe, — nor so many characters of doubtful reputation. If the beggars of Dublin, the cripples of Constantinople, and the lepers of Damascus should assemble in Baden-Baden during a Congress of Kings, then Baden-Baden would resemble Washington. Presidents, Senators, Honorables, Judges, Generals, Commodores, Governors, and the Exs of all these, congregate here as thick as pickpockets at a horse-race or women at a wedding in church. Add Ambassadors, Plenipotentiaries, Lords, Counts, Barons, Chevaliers, the great and small fry of the Legations, Captains, Lieutenants, Claim-Agents, Negroes, Perpetual-Motion-Men, Fire-Eaters, Irishmen, PlugUglies, Hoosiers, Gamblers, Californians, Mexicans, Japanese, Indians, and OrganGrinders, together with females to match all varieties of males, and you have a vague notion of the people of Washington.
It is an axiom in physics, that a part cannot be greater than the whole ; and it will be recollected, that, after Epistemon had his head sewed on, he related a tough store about the occupations of the mighty dead, and swore, that, in the course of his wanderings among the damned, he found Cicero kindling fires, Hannibal selling egg-shells, and Julius Cæsar cleaning stoves. The story holds good in regard to the mighty personages in Washington, but the axiom does not. Men whose fame fills the land, when they are at home or spouting about the country, sink into insignificance when they get to Washington. The sun is but a small potato in the midst of the countless systems of the sidereal heavens. In like manner, the majestic orbs of the political firmament undergo a cruel lessening of diameter as they approach the Federal City. The greatest of men ceases to be great in the presence of hundreds of his peers, and the multitude of the illustrious dwindle into individual littleness by reason of their superabundance. And when it comes to occupations, it will hardly be denied that the stranger who beholds a Senator “ coppering on the ace,” or a Congressman standing in a bar-room with a lump of mouldy cheese in one hand and a glass of “pony whiskey” in the other, or a Judge of the Supreme Court wriggling an ugly woman through the ridiculous movements of the polka in a hotel-parlor, must experience sensations quite as confounding as any Epistemon felt in Kingdom Come.
In spite of numberless receptions, levees, balls, hops, parties, dinners, and other reunions, there is, properly speaking, no society in Washington. Circles are said to exist, but, like that in the vortex of the whirlpool, they are incessantly changing. Divisions purely arbitrary may be made in any community. Hence the circles of Washington society may be represented sciagraphically in the following diagram. The Circle of the Mudsill includes Negroes, Clerks, Irish Laborers, Patent and other Agents, Hackmen, Faro-Dealers, Washerwomen, and Newspaper-Correspondents. In the Hotel Circle, the Newest Strangers, Harpists, Members of Congress, Concertina-Men, Provincial Judges, Card-Writers, College-Students, Unprotected Females, “ Star” and “ States” Boys, Stool-Pigeons, Contractors, Sellers of Toothpicks, and Beau Hickman, are found. The Circle of the White House embraces the President, the Cabinet, the Chiefs of Bureaus, the Embassies, Corcoran and Riggs, formerly Mr. Forney, and until recently George Sanders and Isaiah Rynders. The little innermost circle is intended to represent a select body of residents, intense exclusives, who keep aloof from the other circles and hold them all in equal contempt. This circle is known only by report; in all probability it is a myth. It is worthy of remark that the circles of the White House and the Hotels rise higher and sink lower than that of the Mudsill, but whether this is a fact or a mere necessity of the diagram is not known.
Society, such as it is, in the metropolis, is indulgent to itself. It intermeddles not, asks no impertinent questions, and transacts its little affairs in perfect peace and quietude. Vigilant as the Inquisition in matters political, it is deaf and blind, but not dumb, as to all others. It dresses as it pleases, drinks as much as it chooses, eats indiscriminately, sleeps promiscuously, gets up at all hours of the day, and does as little work as possible. Its only trouble is that “ incomparable grief” to which Panurge was subject, and “which at that time they called lack of money.” In truth, the normal condition of Washington society is, to use a vernacular term, “ busted.” It is not an isolated complaint. Everybody is “ busted.” No matter what may be the state of a man’s funds when he gets to Washington, no matter how long he stays or how soon he leaves, to this “ busted ” complexion must lie come at last. He is in Rome ; be must take the consequences. Shall he insult the whole city with his solvency ? Certainly not He abandons his purse and his conscience to the madness of the hour, and, in generous emulation of the prevailing recklessness and immorality, dismisses every scruple and squanders his last cent. Then, and not till then, does he feel himself truly a Washington-man, able to look anybody in the face with the serene pride of an equal, and without the mortification of being accused or even suspected of having in all the earth a dollar that he can call his own.
Where morals are loose, piety is seldom in excess. But there are a halfdozen of churches in Washington, besides preaching every Sunday in the House of Representatives. The relative size.and cost of the churches, as compared with the Public Buildings, indicates the true object of worship in Washington. Strange to say, the theatre is smaller than the churches. Clerical and dramatic entertainments cannot compete with the superior attractions of the daily rows in Congress and the nightly orgies at the faro-banks. Heaven is regarded as another Chihuahua or Sonora, occupied at present by unfriendly Camanches, but destined to be annexed some day. In the mean time, a very important election is to come off in Connecticut or Pennsylvania. That must be attended to immediately. Such is piety in Washington.
The list of the unique prodigies of Washington is without limit. But marvels heaped together cease to be marvellous, and of all places in the world a museum is the most tiresome. So, amid the whirl and roar of winter-life in Washington, when one has no time to read, write, or think, and scarcely time to eat, drink, and sleep, when the days fly by like hours, and the brain reels under the excitement of the protracted debauch, life becomes an intolerable bore. Yet the place has an intense fascination for those who suffer most acutely from the tedium vilæ to which every one is more or less a prey; and men and women who have lived in Washington are seldom contented elsewhere. The moths return to the flaming candle until they are consumed.
In conclusion, it must be admitted that Washington is the Elysium of oddities, the Limbo of absurdities, an imbroglio of ludicrous anomalies. Planned on a scale of surpassing grandeur, its architectural execution is almost contemptible. Blessed with the name of the purest of men, it has the reputation of Sodom. The seat of the law-making power, it is the centre of violence and disorder which disturb the peace and harmony of the whole Republic, — the chosen resort for duelling, clandestine marriages, and the most stupendous thefts. It is a city without commerce and without manufactures; or rather, its commerce is illicit, and its manufacturers are newspaper-correspondents, who weave tissues of fiction out of the warp of rumor and the web of prevarication. The site of the United States Treasury, it is the home of everything but affluence. Its public buildings are splendid, its private dwellings generally squalid. The houses are low, the rents high ; the streets are broad, the crossings narrow; the hacks are black, the horses white ; the squares are triangles, except that of the Capitol, which is oval; and the water is so soft that it is hard to drink it, even with the admixture of alcohol. It has a Monument that will never be finished, a Capitol that is to have a dome, a Scientific Institute which does nothing but report the rise and fall of the thermometer, and two pieces of Equestrian Statuary which it would be a waste of time to criticize. It boasts a streamlet dignified with the name of the river Tiber, and this streamlet is of the size and much the appearance of a vein in a dirty man’s arm. It has a canal, but the canal is a mud-puddle during one half the day and an empty ditch during the other. In spite of the labors of the Smithsonian Institute, it has no particular weather. It has the climates of all parts of the habitable globe. It rains, hails, snows, blows, freezes, and melts in Washington, all in the space of twenty-four hours. After a fortnight of steady rain, the sun shines out, and in half an hour the streets are filled with clouds of dust. Property in Washington is exceedingly sensitive, the people alarmingly callous. The men are fine-looking, the women homely. The latter have plain faces, but magnificent busts and graceful figures. The former have an imposing presence and an empty pocket, a great name and a small conscience. Notwithstanding all these, impediments and disadvantages, Washington is progressing rapidly. It Is fast becoming a large city, but it must always remain a deserted village in the summer. Its destiny is that of the Union. It will be the greatest capital the world ever saw, or it will be “ a parched place in the wilderness, a salt land and not inhabited,” and “ every one that passeth thereby shall be astonished and wag his head.”