In This Review

Washington: A History of Our National City
Washington: A History of Our National City
By Tom Lewis
Basic Books, 2015, 560 pp

Lewis’ history of Washington, D.C., identifies some important continuities that have marked life in the nation’s capital since its establishment in the 1790s. The first is the disparity between black and white. A center of the slave trade until the Compromise of 1850 abolished the trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia, Washington harbored slave pens, slave ships, and slave auction houses that horrified foreign visitors and inflamed northern politicians and journalists. The second continuity is the paradox that the citizens of the capital of the world’s oldest democracy lack genuine representation in Congress. The cost of that disenfranchisement has been high, in terms of both Congress’ often uncaring and sometimes racist stewardship of the district and the blighting of local political culture. Lewis is most successful when dealing with the early years of Washington’s history; the chapters on those years are authoritative and fresh. As the story approaches the present, however, the book becomes less convincing. Oddly, Lewis ends with a paean to the wonders of Washington’s subway system, apparently unaware of the low esteem in which most D.C. residents hold it.