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Determining the Facts

Reading 4: The Octagon in Early D.C.

Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, eldest son of Colonel John Tayloe III, wrote the following excerpted paragraphs in 1864. They are part of his memoir, Our Neighbors on La Fayette Square: Anecdotes and Reminiscences by Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, published 1872. Benjamin Tayloe was born in 1796.

I write of neighbors, and of anecdotes connected with them, for the gratification of my family. It is hardly necessary to inform them that their paternal ancestors lived in the Northern Neck of Virginia, between the Rappahannock and the Potomac, the native land of Washington, the Lees, Madison, and Monroe, until my father came to Washington City, in 1800, and took possession of his new house, The Octagon, at the intersection of New York Avenue and Eighteenth Street. He had been induced by his hereditary friend, General Washington, to erect his town house in the Federal city, having previously had an eye to Philadelphia. Friendly to the object, and taking a lively interest in the erection of a house to be greatly superior to any other private mansion in Washington, the General frequently watched the progress of the work, from his horse, when he visited the embryo city, in 1798 and 1799, as reported to me by the late Charles Coltman, a wealthy citizen, recently deceased, and then a boy working with his father, a brickmason, upon the house. George Washington had himself erected a town house on Capitol Hill, which is still standing, and is now the property of Admiral Wilkes.

I came to Washington in 1801, and remember it literally as rus in urbe, containing but a few thousand inhabitants, scattered about in single houses, apart from each other, or in occasional groups, chief in the vicinity of the public buildings, from Georgetown to the Navy Yard. There was scarcely any pavement, except in front of detached houses. The distinguished John Cotton Smith told me that when he was a Senator from Connecticut, he attended President Adams’s first levee [a formal party] in Washington, in 1801, and that the members if Congress living, like himself, on Capitol Hill, found it necessary to send to Baltimore for hackney coaches to convey them to the President’s house; and to avoid the swamp of Pennsylvania Avenue, they had to travel along F street and the high grounds adjacent. (During Mr. Monroe’s administration, I have seen carriages mired in Pennsylvania Avenue, even then almost impassable, the city at that time having less than ten thousand inhabitants.)

Mr. Madison appropriately did the honors of the White House, until expelled from it by the British invasion, in August 1814. The Capitol, the President’s house, the public buildings, and a few private houses, were burned by the “vandals,” as they were termed, under Admiral Sir George Cockburn and General Ross, who, within a month, was killed on the repulse of the British at North Point, near Baltimore. At this time my father was in command of the cavalry of the District. Superseded by an officer of the regular army, he was sent to Virginia to bring up some of its militia in season to aid in the defense of the Capital. His efforts proved ineffectual, and he was returning home, when he met my mother on the road, making her way to his place, Neabsco, near Dumfries, in Virginia. She had vacated The Octagon, and induced Mons. Serrurier, the French Minister, to occupy it, with a view to its protection. After going to Virginia, my parents divided their time between Neabsco and Mount Airy, until they reoccupied their own house, on its being vacated by Mr. Madison, after the war. For the nonce, until another house could be prepared for him, Mr. Madison was the occupant of The Octagon, and there he signed the treaty of peace with Great Britain, in the circular room over the entrance-hall, in February, 1815.

Questions for Reading 4

1) Who wrote this letter? How old was he in 1801, 1815, and 1864?

2) What kinds of buildings does Benjamin Tayloe mention in this document? What kinds of people lived or worked in these buildings?

3)Rus in urbe” translates from Latin to “country in the city." Why did Benjamin Ogle Tayloe use this term to describe D.C.?

4) Do you think this memoir is a reliable source of information? How is it trustworthy? Where could you look to check Tayloe's claims?


Reading 4 was excerpted from Our Neighbors on La Fayette Square: Anecdotes and Reminiscences by Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, published in 1872 by the Junior League of Washington, D.C.


Comments or Questions

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