Dale McFeatters: A long fall from the Founding Fathers
There’s a lot to respect about the Founding Fathers, and one of them is that they were able to create a country, write and adopt the Declaration of Independence and, on their second try, the Constitution while wearing those ridiculous outfits in the heat of a Philadelphia summer.
For a satirical skit once, the chorus of Washington’s Gridiron Club was outfitted in costumes that had originated with the Broadway musical “1776,” which, unfortunately for us, meant they were authentic to the period.
The reason the Founders are shown in heroic poses, I suspect, is not that they were showing off, but were braced to keep from buckling under the weight of all that wool and brocade. And we were in a climate-controlled venue, not a stuffy meeting hall with the windows closed to foil eavesdroppers.
And to keep heat from escaping through the head, which it does, we and they wore wigs. As smart as these men were, it’s a wonder none of them ever said, “You know, we would be more comfortable and the work would go much faster if we could do it wearing shorts and T-shirts.”
Instead, they moved it to the one place in the mid-Atlantic region that was hotter and more humid than Philadelphia — Washington, D.C. Except then it wasn’t Washington or much of anything except 6,111 acres, which if they weren’t already swamp tended to flood regularly.
The choice, as still happens in Washington with lobbyists picking up the tab, was dictated by strong drink and good food.
Congress couldn’t decide on a site on the Delaware River, the North’s choice, or the Potomac River, the South’s choice. Thomas Jefferson settled the matter by inviting Alexander Hamilton and two Virginia members of Congress to dinner where, the Federal Writers’ guide to Washington tells us, “the savory viands and mellow Madeira proved softening influences on the guests.”
The choice of the site, somewhere on or near the Potomac, was left up to President George Washington, whose keen eye for valuable real estate appears to have deserted him. It was, however, close to Mount Vernon and other family land holdings.
The government, all 130 clerks of it plus the Cabinet officers, moved to Washington in 1800, in the summer, of course. They were not impressed.
Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott said that the houses there were mostly “small, miserable huts.” He didn’t think much of the residents, either: “The people are poor, and as far as I can judge, they live like fishes, by eating each other.”
Except that the people are now better paid and better housed than almost anywhere else in the country; the politics are still pretty much the same. Nonetheless, Congress stuck it out and here we are today — sort of.
What brings this to mind is an Associated Press dispatch, appropriately datelined Philadelphia, that says the country is in for the first big heat wave of the summer, with temperatures in the Northeast 5 to 10 degrees above normal.
So with all the unfinished business before them, you would expect our present-day members of Congress to stick out the Washington summer like their forebears, but, no, they plan to work four days next week, three days the week after and then knock off until Sept. 10.
And they have air conditioning and don’t have to wear 20-pound brocade coats over wool waistcoats. They don’t even have to wear wigs, although the custom survives with some congressmen in the form of discreet toupees and implants.
Dale McFeatters writes columns for Scripps Howard News Service.