OCTOBER   2020


Sunday, October 18, 2020


I blame the current sorry state of American government on John Dickinson, one time President of Pennsylvania. On the morning of 20 June, 1783, some 400 long suffering soldiers of the Continental Army surrounded Independence Hall in Philadelphia and refused to let the Congress out, until they had voted to give the soldiers' their back pay.  The politicians negotiated their way out of this difficulty without parting with any money. But this effrontery by working stiffs directly petitioning their government so angered Alexander Hamilton that he dispatched a note to Dickinson, demanding that he call out the state militia to arrest the army.  Dickinson refused.
So, like a boarder sneaking out on the rent, overnight, the Continental Congress slipped across the Delaware River to Princeton, New Jersey, just to avoid paying their army. And for the next 13 years the American government wandered the eastern seaboard avoiding debt collectors, both foreign and domestic. And to prevent that from ever happening again, in 1800 they built their own city, where they had to ask no one's permission to arrest people trying to hold them accountable. And thus was born the Federal District of Columbia, and the city of Washington, as a direct of result of the lesson taught by John Dickinson – that government, like many people, provides justice only when forced to – or when it is to their advantage.
There was already a town in the new district, called Funkstown. But that village disappeared after the owner, Jacob Funk, was paid off - unlike those Continental soldiers. Thus Washington D.C. was founded on the principle of payoffs to the land owners, and a cold shoulder to the working stiffs. Pierre L'Enfant designed the nation's capital on the square, ten miles on each side. But geographic reality required that it be balanced for all time on one corner. There were named avenues running North-west to South-East and lettered streets (minus the letter  “J”) running East-to-west, starting with “A” along the Potomac. The entire lopsided place was lorded over by the Capital, perched proudly atop Jenkins Hill.
Oddly, the plan for the city had no space set aside for the sinew and sweaty realities that make all cities possible. In the 18th century that meant fetid livestock yards, noisome smithies, reeking slaughter houses, putrid tanneries and malodorous glue factories. The 19th century added the town's rancid gas plant, surrounded by mounds of sooty black coal, fed by belching steam engines puffing clouds of black soot right into the center of town. The reeking vaporous working class neighborhood where all that stink eventually settled was almost a mile from the capital, but a mere two blocks from the White House, which showed how low  the founding fathers placed the chief executive  on the social totem pole.  The constant clouds of vile vapors gave a fitting  nickname to this sorry section of town - Foggy Bottoms.
But the expansion of Washington and its government by the Civil War brought gentrification to Foggy Bottoms, driving the stink further out, into Maryland and Virginia. Thus, after mid century,  the Bottoms' primary artery, K Street, could stretch its golden mile from Washington Circle on the west to Vernon Square on the east, with nary a sniffle or a gag between. And in 1880, along the very center of that route, between 16th and 17th streets, adjacent to an alleyway, Mr. J.B. Edmonds, decided to build himself a house.
Edmonds told people he was a retired banker, and he was. But he was also a land developer from Clay County, Iowa. He had been the first mayor of the county seat of Spencer,  Iowa, so he was no stranger to politics, either. Just the year before he had also begun publishing a magazine called “The Owl”, which promoted immigration and farming into western Iowa. All things considered I would say it seems unlikely that the 35 year old Edmonds had moved to Washington to retire, as he claimed. He had been proffered a job in the President Chester A. Arthur administration as one of the three commissioners who ran the district. It was one of those jobs that Dickinson had taught the government it needed for its own protection.  But in truth I suspect Edmonds had come to Washington to pursue an active career as a lobbyist. He just had too much pride to admit such a disingenuous occupation in public.
His brand new three story Victorian house at 1625 K Street (above), complete with servant's quarters in the attic, and faced with a green sandstone, had cost him $17,000, the equivalent of almost half a million dollars today. So it seems that whatever Edmonds' s endeavors in the nation's capital were, they paid very well.  Edmonds lived in his home until his death at the age of 55, in 1901.
His widow, Lydia, held onto the property, but she rented the house out to the newly elected Senator from Maryland, "Fighting" Senator Louis Emery McComas, (above) and his wife. He proved to be an honest politician and thus a one term Senator.  However he had earned the respect of some, and in 1905 President Teddy Roosevelt appointed him to the Washington, D.C., District Court of Appeals. Two years later Senator McComas was dead, and Lydia moved back into the Little Green House on K street.
The City of Washington began the first decade of the 20th century with 279,000 residents, two thirds of whom were described as “white”. People then still expected to live within walking distance of where they worked. In 1900 there were only some 8,000 automobiles and just 10 miles of paved roads in the entire country. That year there were 96 people killed in automobile accidents nationwide - compared to 115 lynchings. But by 1906 enough automobiles had arrived that the District felt required to establish a top speed limit of 20 miles an hour on city streets. And in 1907 the District of Columbia issued its first license plate. That change was happening became evident in 1910 when there were only 76 lynchings nationwide, compared to some 1,700 deaths in automobile collisions.
By 1910 Washington, D.C. had grown to 331,000 people, still mostly white. Nationwide, over that decade, life expectancy had increased by about a year. Salaries had risen from an average of $670 a year (for a 59 hour work week) to $750 a year. And there were still over 2 million unemployed in America.
And then there came the leap year of 1912. That was the year New Mexico and Arizona became states. It was the year that 30,000 textile workers staged the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It was the year that first lady Helen Taft planted the first cherry tree in Washington. It was the year that the United States Marines pulled off a triple play, invading Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba. It was the year the Titanic sank off of Newfoundland. And that November Teddy Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote and allowed the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, to be elected President. Thirteen days after that election day, on  18 November 1912, Lydia Edmonds died in the little green house on K street. She left behind an estate valued at half a million dollars, equal to $11 million today. It would appear that being a lobbyist paid really well, even in the 19th century.
In the new century, using that same little green house on K street as a balancing point, lobbyists were going to reach new heights of wealth and influence, on their way to establishing a government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, and for the lobbyists.
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