Thursday, August 18, 2011

Washington DC 1840

Washington was already becoming uncomfortably warm for an Irishman when John Martin arrived there toward the end of April, 1840. He found American heat drained him of energy, but it didn't trigger any of his dreaded asthma attacks.

The American capital city was very primitive when compared to the capitals in Ireland and England. The city was laid out in the grid pattern that was created when the city was originally planned. But many of the streets were dry, rutted paths, dividing one empty blocks from another. The Capital building and White House were in place. Here and there were nice residences and boarding houses for use of important officials and members of Congress. Even then, government was the business of the city and those who lived there.

Washington Landscape in 1846 Looking West

For the first time, John had entered a place where slavery was legal. It must have been very upsetting to such a kind hearted man to see men in chains, herded along Pennsylvania Ave toward the slave auctions that were held in Alexandria.

While slaves were waiting for the next auction, they were held in prison-like structures known as slave pens. There were several of them at that time, but the most notorious one was the Robey Slave Pen. How could such a dreadful place be located on the Mall, along Independence Ave, just beyond the shadows of the Capital itself?

John certainly passed the slave pen, while he walked around the city. The pen consisted of a wooden building which was surrounded by a 14 foot wooden palisade. Only a small part of the interior prison extended above the wall. There was one square cut into the walls, through which John could see the faces of the black men and women imprisoned inside. There was no glass over the opening, so heat and hordes of buzzing and biting insects had easy access to torment the prisoners inside. In the winter, prisoners actually froze to death. And nothing blocked the terrible stench that reached all those who walked passed. John certainly noticed similarities to the hovels of Ireland in which his poorest neighbors lived.

Visitors to Washington usually stopped by the Capital to watch Congress if it was in session. With John's experiences with life under foreign rule, he would certainly have been interested in observing a government run by its own citizens. It was just what he hoped would exist for Ireland one day.

The building itself had a certain grandeur about it. The impressive front stairs led to a grand central hall decorated with heroic paintings. Doors on either side led to the two chambers of government. The Senate met in a small room to the right of the main hall. Still it was sufficiently large for the 56 members currently representing 28 states. It was constructed in the shape of a semi-circle with the seat for the presiding officer raised about the senators and artistically decorated with lush draperies.

The visitors' gallery followed the curve of the room and gave visitors an intimate view of proceedings taking place just a few feet below them. John was not present when great debates were taking place there. But he was able to see at one time three of the most able Senators to ever serve the United States, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. These men were already well known, and John would have appreciated the honor of seeing them in one place at the same time.
US Senate during a later (1850) debate

The situation in the House of Representatives was quite different. Though the room was shaped like the Senate, it was much larger in size. The Speaker's chair was located above the floor and draped to match the presiding officer of the Senate.  Pillars on either side of the Speaker's chair decorated the large blank wall.  Each member had his own desk and leather chair, all of which were arranged across the floor in pie-shaped wedges.

Visitors were seated in a gallery which followed the circumference of the room. But the size of the chamber and the distance from the front of the hall made it often difficult for visitors to understand what was going on during debates. In this room, members behaved very differently from the Senate. Many of the men who had been elected sought office for personal gain rather than public service. They sought to make debate and the making of laws so unpleasant that men of quality and desire to serve their country would not risk running for office. Many of them had taken up the habit of chewing tobacco while the House was in session. Though spittoons were provided, members preferred to spit upon the floor.

Shortly after John arrived in Washington, conduct in the House descended to a rare low. On April 21st, the House was in session when a Jacksonian Democrat from North Carolina named Jesse Bynum got up from his seat, crossed the floor and began beating a Whig member from Louisiana named Rice Garland. Officials and other members intervened, so Garland wasn't greatly injured. Both members were temporarily removed, and an investigation was begun. The reason for the attack wasn't clear, perhaps nothing more than short tempers and differences between political parties. Garland soon resigned to become a judge in Louisiana.

This experience in Democracy couldn't have been comforting to John. He certainly knew of Irish leaders who would behave no differently, if Ireland had its own government. But he took hope that wise men would step forward to lead there as they had in the Senate.

Sources: American Notes, by Charles Dickens; C-Spanhome@2000; A Century of Lawmaking for a New nation. U. S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875;; Retrospect of Western Travel (1838) Harriet Martineau; Edward S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour of the United States, (3vols. London 1835); Dr. Hyde Salter, Asthma.