ON MAY 13, Crown Publishers (a division of Random House) will bring out the third in a series of narrative histories that I have published, following up on Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean (Crown, 2002) and Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America (Crown, 2005).
This new book is entitled Washington Burning: How a Frenchman's Vision of Our Nation's Capital Survived Congress, The Founding Fathers and the Invading British Army. The "Frenchman" is of course Pierre Charles L'Enfant, and the book tells the story of the struggle to bring his concept--a great new capital for a great new nation--into being.
While there have been a number of books dealing with the founding of Washington in the 1790's, as well as a number detailing the dramatic story of its burning by the British during the War of 1812, I had not read any that connected the two threads in any substantial way when the idea began to form in my mind. Until the British thought enough of Washington D.C. to reduce its public buildings to rubble in 1814, the new capital was a source of great friction in our new nation--Northern interests found it too "Southern," and Southerners found it not "Southern" enough. But that action by the British, meant to frighten an ill-prepared United States military into capitulation, had the opposite effect of what was intended. Americans were outraged, not intimidated--and when the British moved on from Washington to a true military target at Baltimore's Fort McHenry, they were soundly defeated and the tide of the war changed. Washington D.C. was transformed from a locus of division to a symbol of pride and unity, and in essence, it was the desire to avenge the destruction of our "national city" that led to the final break from Great Britain.
In one way, the city itself is the "main character" of this book, though the attempts of George Washington, and Pierre L'Enfant and others to see a new capital rise from a wilderness (despite the heated opposition of Thomas Jefferson, for one) form the human story that came to fascinate me. L'Enfant was a brilliant man, but an eccentric and difficult one as well, and he was utterly consumed with the correctness of his "Grand Plan." In essence, he was a poet, and though W.H. Auden has suggested that "poetry makes nothing happen," L'Enfant made Washington happen, and exactly as he sketched it out on a couple of taped-together scraps of paper more than 200 years ago.
LES WILL APPEAR ON BEHALF OF WASHINGTON BURNING AT:
- Society of the Four Arts (Palm Beach, 561-655-7226, 2:30 pm Fri May 9
- Vero Beach Book Center (Vero Beach, 772-569-2050) 12 noon, Sat May 10
- Book Mark (Atlantic Beach/Jacksonville, 904-241-9026, 7pm, Sat May 10
- Maryland Historical Society (Baltimore, phone # to come), 6pm, Mon May 12
- Politics and Prose (D.C.--5015 Connecticut Ave NW, 202-547-2665) 7pm, Tu, May 13
- The Trover Shop (D.C.--221 Pennsylvania Ave SE, 202-547-2665) 12:30pm, Wed, May 14
- Books & Books (Coral Gables, 305-442-4408) 8pm, Fri, May 16
- Please check back regularly for updates to this list
- IF YOU WOULD LIKE AN AUTOGRAPHED COPY OF WASHINGTON BURNING, CONTACT THE GOOD FOLKS AT BOOKS & BOOKS IN CORAL GABLES AND THEY WILL GLADLY SEND ONE ALONG TO YOU AS SOON AS THEY BECOME AVAILABLE IN MAY: http://www.booksandbooks.com/