Washington : The City of Leisure
LOOKING up from my desk at the close of a day almost tropical in its sensuous languorousness, with a sky so brilliantly blue that it seems to take on the color of the flowers beneath rather than to reflect them, with the air laden with the perfume of magnolias and the other heavy odors of our Southern flowers, which like love itself become a part of your being if you love them, which you hate with equal fierceness if they cloy and are too all pervading ; at that mysterious moment in the day when the sun has not quite died and night has not yet been born, — the hour of twilight, the most mystic of all the twenty-four, when everything is softened and mellowed and beautified by Nature’s charity,—my eyes fall on the monument to Washington. It is grim, majestic, impressive; beautiful always; like the man whose fame it perpetuates, eternally suggesting a new thought, a new inspiration ; at times harsh, repellent, with a face of granite ; at other times, as now, bathed in a sea of crimson, purple, amethyst, — such the profusion of color, — its capstone glistening like a crater of molten gold ; even as the face of Washington might have been suffused with hope as, beneath the stately oaks of Mount Vernon, he told the beautiful Martha Dandridge that which has made the dumb become eloquent and the eloquent grow dumb. The nation’s monument to George Washington dominates the city of Washington; more lofty than any other monument in the world, it is typical of Washington the city, —a city unlike that which exists anywhere else ; with a manner, an “ atmosphere,” an individuality all her own.
Washington to-day, the Washington whose centennial Congress will appropriately celebrate during the month of December, bears no more relation to “ the Federal City ” founded by the first President than the blue lump of clay does to the flashing diamond. The Continental Congress was a movable body. It sat in eight places. It fled Philadelphia because its proceedings had been disturbed by a mob, which had not been promptly quelled. It was largely fear of the mob which governed Congress in not locating the capital in or near a large city; which forced it to reject the claims of New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Harrisburg, and Baltimore. A site on the Potomac, fiercely denounced by the New England members as an unhealthy wilderness, was offered. It was accepted reluctantly by both houses, and, under the authority conferred on him, President Washington appointed surveyors to locate the boundaries of the ten square miles over which Congress should have exclusive jurisdiction. It was hoped (an inspiration shared even by Washington) that the new city was destined to become the “ greatest commercial emporium ” in the United States. Fortunately for itself and the country, it has been saved from that fate. The city of Washington is the first instance in history of a nation’s capital created by legislative enactment; all other capitals have been part of the process of national evolution. So absurd did this seem at the time that a distinguished French writer was led to remark: “ There is too much of the human element in this affair. You may wager a thousand to one that the town will not be built, or will not be called Washington, or that Congress will not sit there.” So much for words. The men who acted, the men who planned the city, had faith in the future and the audacity which belongs to genius. It was an age of narrow streets ; of houses jammed together, shutting out vista and light; of beauty sacrificed to the material. With almost superhuman foresight, these men pictured the Washington of the century to come: they created wide streets and magnificent avenues, and reserved one half of the city for parks and open spaces, so that its inhabitants might forever be gladdened by the sight of grass and flowers, and turn from the work of man to find a new joy in nature. When, a hundred years ago, the seat of government was transferred from Philadelphia to Washington, the crude city boasted but a few hundred houses, and only one executive department completed and ready for occupancy. All else was faith; but men who had created a nation were justified in believing they could build a city. How well they builded the world knows. The lump of clay has been ground on the wheel of time and polished by the hand of progress, until its glistening facets make it the centre of that imperial diadem of cities, — the pride of the New World, the admiration of the Old. It is fitting that Congress should celebrate its anniversary, and once more do honor to the genius of its creators.
Most cities are like most individuals, — we like them if they like us. The place where one has loved, or triumphed, or gained a little measure of fame is always a place of fragrant memories. And it is so when the city is to be regarded as a passing acquaintance, merely, and not as a friend. A good hotel, a delightful dinner, an artistic tea shop (which is one reason why a much-traveled friend of mine holds Glasgow in grateful recollection), are things trivial enough to make us like one city, while things equally trivial cause us to detest the very name of another. But to the stranger as well as to the resident, Washington invites and attracts and fascinates. It is not the garish fascination of Paris, where the brain is seduced through the senses and delirium corrupts reason ; or the grim fascination of London, whose weight and vastness and murky past and unknown future hold men entranced, or drive them away shuddering at its hideousness. Washington has a fascination all her own, — a fascination so subtle, so delicate, so intangible, and yet so material, that he must be very callous, very indifferent, very soulless, who does not fall captive to her wiles. Paris is the Sapho of cities, to all men all things, but always with the wanton’s light of love in her faithless eye and treacherous smile lurking about her unstable mouth ; London passionately showers her gifts into the laps of her favored lovers; but Washington is like a woman whose very presence radiates happiness, whose beauty and grace and charm make the world better for her being; like a young girl who gives a penny fan to a sick child in a hospital, and leaves with him a memory more brilliant than the gaudy colors on which his tired eyes rest.
Nor is it difficult to understand the charm of Washington. The stranger in any other city in America or Europe feels that he is an infinitesimal atom in the microcosm of humanity. He is interested in nobody, and nobody is interested in him, except the policeman. The American city may be spelled Chicago, or New York, or Omaha, on the map, but the name common to them all is business. The stranger whose only occupation is to kill time has no place among men whose moments mean dollars, where all is rush and excitement, where moneymaking is the beginning and end of all things. Go farther afield and you find the same; for London is not only the capital of the British Empire, but it is one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the world ; and so with Paris and Berlin and Vienna. But Washington, capital city though it be, has not been degraded by the greed of commercialism. As we understand the word, there is no business in Washington; there are no huge factories to destroy the clearness of tropical skies with their clouds of smoke, and deface white buildings with their soot; there are no “ hands ” to be kenneled in tenement houses ; there is no devil’s caldron of a stock exchange to brew witches’ broth; there is no feverishness, no excitement, no turmoil, because the loss of a minute does not mean the loss of a fortune. Washington is not America ; it is itself alone.
Washington invites to repose. It is the only city in America where there is really a leisure class. Not only is the climate for the major portion of the year soothing, but the general air of its inhabitants is one of dignified ease, rather than the scrambling, mad anxiety which is the first thing to impress a foreigner when he lands on our shores. The architecture of the city increases this feeling. There are few hideous sky scrapers ; there is a uniformity of color which is restful without being monotonous ; the wide streets, lined with trees and often arched by them, set off and soften the national buildings; the little parks and circles, embellished with the statue of warrior or statesman and always full of color of the season’s flowers, are a rest for the eye, and a break in what would otherwise be the too rigid contour of streets and houses. One maintains a delightful feeling of surprise. In other cities streets are laid out in straight lines and with the regularity of a geometrical problem ; they are simply the way to a place, and as matter of fact as an equation. In Washington a street seemingly straight is as deceptive as a coquette’s mood. The straight street after a few hundred yards runs into a circle from which radiate half a dozen other streets ; the circle, in the early spring redolent with the breath of hyacinths, must be circumnavigated before the continuation of the street can be followed; and then again after a few hundred yards an avenue cuts in, the angles utilized to make miniature flower gardens, the corners formed by the meeting of the ways giving the architect excellent opportunity to exercise his skill in bold fronts, and making detached houses more common in Washington than in most other cities.
It must not be supposed that Washington is the creation of a night. The men who originally laid out the city did their work well in planting wide avenues and streets, and foreseeing that the infant capital of a struggling confederacy would one day be the seat of government of a mighty nation. But having done that, they let time do the rest. Time slept, but the genius of one man was the magician’s wand to break the spell of somnolency. Alexander Shepherd did for Washington what Baron Haussmann did for Paris. Shepherd found Washington a mudhole, and left it the city of beauty it is to-day. He suffered the fate of all reformers, — he was abused, calumniated, driven forth; but he has lived long enough to see his vindication, and to hear Washington discussing the propriety of erecting a statue to his honor. Curiously enough, Shepherd unconsciously rendered even a greater service to his beloved city, and gave to his people an object lesson in the benefits to follow from pure autocracy. With the downfall of the Shepherd régime the people of Washington were disfranchised, and, paradoxical as it may sound in this land of universal suffrage, Washington, the capital, is the only place where the right of suffrage is denied ; where the people have no voice in its affairs ; where they live and thrive under the infliction of “ taxation without representation ; ” where the rulers owe no allegiance to the people whom they govern, and are possessed of almost autocratic power. Washington has no local legislature, no common council, no board of aldermen. Congress has usurped all of these functions; to Congress the people of Washington must go if they want a street paved, or a schoolhouse erected, or the police force increased ; and the mandatory of Congress are the Commissioners, two of them civilians and one of them an army officer, who are appointed by the President, and who may or may not consult the wishes of the people in the making of his appointments. Theoretically this ought to be a very bad arrangement, but — alas for theories when they clash with facts ! — Washington is one of the best governed cities in the world. There is no political party to profit from the knavery of contractors or the finding of places for henchmen, no boss to whom universal tribute is paid. Its affairs are honestly and economically administered; its streets are clean and well lighted; its policemen polite and conscientious ; its fire department is prompt and reliable; its rate of taxation one of the lowest in the country; its public schools have often been cited as models ; its care for the preservation of the public health and the protection of the indigent and sick is admirable. Surely there is a suggestion here for other American cities.
Its geographical position, its native population, and its climate make Washington a curious contrast to the North and South. On the map it is South ; in manners and thought and ideas it is of the North, yet still bearing the mark of its birth. Its climate in summer is tropical, which invites the residents whom business or poverty keeps in the city to open their shutters with the going down of the sun, and sit out in front of their houses to catch a passing breath of air. " Stoop life ” is a feature of the city, and on any summer evening one may see house after house decorated with its clusters of humanity, young people and old, men and maidens, smoking and talking and flirting; and as the stars appear, so also appear lemonade and other cooling things. A Washington custom also unique is the habit of its women in going about in summer time hatless. In the cities of southern Europe the woman without a hat, but with a flimsy lace shawl thrown over her head, is familiar enough; but in Washington even the mantilla is dispensed with. It is no unusual sight to see in an open street car, in the evening, the majority of its occupants, women and girls, hatless. They ride in the cars for the air, they go calling or to the theatre, but the hat, after dusk, is left at home. It is a pretty sight. There is much beauty in Washington, the warm beauty of the South, with its rich coloring and eyes that flash and sparkle ; and these young girls and matrons in their lightcolored and diaphanous frocks, their faces full of animation and their heads bared, make a picture so attractive and so foreign that for the moment one forgets he is in an American city.
There are three great doors in the world, says Kipling, where, if you stand long enough, you shall meet any one you wish. The head of the Suez Canal is one, Charing Cross Station the second, and the Nyanza Docks the third. There is one place in America where you only have to sit and wait for people to come to you. Eventually every one comes to Washington. If a woman does not come there as a bride, — and most brides do, — she comes as the wife of an official, or, in her old age, as a claimant knocking at the doors of Congress for justice. If a man does not come there for pleasure, business or politics some time in his life will force him there. Washington is the clearing house of the Union.
It is a stately city, with its wide avenues, its impressive buildings, its treelined streets, and statues of the builders of empire at nearly every corner, and the life is governed by its surroundings. It is a city which revolves around the government. One might say the same thing about the world’s other capitals, but the assertion would be only qualifiedly true. Separate London from the circle of government, and it still exists as the centre of art and literature, of science and commerce, of finance and society, — the heart of the mightiest of empires, the spot on which is focused the world’s attention ; in fine, the concentrated embodiment of that wonderfully complex and disappointing thing, modern civilization. And so in scarcely lesser degree Paris or Berlin or Vienna. Take away the government from Washington, and you would have a city beautiful in the extreme, a city whose wide avenues no traveler sees without admiring the genius of the men whose prophetic vision was great enough to enable them to lay out a city worthy of the nation it represents, but a city whose glory had departed. In Washington there is no life apart from government and politics : it is our daily bread; it is the thread which runs through the woof and warp of our lives ; it colors everything. Washington has great scientific collections ; it has the largest library in America, one of the great collections of the world, housed in an edifice the envy of librarians the world over: but these things are a part of the government, and owe their existence to government favor.
It would be an idle and profitless speculation to discuss what might be the fate of Washington were the seat of government removed to Oklahoma, or some other remote place, but it serves a useful purpose to point out that the fate of government might have been different had the seat of government been established in New York, or Boston, or some other large city. With that prescience which marked all that the Fathers of the Republic did, they established the capital where there was no danger of parliamentary deliberations being influenced by the mob, or of legislators yielding to the concentrated clamor of the unthinking. Had Congress sat in New York during the blackest days of the civil war, or in Boston during the days of the Electoral Commission, or in Louisville when the Senate deadlocked over the Force Bill, or in Denver when the Sherman law was repealed, is it not certain that the local sentiment would have manifested itself and left its imprint upon legislation ? Not that Congress by sitting in Washington is remote from the people, but it need not fear the mob, and the most timid legislator is not terrorized by the dread of physical violence or apprehensive of personal safety. For let it be remembered that Washington is the one capital which knows not the mob and has formed no acquaintance with the riot. Call the roll of the nations’ capitals, and there is evoked the cinematograph of troops and police charging the sans-culottes, of artillery lending its bass to the shrill tenor of the Marseillaise, of governments overthrown to placate the Commune, of barricades springing up at every corner, and Anarchy reigning supreme. Washington points with pride to its solitary riot. It remembers the awkward quarter of an hour when the redoubtable Coxey walked across the grass of the Capitol and was promptly arrested by a single policeman ; and with his arrest the “ army of the commonwealth ” resolved itself into its original unwashed elements. Thus perished in ridicule Washington’s one “ riot” !
That Washington moves and has its being around the government is one of the reasons why it is so intensely interesting to the casual visitor. Other cities have things — buildings and collections and monuments — to exhibit to the stranger; their lions are all graven images. Washington has all these and more : it has persons. Its lions are lions of flesh and blood ; lords of the forest, whose gentle roars awake many a responsive echo. The stranger in any other city may visit collections, interesting, no doubt, but as cold and passionless as the mummied beauty who three thousand years ago heard love singing in her heart, and whose pulses quickened at the sound of a voice, but who to-day is the text for the vanity of vanities.
Articulation answer’d, once did live,
And drink ; and Ah ! the passive Lip I kiss’d,
How many Kisses might it take — and give! ”
In Washington, more interesting than White House or Capitol, attractive as they may be, are the men whose roofs they shadow. For in Washington the rulers of the nation for the time being are always in the gaze of the public, and it requires neither introductions nor influence for the humblest citizen to see, frequently to talk with, those who sit in the seats of the mighty. The galleries of Congress are open to all, — to him who cometh first the first seat is given ; and, unlike the House of Commons, where women are as jealously veiled from the profane eyes of men as they would be in a harem, and from behind a screen can neither see nor be seen, there are galleries reserved for women, which, with the American’s usual chivalrous treatment of women, command a rather better view of the proceedings than those set apart for men only; but women need not flock by themselves unless they want to, and may sit with their male companions. Or the stranger may see the President walking or driving; he may even grasp his hand at one of the tri-weekly informal morning receptions ; he may see members of the Cabinet, ambassadors, senators, representatives, admirals, and generals, politicians of high or low degree, enter or leave the White House ; he may study a senatorial kingmaker from the adjoining table of a hotel dining room, or see him smoke his after-dinner cigar in the lobby of his hotel; he may hear the great man, without whose name no copy of a daily paper is considered complete, crack his joke like any other little man. In Washington everybody is known. The small boys know the President, and take off their hats to him for the pleasure of being saluted in turn; the car conductors know the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, and are only too happy to impress the country cousin with their knowledge ; the colored waiter is an abridged Congressional Directory, and the attendants at White House, Capitol, and elsewhere take a pride in pointing out the elect.
This is the charm to the stranger, who of course touches only the outer rim, who knows Washington only in the most superficial way, and who knows nothing of Washington life as it really is. To one who does know its inner life, it has an attraction which no other city in America can equal. It is a city of curious social contrasts. Other cities claim to be cosmopolitan because they have absorbed, but not assimilated, the sweepings of Europe ; but they are no more cosmopolitan than the tower of Babel was an academy of philology. To claim for one American city over another a social preëminence is a delicate, a foolish thing even ; for does not every city believe that its society is superior to any other? Yet it will perhaps not be denied by the unprejudiced observer that the entrance to society is through the check book, and that in every large city where there are several strata of society it is difficult to say which is the highest unless’ gauged by the cost of its entertainments. In Washington the question admits of no discussion. At the head of society, to make as much or as little of it as he chooses, stands the President, of course, — in Washington, unlike foreign capitals, wives enjoying the same rank as their husbands, — then the Vice President, then the members of the Cabinet in the order of their succession to the presidency, the diplomatic corps, the supreme court, senators, representatives, and so on, down a long list, each official, according to his rank, finding himself neatly labeled in society’s catalogue. But while this officially settles a man’s status in the official world, determines his precedence, makes it certain where he will sit at dinner, and whether he shall precede or follow his fiercest enemy, in Washington, as elsewhere, men rise superior to rank, and fortune is greater than circumstance. To be a peer of England gives an entrée into some circles ; the inheritance of one of the old and honored names in American history is an open sesame to many doors. To be a senator is in Washington to command respect and a certain amount of social deference; it serves as an introduction, but it serves as no more. The introduction secured, what follows depends upon the individual, and more perhaps upon his wife, if he be not a bachelor or a widower. For Washington is the paradise of woman : there she holds greater sway than anywhere else; there she wields greater influence than falls to the lot of her sisters elsewhere.
Tradition asserts — a tradition still believed in some of the remoter quarters of the Union — that in the “early days,” a nebulous epoch which has defied the investigations of chronology, the baneful influence of woman was spread over Washington ; “ the female lobbyist,” synonymous with everything that was young, beautiful, witty, well dressed, good or bad as the mood suited her, at whose feet men worshiped and whose cook was deified by the jaded palates of the worldweary, — this is the picture which has fired more than one youthful imagination in the day when he viewed life through the covers of a yellow-back novel and the mystery of woman was unfathomable. If she ever existed, she has now become an extinct species, gone to join her male companion, the stories of whose sumptuous dinners, with their inevitable accompaniment of poker, are still pleasant reading for a wet Sunday afternoon. The glory of the lobby has departed. There are lobbyists still, men and women, who eke out a precarious existence, who are so well known and whose trade is recognized as being so disreputable that no one with self-respect may be seen in conversation with them, and whose frayed linen and shiny clothes and contempt of soap do not invite companionship. The lobbyist has ceased to exist because he was too raw in his methods. We have not, perhaps, become more moral, but we have become less crude and more scientific. The lobbyist has given place to the “ agent,” who sometimes sits on the floor of the House or the Senate, occasionally in the Cabinet, or who exercises his power from afar, and does not even appear in person in Washington. But while this is one phase of Washington, it is too foreign to the purpose of this article to be more than touched upon.
But woman rules, because in Washington everything revolves around the social centre, and society and politics are inseparably interwoven. In other cities society and its diversions, its dinners and its dances, are only the relaxation from the more serious side of life ; in Washington they are part of the general scheme of life. The one recognized leader of society, or the half dozen who may be competing for that title, in New York or Boston or Chicago or elsewhere, may give dinners or balls during the season as the whim seizes. In Washington there is no option; there is a social calendar to be religiously kept and observed, from which there is no escape. Diplomacy, law, and statesmanship must eat at the President’s table during the season ; each member of the Cabinet must in turn play host to his chief; birthdays and coronations of queens and kings must be duly observed with feasting and dancing ; and threading in and out of this maze are the dinners, large and small, official and semi-official, of diplomatists and secretaries and legislators and the host of officials one grade lower, while the afternoons are busy with teas and receptions, until it has become an axiom that in Washington no one really works but society women and newspaper correspondents. Because society constantly needs to be entertained, and always welcomes eagerly to its ranks any person who can provide entertainment, and anathematizes the bore, tact and cleverness, brilliancy and beauty, exercise greater influence in Washington than they do in most cities. Position counts for much, but not for all, and wealth counts for little. Many men and women whose position and wealth might constitute them prominent in society are simply tolerated, and not welcomed; and while, to entertain, money is as essential in Washington as it is elsewhere, it is not the open sesame which it is in some other cities. Possibly this may need explanation. The millionaire member of the Senate, whose lavish entertainments are the admiration of his friends and the shaft of envy to his enemies, does not because of his millions stand higher in the social scale than his colleague who lives in a hotel, and whose entertaining is confined to the few dinners which it is absolutely incumbent upon him to give during the course of the season. And yet the fact that he does not entertain, that he lives as quietly and modestly as a struggling lawyer or doctor who has yet his name to make, closes no door to him or makes his presence less welcome at any table. And if he is something more than a mere member of the Senate, if in addition to being the possessor of an official title he is a man of force and character and intellect, if he has wife and daughters who are tactful or brilliant or beautiful, he and his family will be welcome to the most exclusive houses, and nobody will think of his poverty ; but if he has nothing to distinguish him, if his womenkind are conventional merely, although the newspapers will frequently report his name at dinners, and the names of his wife and daughters at teas and luncheons, they will be only superficially in society. Washington is the paradise of the poor man with brains.
One of the great charms of Washington society, to those who are in it, is that Washington is the only city in the world with an established society where society does not put itself on show for the benefit of the world at large. There is no Metropolitan Opera House or Delmonico’s or Prince’s or Hotel Ritz or the Bristol, as there is in New York or London or Paris or Berlin; no place where people go to dine out, to see who else is there and to be seen of every one, to place their diamonds and their costumes on exhibition and to have them written about, to be fragments of colored glass in the ever changing kaleidoscope of a life which is always moving, always changing, always making a new pattern before the last one has fallen into place. Except at the theatre, society in Washington never puts itself on parade. It has no opportunity to do so. There is no fashionable restaurant to be recognized as society’s clearing house, nor is the fashion of public dining cultivated. People who entertain do so in their own houses; occasionally some function larger than usual may overtax the resources of a private house, and make it necessary to give it in a public hall, or a man may find it more convenient to give a dinner at a hotel rather than at his house or club ; but wherever held privacy is insisted upon and maintained. The public may know that a dinner is given at which every guest bears a name distinguished for something, but the public will be given no opportunity to know more than that. There is not even a park or a “ Rotten Row ” to which society by common consent resorts at a stipulated hour, although Washington is noted for its parks ; there is not even a church parade.
It is not that society is more exclusive in Washington than in other cities ; it is partly matter of habit, partly because of indifference. In the old days, the diplomatic corps was regarded as being so far superior to the native Americans that its members formed a colony apart; they mingled officially and socially, but not intimately, with the barbarians among whom a hard fate and the exigencies of diplomacy compelled them to live; and conscious of their own greatness, display of any kind was the very last thing they desired or cultivated. Time has changed the European idea of American society as it has changed American ideas of European manners and morals. The diplomatic corps still occupies its place of preëminence in the world where the social code is the only code known ; but while exclusive, while extremely careful whom it admits to its dinner table, it no longer holds itself aloof; it has long ceased to be merely officially polite, and has become intimate ; it has taken to wife some of our fairest daughters, and it has shown a sympathetic comprehension of our institutions and our prejudices. It has taught us one thing which other cities might heed. It has shown that society can exist without colossal fortunes ; that vulgar display, extravagant and bizarre entertainments, and ostentatious spending of money are merely the signs of the parvenus, whose only hope of attracting attention is by making their money cry out for them. While most of the ambassadors of the Great Powers are provided by their governments with a liberal allowance for entertainments, their obligations to society are rarely paid in the form of large receptions or a “ crush ; ” dinners succeed each other with such frequency that, in turn, everybody in that charmed circle is host and guest, — dinners marked by quiet elegance, comfort, and interesting company. The example of the diplomatic corps has proved contagious, and explains why the best society eschews display as much as possible, and why those great entertainments at which there is such a lavish exhibition of wealth, and which so much delight other cities, are unknown in Washington.
Another reason why Washington society avoids notoriety as much as possible is that society in the capital is a very compact entity. Socially Washington is much like a village, where every one knows everybody else, where concealment is quite impossible. Social Washington is a small world, —so small that its units do not admit of many combinations. The same people meet each other at the teas in the afternoon and at dinners a few hours later, and in the course of a season all society has met so often that most people are bored; and the host or hostess who can in the waning days produce a novelty, whether man or woman, lion of the forest or cooing dove of the plain, the man whose heroic deeds have excited a continent or the young girl whose only charm is her beauty and her freshness, may be sure that none of her invitations will be refused. In fact, if there is one drawback to Washington society, it is its circumscription. I recall the remark made to me by a member of the Cabinet a few years ago. He looked up wearily from his desk one afternoon. “ Another Cabinet dinner tonight,” he said, with a sigh.
“ Has Mr. Secretary Blank such a very bad cook that you dread the ordeal ?” I asked.
“No, Blank’s cook will pass, and Blank serves better wine than some men I might mention ; but we do get so tired of each other and each other’s wives before the season is over. To-night will be the seventh week running I have taken Mrs. Blank in to dinner. Now Mrs. Blank is a very charming woman, but after you have taken her in to dinner seven times in as many weeks, there gets to be monotony about the conversation not exactly conducive to make one look forward to a dinner with unalloyed joy. I have no doubt Mrs. Blank thinks just the same thing about me. If we could only break the pairs occasionally, it would lead to an element of novelty; but there is no escape from the order of precedence, and every time we dine the President I know exactly what I have to look forward to.”
The narrowness of the circle has its compensation in that it makes it unnecessary for any one to live beyond his position or to try to dazzle his neighbors by a too lavish parade of wealth. A man either lives on his salary, which is always small, or else regards his salary as an incident, merely, and relies upon private means. But in either case he quickly finds his level; and while his wealth may give him a temporary advantage, it will convey no lasting benefit. The millionaires have splurged their brief hour, serving larks’ tongues and swans with all their feathers and other triumphs of the culinary art; they have been written up in the daily papers and pictured in the weeklies, and have drawn their crowds, and have promptly passed into oblivion; while men who never entertained, who lived on a salary of five thousand a year and saved a little each year, wielded the real power then, and still remain a power. In no other capital in the world, in hardly any other city, does money mean so little as it does in the capital of democracy. And these things explain the indifference of society to putting itself on parade. There is nothing to be gained by it; there is no advantage to follow ; there is not even the triumph which comes from humiliating a rival. The woman whose husband is a millionaire will wear her diamonds and her Paris frocks ; but bitterness is her portion if she presumes on that to set herself above the wife of the man whose only means is his salary, yet whose official position or length of service gives him precedence. That is why the position of women is so important in Washington ; why they can, and often do, make things so unpleasant for the rash who believe the bridge of gold will carry them to their desires. That is why most women who have had long experience in Washington are something more than the wives of their husbands, and become their partners and an active force. That is why one hears a woman say, “ We wanted the red-tape committee,” knowing that to be chairman of that committee makes a man famous and feared. That is why a woman has been heard to say, “ We wanted the sealingwax office ; ” for great is the power of the commissioner, unlimited his supply of sealing wax, and much court is paid to his wife. Merit of course rules in Washington, and influence counts for naught; but a woman, especially if she be charming and tactful and magnetic, injures no cause, and more than one man has exchanged the drudgery of the plains for the more cheerful air of Washington and promotion because some woman has felt a passing interest in his career.
Despite the limitations of Washington society, there is a charm about it not to be found elsewhere, because it escapes the bane of society in every other American city, its narrow provincialism. In New York, as in Chicago and other cities, people are naturally interested in their local surroundings ; their world is the world of their own and the few adjoining streets, and what happens in the rest of the country, or in countries still more remote, is too far removed from their field of vision to have more than the faintest concern for them. Perhaps there is no city quite so provincial as New York, — due to the fact that the average New Yorker, whether in society or in business, has got into the habit of patronizing the inhabitants of any other city. The New York business man complacently feels that the rest of the country is financed by New York, and must do as New York tells it; the society man or woman of New York believes that outside of New York, with few exceptions, there is no society worthy of the name, and what society does exist is merely a bad imitation of its New York prototype. Washington is saved from this feeling, because there is no local pride, and because the diversity of the elements which go to make up society prevents stagnation ; because the whole country, the entire world, is drawn upon, and the topics of conversation are not merely the ordinary gossip of a narrow section of one city, but are the things, sometimes important, sometimes trivial, holding the attention of the whole world. In any social gathering there will be men and women representing nearly every state of the Union; naval officers representing no state, but with allegiance to all; diplomatists to add the savor of the Old World to that of the New; scientists who have lived very close to Nature in the endeavor to wrest her secrets. A society so made up would perforce perish of inanition if it attempted to live on the small talk that drops from tables or the gossip of the smokingroom. Small talk and gossip there are, of course, but with them there is something more substantial. No one in Washington has yet had courage to establish a salon ; the American Madame Roland has yet to make her appearance ; but when she does she will be welcomed by her followers, from whose ranks she can select with discriminating care.
Apropos of society, there is a pleasing tradition which has long existed, but which, in the interest of history, I feel compelled reluctantly but ruthlessly to destroy. Tradition asserts that there is an old residential society, composed of native Washingtonians, belonging to the “ first families,” admission to which inner and sacred circle is denied to every one except the members of these same first families. It is a sort of Faubourg St. Germain, and like that faubourg its inhabitants turn up their aristocratic noses at their temporary rulers, regarding them generally as sans-culottes. The adventitious advantage of rank is ignored, and only those who can show the sang pur and the quarterings are admitted as equals. As in Paris, so in Washington, women of the faubourg are aristocratic, with gray hair; very haughty and very intolerant of progress, with relics of their past estate visible in miniatures of long dead but abnormally handsome husbands, and a few pieces of treasured silver; and whose retinue always consists of an old colored woman, who was nurse to her mistress’s first-born and presumes upon it, and her equally venerable husband, who does his work very badly, and makes up for it in sentimental philosophy. But, alas, this fabled guartier exists only in the pages of novelists; like Bohemia, the land of which every one talks, but which no one has yet seen, it defies the discoverers. “ The first families ” form no distinctive class ; they have long since been merged into society at large ; and while here and there one may find a name which takes one back to the Virginia of the colonies, and recalls the times when Virginians lived in almost feudal state, the tradition of haughty dames who have never reconciled themselves to the new order of things is a figment of the imagination, as intangible and impalpable as a negro’s voodoo curse.
It has been said that politics and society are inseparably interwoven in Washington, but it might even more accurately be said that society is merely the offshoot of politics. Everything in Washington is political, that is to say official, and officials owe their existence to politicians. Everybody, with few exceptions, is in some way connected with the government; the exceptions are the people who have discovered the charm of Washington as a winter resort and the newspaper correspondents, and they are more political than the politicians. The motif of existence in Washington is politics, but the game is played on a generous scale. The absence of local politics eliminates the petty schemes which make American politics so wretchedly sordid. In Washington we talk politics morning, noon, and night; we play politics all the year round ; even at times when the most ardent politicians in other parts of the country have forgotten their schemes we are planning the next campaign ; but we play the game like gentlemen who may lose a fortune on the turn of a card without betraying an emotion, not like punters who drop their coin with a shudder, and shiver as chance goes against them. Across the aisle of House or Senate men battle for party, watchful, alert, bold, giving and asking no quarter, eager to turn everything to their advantage. At night, across the dinner table, the stinging satire of the day, the merciless thrusts, the heat and passion of the moment, are forgotten. Opponents in public, in private men are friends, each appreciating the good qualities of the other, respecting sincerity though regretting a judgment so perverted. “ Washington is the city where the big men of little towns come to be disillusioned,” a newspaper writer has said. It is true. The big man of the little town comes to Washington expecting that political opponents no more break bread than would a Mohammedan think of worshiping in the church of the Christian. He soon discovers his error. He soon learns that while his whole atmosphere is political, while every one he meets is a part of the government, while politics is as much a part of his life as the blood is a part of the body, and neither can be separated from the other, politics is ignored when he enters the drawing-room. It is a lesson which some men learn quickly, — they become something more than mere successful politicians ; but it is a lesson which some men are so slow to master that they have ceased to be politicians before they have mastered its rudiments. And Washington is the graveyard of reputations as well as the cradle of fame.
I look up once more at the monument to Washington. It stands now veiled in a sea of silvery light, the Potomac, but a hand’s breadth away, a ribbon of uncut velvet, shimmering in blue and silver, until it fines down and is lost in the green of the Virginia hills, — the monument majestic in its size, colossal in its proportions, beautiful in its stern simplicity. It stands there like a sentinel keeping watch over the city it so jealously loves ; it stands there part of the genius of George Washington, a fragment of his creative force. By day, warmed by the sun, softened by the iridescence of the prismatic colors, it is the Washington of youth and faith and ambition. By night, bathed in fantastic shadow, forbidding, cold, unapproachable, it is the Washington who has put ambition behind him ; who has done his work ; who, secure in the affections of his countrymen, can look with serene vision to the future. Inseparably it links the Washington of the past with the Washington of to-day.
A. Maurice Low.