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Washington Burning
Cover of Washington Burning
Washington Burning
How a Frenchman's Vision for Our Nation's Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army
The Riveting Story of the Federal City and the Men Who Built It

In 1814, British troops invaded Washington, consuming President Madison's hastily abandoned dinner before setting his home and the rest of the city ablaze. The White House still bears scorch and soot marks on its foundation stones. It was only after this British lesson in "hard war," designed to terrorize, that Americans overcame their resistance to the idea of Washington as the nation's capital and embraced it as a symbol of American might and unity.

The dramatic story of how the capital rose from a wilderness is a vital chapter in American history, filled with intrigue and outsized characters--from George Washington to Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the eccentric, passionate, difficult architect who fell in love with his adopted country. This Frenchman--both inspired by the American cause of liberty and wounded while defending it--first endeared himself to then General Washington with a sketch drawn at Valley Forge. Designing buildings, parades, medals, and coins, L'Enfant became the creator of a new American aesthetic, but the early tastemaker had ambition and pride to match his talent. Self-serving and incapable of compromise, he was consumed with his artistic dream of the Federal City, eventually alienating even the president, his onetime champion.

Washington struggled to balance L'Enfant's enthusiasm for his brilliant design with the strident opposition of fiscal conservatives such as Thomas Jefferson, whose counsel eventually led to L'Enfant's dismissal. The friendships, rivalries, and conflicting ideologies of the principals in this drama--as revealed in their deceptively genteel correspondence and other historical sources--mirror the struggles of a fledgling nation to form a kind of government the world had not yet known.

In these pages, as in Last Train to Paradise and Meet You in Hell, master storyteller Les Standiford once again tells a compelling, uniquely American story of hubris and achievement, with a man of epic ambition at its center. Utterly absorbing and scrupulously researched, Washington Burning offers a fresh perspective on the birth of not just a city, but a nation.

From the Hardcover edition.
The Riveting Story of the Federal City and the Men Who Built It

In 1814, British troops invaded Washington, consuming President Madison's hastily abandoned dinner before setting his home and the rest of the city ablaze. The White House still bears scorch and soot marks on its foundation stones. It was only after this British lesson in "hard war," designed to terrorize, that Americans overcame their resistance to the idea of Washington as the nation's capital and embraced it as a symbol of American might and unity.

The dramatic story of how the capital rose from a wilderness is a vital chapter in American history, filled with intrigue and outsized characters--from George Washington to Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the eccentric, passionate, difficult architect who fell in love with his adopted country. This Frenchman--both inspired by the American cause of liberty and wounded while defending it--first endeared himself to then General Washington with a sketch drawn at Valley Forge. Designing buildings, parades, medals, and coins, L'Enfant became the creator of a new American aesthetic, but the early tastemaker had ambition and pride to match his talent. Self-serving and incapable of compromise, he was consumed with his artistic dream of the Federal City, eventually alienating even the president, his onetime champion.

Washington struggled to balance L'Enfant's enthusiasm for his brilliant design with the strident opposition of fiscal conservatives such as Thomas Jefferson, whose counsel eventually led to L'Enfant's dismissal. The friendships, rivalries, and conflicting ideologies of the principals in this drama--as revealed in their deceptively genteel correspondence and other historical sources--mirror the struggles of a fledgling nation to form a kind of government the world had not yet known.

In these pages, as in Last Train to Paradise and Meet You in Hell, master storyteller Les Standiford once again tells a compelling, uniquely American story of hubris and achievement, with a man of epic ambition at its center. Utterly absorbing and scrupulously researched, Washington Burning offers a fresh perspective on the birth of not just a city, but a nation.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One Sentinel

    The vantage point for this surveillance is atop a hill 571 feet above sea level, looking east from Virginia across the broad Potomac River toward the capital city of the United States. The view, shaded by a dense overhang of trees, is as striking as it is strategic. In the far distance, the dome of the Capitol Building gleams in the late afternoon sun, commanding all the storied monuments that dot the verdant landscape in between. From this spot, Washington looks anything but the locus of world-politik, not at all the picture of an ever-roiling center of intrigue. It looks almost peaceful.

    Just across the river below is the Doric assemblage of the Lincoln Memorial, anchoring one end of the Reflecting Pool. At the other end is the giant stone obelisk--once the world's tallest building--that pays tribute to the founder of the city. On a line thirty degrees or so to the south of the reflecting pool is the memorial to the author of the Declaration of Independence, and at an equal angle to the north, just beyond the Federal Reserve Building, is the White House, flanked on the west by the Executive Office Building and on the east by the U.S. Treasury.

    One could walk the boundary of this diamond-shaped territory in a little more than an hour: two-thirds of a mile from the Lincoln Memorial northeastward to the White House; a mile or so southeast along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol; a matching leg southwest to the Jefferson Memorial; and a final three-quarters-of-a-mile march back to Lincoln, whose impassive visage has gazed down upon a great range of human activity, from the "I have a dream" oration of Martin Luther King and the massive anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that filled the Mall, to Michael Rennie as a space invader taking a lesson in democracy from a child actor in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    Within the bounds of that trek is virtually every structure of significance to the republic for which they stand--in addition to those named are the Smithsonian Castle, the National Archives, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, the Museum of Natural History, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the House and Senate office buildings, and on and on.

    It is, by any standards, the ultimate destination--for aspirants, admirers, and enemies alike. Over the years, assassins have plied their trade there, as have cause-driven bombers and lunatics of every stripe. By many accounts, the infamous "fourth plane" of September 11, 2001, had set its sights on the Capitol or the White House, before the heroic efforts of the passengers brought it to the ground in rural Pennsylvania.

    Such assaults, varied as they have been in nature and motivation, are united in one way: their perpetrators have been drawn to that stretch of territory as inevitably as lightning snaps from roiling storm clouds to the aluminum capstone atop George Washington's 555-foot monument. The various attacks might have had practical intent and woeful consequences for individuals, but they were in essence symbolic actions, meant to strike against an entire nation. In short, they were acts of terrorism.

    The history of such attacks extends well beyond the range of memory. The first, in fact, took place long before much of what is now visible from this spot in Virginia was even built. To be sure, there was a White House, a Capitol, a Patent Office, a Navy Yard, and a War Department. But all that had been built over fierce opposition, and controversy still swirled over Washington's status as the nation's capital.

    To the invaders, however, the utter obliteration of the Federal City of the United States was a goal of...
About the Author-
  • LES STANDIFORD is the author of the critically acclaimed Last Train to Paradise and Meet You in Hell, as well as ten novels. Recipient of the Frank O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, he is director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami, where he lives with his wife and three children.

    Visit his website at www.Les-Standiford.com.

Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    June 1, 2008
    Bordewich ("Bound for Canaan") and Standiford, each with his own emphasis and style, offer fresh perspectives on the early history of Washington, DC. Bordewich, a freelance journalist, offers a substantially more well-rounded and comprehensive story, explaining in satisfying detail how the city's site was chosen and how political scheming, personal conflicts, and greed almost doomed the project of designing and constructing a capital city from scratch. Two themes are woven throughout his narrative: the important but often overlooked role played by slaves and former freed slaves and the constant North-South debate at the root of the bitter dispute over the capital's locale; the chosen site bore both symbolic and practical importance. Bordewich introduces readers to the key players: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker, intractable and ill-fated architect and city planner Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the city's triumvirate of commissioners, and a host of pernicious financial speculators. Their contributions, both helpful and detrimental, are thoroughly documented. The convoluted political and financial details occasionally bog down an otherwise engaging work of popular history.

    Standiford (director, creative writing program, Florida Intl. Univ.; "Last Train to Paradise"), who has published both fiction and nonfiction, gives us a work far more colorfully written but omitting or downplaying many important facets and details of the project. Banneker and slavery are all but overlooked, and the greedy and incompetent speculators get but scant mention in an entertaining but incomplete account. Yet Standiford has a novelist's gift for engaging, briskly paced narration, and his chronicle, as far as it goes, is scrupulously researched. He focuses on the early successes and eventual failure of L'Enfant, one of the more complex and fascinating characters of the era. The flamboyant Frenchman headed the city's planning and construction until his controversial dismissal midway through the project. Standiford explains how the architect's fiscal incompetence and, more notably, stubbornness and indestructible ego doomed a promising career. He also recounts the 1814 destruction of much of Washington, DC, by invading British soldiers, but his title is largely metaphorical as the bulk of his book concerns the tumultuous relationships between L'Enfant and his superiors. These two quite different volumes complement each other well. Both are recommended for public and academic libraries, but libraries seeking just one book on the early history of the city will be better served by Bordewich.Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina, Thomas Cooper Lib., Columbia

    Copyright 2008 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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Washington Burning
Washington Burning
How a Frenchman's Vision for Our Nation's Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army
Les Standiford
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