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Full Circle: Inaugurating Our Country's New President in The City Built by Slaves

Posted: 01/22/09 11:58 PM ET

On Tuesday, January 20th, Barack Obama took the oath of office as President of the United States in front of the building which, more than any other, was meant to enshrine the democratic aspirations of this country. That building - the United States Capitol - also stands as a monument to the most disturbing truths in our racial history, for embedded in the story of its creation is the central role that enslaved Americans played in the formative years of the nation.

Without slaves and slavery, there would have been no capital on the Potomac. In 1789, Congress had voted to establish the capital in Pennsylvania, where slavery was on the road to rapid extinction, thus symbolically establishing freedom as the nation's ideal. But pro-slavery interests, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, lobbied successfully for a southern capital that would protect the interests of their fellow slave owners and, as Jefferson put it, provide the South with "the advantages of a favorable bias in the Executive offices." What pro-slavery pols began, the sweat of enslaved black Americans completed.

Slaves were cheap. They could be hired locally for about fifty-five dollars per year, three-fifths the cost of unskilled free labor, and they couldn't quit or protest. Where white craftsmen were employed, the federal officials who oversaw the project dismissed their demands for higher wages by making it clear that they could always be replaced by slaves who, one commissioner smugly noted, "have proven a very useful check and kept our affairs cool." At any given time, during the key years from 1791 to 1800, about three hundred slaves were at work carving the city-to-be from the boggy Potomac farmland. Early Washington was in large part a slave labor camp, where white overseers drove black slaves grubbing stumps, dragging sledges, digging foundations, toting baskets of stone, bushels of lime and kegs of nails, chiseling stone, stirring mortar, tending brick kilns, and sawing lumber for the Capitol and the President's House, as it was then called, as well as virtually every other building under construction. They worked six days a week, twelve-hours each day from dawn to dusk, with a one-hour midday break for a meal, usually, of salt pork or mutton, hoe cakes, and grease sandwiches. They were not chained, although they must have been closely watched, since there is no record of escapes from the District's labor camps. For most, flight was hopeless: there was really nowhere to go. The Underground Railroad lay years in the future.

Who were these enslaved men? The yellowing records usually speak delicately of "Negro hire," as if slaves were only the utilitarian rental equipment of the day, which in a sense they were. There are: Gustavus Scott's two slaves, Kitt and Bob; William Somerwell's Charles; Susannah Johnson's Peter, Nace, Basil, and Will; Hancock Eustace's Philip; George Fenwick's Auston; Middleton Belt's Peter; Charles Love's James and George. James Hoban, the superintending architect at the President's House, earned sixty dollars a month from the commissioners for the work of his five enslaved carpenters, one of whom was so skilled that he -- or rather Hoban -- was paid more than free white workers on the same job.

Details about the enslaved workers are frustratingly rare. But sometimes there are tantalizing hints of stories untold. There is, for instance, the elusive figure of "Jerry". In December 1794, the surveyor's office asked the finance officer to "please pay Jerry the black man at rate of 8 dollars per month, for his last month's services, he is justly entitled to the highest wages that is [due] to our hands -- being promised it -- and the best hand in the Department." He was obviously a free black man, who received and kept his own wages, who was more skilled than all or most of the white men in his crew. Jerry's name never reappeared after 1795. Did he quit? Or did white men refuse to work with a black man whose labor was worth more than their own? Where he went, no one knows.

Wedged between the slave states of Virginia and Maryland, Washington rapidly developed into a hub of the domestic slave trade. For decades, as the halls of Congress rang with Southerners' stentorian defense of slavery, members could gaze from the Capitol's windows on heartrending processions of men, women, and children bound with ropes and chains, trudging to the pens of the thirty or more slave traders who did business in the nation's capital. Not until 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, would the capital city's slaves finally be freed.

"Jerry the black man," Kitt, Nace, Basil and their fellow slaves are as much heirs to the city's aspirations and its founding deceptions as Jefferson and Madison, its designer Peter Charles L'Enfant, or its namesake George Washington. For two centuries, their presence and their sacrifice were left out of the story of the capital's creation, as if they had never existed. Just so have white Americans struggled - from shame, resentment, or frustration - to airbrush the insistent realities of race from our consciousness.

In a sense, we have all been prisoners of slavery. Its consequences remain to this day embedded in our cultural DNA. The inauguration of Barack Obama cannot alter or expunge that history. But it does symbolize the triumph of America's best instincts in a city that was founded - like it or not - on its worst. The inauguration also invites us to consider that the politics of race need not be a zero-sum game. Dealing forthrightly with this, our country's biggest and oldest piece of unfinished business, can bring us together in a new way, by helping us to realize that we have not just a common if painful past, but also a shared and hopeful future.

Fergus Bordewich is the author of WASHINGTON: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad/HarperCollins).