Chapter 8 — Washington: The Legislature and The President’s House. We left Philadelphia by steamboat, at six o’clock one very cold morning, and turned our faces towards Washington.
In the course of this day’s journey, as on subsequent occasions, we encountered some Englishmen (small farmers, perhaps, or country publicans at home) who were settled in America, and were traveling on their own affairs. Of all grades and kinds of men that jostle one in the public conveyances of the States, these are often the most intolerable and the most insufferable companions. United to every disagreeable characteristic that the worst kind of American travelers possess, these countrymen of ours display an amount of insolent conceit and cool assumption of superiority, quite monstrous to behold. In the coarse familiarity of their approach, and the effrontery of their inquisitiveness (which they are in great haste to assert, as if they panted to revenge themselves upon the decent old restraints of home), they surpass any native specimens that came within my range of observation: and I often grew so patriotic when I saw and heard them, that I would cheerfully have submitted to a reasonable fine, if I could have given any other country in the whole world, the honor of claiming them for its children.
LEONARD-I AM NOT CERTAIN HOW MUCH HATRED THERE WOULD BE AMONG THE FORMER ENGLISHMEN. THEY MAY HAVE FLED ENGLAND BECAUSE OF THE OPPRESSION THERE.
As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening. In all the public places of America, this filthy custom is recognized.
LEONARD-I ASSOCIATE TOBACCO CHEWING WITH MINERS, FARMERS, AND FACTORY WORKERS. BUT THERE WERE CUSPIDORS IN THE CAPITOL FROM THE BEGINNING.
In the courts of law, the judge has his spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the prisoner his; while the jurymen and spectators are provided for, as so many men who in the course of nature must desire to spit incessantly. In the hospitals, the students of medicine are requested, by notices upon the wall, to eject their tobacco juice into the boxes provided for that purpose, and not to discolor the stairs. In public buildings, visitors are implored, through the same agency, to squirt the essence of their quids, or ‘plugs,’ as I have heard them called by gentlemen learned in this kind of sweetmeat, into the national spittoons, and not about the bases of the marble columns.
LEONARD-I HAD NO IDEA THAT SPITTOONS WERE THAT COMMON.
But in some parts, this custom is inseparably mixed up with every meal and morning call, and with all the transactions of social life. The stranger, who follows in the track I took myself, will find it in its full bloom and glory, luxuriant in all its alarming recklessness, at Washington. And let him not persuade himself (as I once did, to my shame) that previous tourists have exaggerated its extent. The thing itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.
LEONARD-THE LAST SENTENCE TELLS US ALL WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TOBACCO. IN ENGLAND CHEWING MUST BE LESS OF A HABIT THAN IN THE UNITED STATES. HE CONFIRMS THE IDEA THAT IN THE UNITED STATES THAT TOBACCO IS JUST PLAIN DIRTY.
On board this steamboat, there were two young gentlemen, with shirt-collars reversed as usual, and armed with very big walking-sticks; who planted two seats in the middle of the deck, at a distance of some four paces apart; took out their tobacco-boxes; and sat down opposite each other, to chew. In less than a quarter of an hour’s time, these hopeful youths had shed about them on the clean boards, a copious shower of yellow rain; clearing, by that means, a kind of magic circle, within whose limits no intruders dared to come, and which they never failed to refresh and re-refresh before a spot was dry. This being before breakfast, rather disposed me, I confess, to nausea; but looking attentively at one of the expectorates, I plainly saw that he was young in chewing, and felt inwardly uneasy, himself. A glow of delight came over me at this discovery; and as I marked his face turn paler and paler, and saw the ball of tobacco in his left cheek, quiver with his suppressed agony, while yet he spat, and chewed, and spat again, in emulation of his older friend, I could have fallen on his neck and implored him to go on for hours.
LEONARD-THIS YOUNG MAN IS OBVIOUSLY CHEWING TOBACCO BECAUSE IT WAS CONSIDERED MANLY AND SOCIALLY ACCEPTED. THIS SHOWS THAT SOME PEOPLE WILL DO ANYTHING TO CONFORM. DICKENS SEEMS DISAPPOINTED THAT THE YOUNG MAN CONTINUED CHEWING.
We all sat down to a comfortable breakfast in the cabin below, where there was no more hurry or confusion than at such a meal in England, and where there was certainly greater politeness exhibited than at most of our stage-coach banquets. At about nine o’clock we arrived at the railroad station, and went on by the cars. At noon we turned out again, to cross a wide river in another steamboat; landed at a continuation of the railroad on the opposite shore; and went on by other cars; in which, in the course of the next hour or so, we crossed by wooden bridges, each a mile in length, two creeks, called respectively Great and Little Gunpowder. The water in both was blackened with flights of canvas-backed ducks, which are most delicious eating, and abound hereabouts at that season of the year.
LEONARD-THIS IS JUST ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF TRAVEL IN COLONIAL DAYS.
These bridges are of wood, have no parapet, and are only just wide enough for the passage of the trains; which, in the event of the smallest accident, wound inevitably be plunged into the river. They are startling contrivances, and are most agreeable when passed.
LEONARD-THIS WAS OBVIOUSLY VERY DANGEROUS. I SUPPOSE A FERRY WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER BUT UNABLE TO CARRY ENOUGH PEOPLE. IMAGINE THE RELIEF WHEN IT WAS OVER.
We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and being now in Maryland, were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and sold, and being, for the time, a party as it were to their condition, is not an enviable one. The institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated form in such a town as this; but it is slavery; and though I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and self-reproach.
LEONARD-WITH HIS DEEP SOCIAL CONCERN, DICKENS WAS FILLED WITH SHAME AND SELF REPROACH OVER THE INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY. HE SEEMED TO BE ASHAMED OF BEING PART OF THE HUMAN RACE. DICKENS KNOWS THAT BOTH ENGLAND AND THE UNITED STATES ENGAGED IN SLAVE BUYING AND SELLING. INDIRECTLY, ALL OF US BENEFITED FROM SLAVE LABOR. AT THE SAME TIME, THESE SLAVES HAD LIFE MUCH BETTER THAN THE COUNTERPARTS FURTHER SOUTH.
After dinner, we went down to the railroad again, and took our seats in the cars for Washington. Being rather early, those men and boys who happened to have nothing particular to do, and were curious in foreigners, came (according to custom) round the carriage in which I sat; let down all the windows; thrust in their heads and shoulders; hooked themselves on conveniently, by their elbows; and fell to comparing notes on the subject of my personal appearance, with as much indifference as if I were a stuffed figure. I never gained so much uncompromising information with reference to my own nose and eyes, and various impressions wrought by my mouth and chin on different minds, and how my head looks when it is viewed from behind, as on these occasions. Some gentlemen were only satisfied by exercising their sense of touch; and the boys (who are surprisingly precocious in America) were seldom satisfied, even by that, but would return to the charge over and over again. Many a budding president has walked into my room with his cap on his head and his hands in his pockets, and stared at me for two whole hours: occasionally refreshing himself with a tweak of his nose, or a draught from the water-jug; or by walking to the windows and inviting other boys in the street below, to come up and do likewise: crying, ‘Here he is!’ ‘Come on!’ ‘Bring all your brothers!’ with other hospitable entreaties of that nature.
LEONARD-JUST EXACTLY HOW THE KIDS GOT INTERESTED IN HIM IS NOT CLEAR. NOT BEING ABLE TO TELL AN ENGLISHMEN FROM AN AMERICAN SEEMS LIKE A BRAINLESS STATEMENT. THIS PAST PARAGRAPH IS NOT CLEAR AT ALL.
We reached Washington at about half-past six that evening, and had upon the way a beautiful view of the Capitol, which is a fine building of the Corinthian order, placed upon a noble and commanding eminence. Arrived at the hotel; I saw no more of the place that night; being very tired, and glad to get to bed.
THE CAPITOL HAS ALWAYS BEEN A BEAUTIFUL SIGHT ESPECIALLY IN THE EVENING. JENKIN’S HILL WAS ALMOST THE PERFECT PLACE FOR A BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT. IT GIVES THE IMPRESSION OF THE SENATORS, REPRESENTATIVES, AND THEIR STAFF OF LOOKING DOWN AT THE CITY AND TRYING TO WHAT IS BEST FOR THE COUNTRY. THAT IS OF COURSE IS NOT THE CASE RIGHT NOW. IMPRESSIONS HERE BEAR NO RELATIONSHIP TO REALITY.
Breakfast over next morning, I walk about the streets for an hour or two, and, coming home, throw up the window in the front and back, and look out. Here is Washington, fresh in my mind and under my eye.
THIS IS THE BEST THING TO DO EVEN NOW WHEN VISITING A CITY. WALK AROUND AND GET A GOOD IDEA OF THE AREAS YOU WANT TO SEE MATCHED AGAINST THE TIME AVAILABLE. LOOK AT THE CITY ONCE AGAIN. AFTER THAT, DEVELOP A PLAN OF PLACES TO VISIT.
Take the worst parts of the City Road and Pentonville, or the straggling outskirts of Paris, where the houses are smallest, preserving all their oddities, but especially the small shops and dwellings, occupied in Pentonville (but not in Washington) by furniture-brokers, keepers of poor eating-houses, and fanciers of birds. Burn the whole down; build it up again in wood and plaster; widen it a little; throw in part of St. John’s Wood; put green blinds outside all the private houses, with a red curtain and a white one in every window; plough up all the roads; plant a great deal of coarse turf in every place where it ought not to be; erect three handsome buildings in stone and marble, anywhere, but the more entirely out of everybody’s way the better; call one the Post Office; one the Patent Office, and one the Treasury; make it scorching hot in the morning, and freezing cold in the afternoon, with an occasional tornado of wind and dust; leave a brick-field without the bricks, in all central places where a street may naturally be expected: and that’s Washington.
DICKENS IS COMPLAINING OF THE LACK OF URBAN PLANNING IN WASHINGTON. THIS CITY WAS NEW AND POLITICS WAS THE ORDER OF THE DAY. URBAN PLANNING HAD TO TAKE A BACK SEAT AS OUR NATION GREW.
The hotel in which we live, is a long row of small houses fronting on the street, and opening at the back upon a common yard, in which hangs a great triangle. Whenever a servant is wanted, somebody beats on this triangle from one stroke up to seven, according to the number of the house in which his presence is required; and as all the servants are always being wanted, and none of them ever come, this enlivening engine is in full performance the whole day through. Clothes are drying in the same yard; female slaves, with cotton handkerchiefs twisted round their heads are running to and fro on the hotel business; black waiters cross and recross with dishes in their hands; two great dogs are playing upon a mound of loose bricks in the centre of the little square; a pig is turning up his stomach to the sun, and grunting ‘that’s comfortable!’; and neither the men, nor the women, nor the dogs, nor the pig, nor any created creature, takes the smallest notice of the triangle, which is tingling madly all the time.
AS YOU KNOW, VIRGINIA AND MARYLAND CEDED THEIR PROPERTY TO ESTABLISH THE FEDERAL CITY. WITH COUNTRY ESTABLISHING ITSELF, THINGS WERE VERY HECTIC. WASHINGTON BECAME A CITY WITH INSTANT DEMANDS & REALLY HIT THE GROUND MOVING.
I walk to the front window, and look across the road upon a long, straggling row of houses, one story high, terminating, nearly opposite, but a little to the left, in a melancholy piece of waste ground with frowzy grass, which looks like a small piece of country that has taken to drinking, and has quite lost itself. Standing anyhow and all wrong, upon this open space, like something meteoric that has fallen down from the moon, is an odd, lop-sided, one-eyed kind of wooden building, that looks like a church, with a flag-staff as long as itself sticking out of a steeple something larger than a tea-chest. Under the window is a small stand of coaches, whose slave-drivers are sunning themselves on the steps of our door, and talking idly together. The three most obtrusive houses near at hand are the three meanest. On one — a shop, which never has anything in the window, and never has the door open — is painted in large characters, ‘The City Lunch.’ At another, which looks like a backway to somewhere else, but is an independent building in itself, oysters are procurable in every style. At the third, which is a very, very little tailor’s shop, pants are fixed to order; or in other words, pantaloons are made to measure. And that is our street in Washington.
LOOKS LIKE WASHINGTON WAS BUILT UP IN A HAPHAZARD MANNER.