What do Ron Paul, Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump have in common? They’ve all promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics.
These ambitious “hydraulic engineers” rely on a phrase that is deeply mired in our political discourse. The metaphor gets its clout from the notion that Washington was built in an actual physical swamp, whose foul landscape has somehow nourished rotten politics.
The assumption is just plain wrong: Washington was never a swamp, as I’ve discovered in exploring its first two centuries.
Establishing a capital
George Washington knew exactly what he was doing in early 1791 when he led the three-member commission that Congress had authorized to pick the site for the nation’s capital. There was never much doubt that the new federal district and city would be near the head of navigation on the Potomac River, adjacent to the thriving port town of Georgetown and well away from the squishy margins of Chesapeake Bay. Washington knew the region intimately as a nearby landowner and resident, and the site for Washington looked much like his home at Mount Vernon – a rolling riverside terrain of old tobacco fields.
Like many other early American cities such as Philadelphia and Cincinnati, Washington was built on a firm and dry riverbank. The land sloped steadily upward away from the Potomac between Rock Creek and the Anacostia River, then called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac.