By Senator Christopher Van Hollen
George Washington's Birthday Celebration, February 19, 2001
Old Senate Chamber, The State House, Annapolis, Maryland

Mr. President, Rev. George Raduano, Ms. Diana Martin, members of the Southern Senior High School Chamber Choir, members of the Senate, guests.

Let me start by recognizing a few of our guests. First I'm very pleased that my parents, Eliza & Chris Van Hollen, could join us tonight. I would also like to thank Dr. Ed Papenfuse for his input in preparing these remarks. You know what a wonderful job he has done in selecting the exhibits in the new Miller Senate Office Building and we are lucky to have him as the conservator of Maryland's historical treasures.

Over the years, remarks made on this occasion have given us a look at George Washington and the impact he had on our nation through many different lenses. Tonight we explore Washington's vision of the Potomac River as the gateway to the West, and how that vision influenced the decision to build our national capitol --- named in his honor -- on the banks of the Potomac. As you know, our state, Maryland ceded the territory that is now Washington D.C. to the nation for the purpose of building our national capital. And that decision -- made way back in 1790 -- continues to have an enormous impact on the economy and politics of our state.

I must say I had a lot of fun and learned much in preparing these remarks. What I found striking is how so many of the regional rivalries we see today between Virginia and Maryland, and between different regions of Maryland and Virginia, have their roots in the debates and competition over whether the Potomac River -- or alternative routes -- should be the main gateway to the Western lands of the Ohio Valley, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

As we will see, George Washington's direct involvement in navigating among these competing regional interests provides a model of how to improve regional navigation even today.

Washington' vision of the Potomac as the gateway to the West was formed at an early age. The colonists and the British were battling the French for control of the western lands in the Ohio River valley and other areas west of the Appalachian mountains. At the age of twenty-two Washington and his troops were defeated by the French at Fort Necessity in western Pennsylvania. But Washington looked beyond the immediate defeat to continued westward expansion. On his way home from Fort Necessity he took time to carefully survey the Potomac River from Wills Creek (now the City of Cumberland) to Georgetown, Maryland (now, of course, part of Washington D.C) At one point Washington found the bottom of the river so rocky that the canoe he was in, "which was not small, had near sunk ..."  while at another there was so little water that the canoe had to be carried a great distance. Washington was not deterred. To him the only solution was to improve the navigation of the river here and there by 'digging a Channel on the Maryland side' and 'removing some rocks' out of the way.

Upon returning from his trip down the Potomac, he first reported to Annapolis and Williamsburg on the French threat and the need for a vigorous military effort in the west. Then he immediately drafted an account of his Potomac River adventure and his belief that the Potomac could become the principal public highway to the West.

After many more years of fighting, the British, prevailed against the French and took control of the western lands. Washington bought up the rights to thousands of acres of lands. According to one account, by 1775, he claimed rights to nearly 71,000 acres of western land.

In his continuing quest to make the Potomac the main concourse to the West, Washington found a welcome Maryland ally in Thomas Johnson. In June of 1770, Johnson, then a Frederick County Delegate to the General Assembly, wrote Washinton of a new scheme to raise private funds to improve the navigation of the Potomac River. "If you sir," Johnson wrote, should approve the Scheme of a Subscription and think any thing can be done that Way in Virginia, it will give us new Spirits on this Side--if not I shall be greatly obliged by your communicating your thoughts on the subject."  Washington responded with what would be a central theme of his for the rest of his life.  Great projects of public benefit cannot be supported by private subscription, unless there is publicly supported  incentive for investment.  In the case of the improvement of the Potomac, that incentive must be some public investment and the grant of a monopoly over the charging of tolls.

As was typical of Washington, he took a proposal for a joint stock company, and placed it into a much larger national context, arguing that it could only be undertaken if public support could be voiced in joint actions of the Maryland and Virginia legislatures.  The following year -- 1772-- the Virginia legislature adopted a Potomac Navigation Bill drafted by a committee on which Washinton served, but only after he had agreed to extend the idea to the James River in order to remove "jealousies" from Virginians who lived along that river. As we watch the Virginia legislature this session, we can see what Washington was up against and that the rivalry between Northern Virginia and the tidewater is still very much alive today.

Things did not go so well when Washington sought approval on the Maryland side. Maryland held exclusive jurisdiction over the Potomac, and, despite the efforts of Thomas Johnson and numerous visits to Annapolis by Washington and George Mason, the Maryland legislature repeatedly refused to pass a bill to join Virginia in the effort to clear the Potomac. [They were upset because there was no Project Labor Agreement] ...

As Washington later wrote to Thomas Jefferson, Maryland's opposition to the plan was led by the Baltimore merchants and their political spokesmen of the Upper Chesapeake Interest, who worried that opening the Potomac would destroy their dream of Baltimore's becoming the eastern terminus for western commerce. It was the beginning of the Redskins v. Ravens rivalry.

Soon after the Maryland legislature stymied Washington's plan to clear the Potomac, tension between the colonies and England intensified and, in 1776, the revolutionary war broke out. At the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Johnson nominated his friend Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army and joined him in the field as aide de camp. After Johnson was called to battle, a Maryland Convention called to write Maryland's first Constitution became concerned about claims Virginia was making over the Potomac and resolved unanimously that Maryland was the sole owner of the Potomac River. As you know, this is a dispute continuing to this day, with the case of Virginia v. Maryland pending in the Supreme Court of the United States. Unfortunately that was one issue Washington did not put to rest.

In 1777 Thomas Johnson was called back from the field of battle to be Maryland's first elected Governor. But with the Revolutionary War in full swing, Washington's vision of the Potomac as a gateway to the West languished until 1783. When peace finally came, Washington made his pilgrimage to this very room where Congress was  in session,  in order to resign his commission as Commander in Chief.  In moving words that proved contrary to fact, Washington told those present that:

Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this  August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take leave of all the employments of public life.
Three months later he was back in thick of public affairs. With the war over, Washington renewed his efforts to build support for improving the navigation of the Potomac.

At the end of November 1784, Washington traveled to Annapolis to discuss a proposed bill for clearing the Potomac. He found Maryland's legislative leaders more receptive than they had been a decade earlier. He consequently proposed to James Madison that Virginia appoint a group of legislators to join their counterparts in Maryland in drafting a Potomac navigation bill.

Senator Miller was obviously inspired by this strategy when he appointed a delegation of legislators last year to meet with their Virginia counterparts to discuss an Upper Potomac River bridge crossing.

Instead of sending members of the legislature, Virginia decided to send Washington and two other non-legislators. However, in the end, only Washington came. Here in the shadow of his own portrait, which then had only recently been hung in the State House, Washington spent days chairing a joint committee of the Maryland legislature. Within a week he had convinced the Maryland legislature to adopt a plan in which both Maryland and Virginia would place their full faith and credit behind the creation of the Potomac Navigation Company. To give you some idea of his strong persuasive powers, we need only turn to James Madison's letter to Thomas Jefferson of January 9, 1785, where he wrote:

By his exertions in concert with committees of the two branches of the [Maryland] Legislature... the plan was digested in a few days, passed through both houses in one day with nine dissenting voices only, and dispatched for Richmond, where it arrived just in time for Session.  A corresponding act was immediately introduced and passed without opposition.
Washington's influence overcame twenty-five years of Maryland opposition, but his interference in its politics did not pass without comment. Almost a year later a Baltimore delegate had to defend himself in his re-election effort against charges that he had voted for the Potomac River Bill because he lacked the firmness to "withstand the great personage from Virginia."

Despite some grumblings on the Maryland side, the Potomac Navigation Company was chartered by Maryland and Virginia, and each state purchased fifty shares. Washington was made President of the new Company and Thomas Johnson was elected to the Board of Directors.

Washington believed that a Potomac connection to the West could influence the choice of the permanent seat of the federal government. So did his old Maryland ally Thomas Johnson, who predicted that the opening of the Potomac would draw Congress and the national capital to its waters because of the river's central location.

Despite the fact that Maryland and Virginia had formed the Potomac Navigation Company, divisions among Marylanders from the Potomac region and those from the Baltimore and Upper Chesapeake region remained strong. Those regional rivalries intensified as the First Federal Congress convened in March 1789 and began to debate the location of the permanent seat for the federal government. Baltimore and the Potomac region competed against one another to become the national capital.

Indeed, in January and February 1789, just prior to the opening of the First Federal Congress in New York City, Baltimore's newspapers launched an aggressive publicity campaign to become the permanent national capital. Baltimoreans discussed what buildings should be remodeled for Congress and which were spacious enough for the president and the department heads. In February, Baltimoreans began to subscribe to a loan for the purpose of erecting a hall for Congress and other federal buildings. By the end of the month $20,000 had been pledged.

In April 1789, as the maneuvering among regions to become the national capital intensified, Washington received word from the First Federal Congress that he had been chosen as the first President. Throughout that first session of Congress, many cities and regions -- including Philadelphia, points along the Susquehanna River, Trenton, Germantown, Pennsylvania, the Potomac and Baltimore -- were debated as possible sites for the capital.

The rival claims for the federal seat from Maryland's Potomac and Upper Chesapeake interests were highlighted in a satirical article published in the Baltimore Maryland Journal, entitled "A Conference between the Patapsco and Potomac Rivers." In the article, Patapsco chided the Potomac for its vanity since Washington was elected President and protested that Congress would never choose such an undeveloped place as the banks of the Potomac when it could have the accommodations offered by Baltimore.

The debate over the national capital ended in gridlock in September 1789 and the Congress decided to postpone the issue until the next session.

As the Second Congress got underway in January 1790, the debate over the site of a permanent capital got caught up in the fight over whether the new national government was going to assume the debts of the states. Most of the Maryland Congressional delegation had opposed federal assumption of those debts.

As President, Washington had stayed out of the public debate over the location of the new capitol. However, the historical record suggests that he and then Congressman James Madison consulted closely as Madison put together a deal in Congress in June 1790. Madison worked to put together the votes for a deal that included federal assumption of state debts and a national capital on the Potomac. The wealthy Senator Charles Carroll, whose ten thousand acre estate lay just off the Potomac south of Frederick, Maryland, had previously opposed assumption. But he agreed to provide the deciding vote in the Senate when he learned of the bargain. For the swing vote in the House of Representatives, Madison also turned to Marylanders. Rep. Daniel Carroll had also opposed federal assumption of state debts. However, after receiving assurances that the public buildings of the new federal capital would be restricted to the Maryland side of the Potomac, Daniel Carroll, who represented a district including Georgetown, agreed to shift his vote. George Gale of the lower Eastern Shore also agreed to switch his vote on assumption.

In the House and Senate, opponents of the proposal to locate the national capital on the Potomac proposed Baltimore as an alternative in an attempt to lure the votes of the members of Congress from Maryland. In the end, however, the deal brokered by Madison prevailed. Congress passed legislation for the federal government to assume state debts. And it voted to locate the permanent seat of government on the Potomac and to move the temporary seat of Congress to Philadelphia for ten years while the new capital was built.

Washington's dream of building an American Empire centered on the Potomac River was now a reality as he signed the seat of government bill in July 1790.

The decision to locate the permanent capital on the Potomac did not go over well with Maryland voters. With the exception of Senator Charles Carroll, they defeated the four other incumbent members of Congress, who had voted to bring the federal government to the Potomac rather than to Baltimore.

President Washington immediately rewarded the two Marylanders representatives -- Daniel Carroll and George Gale -- who had voted for assumption as part of the grand bargain with federal jobs.

Washington plunged into the work of building the new capital. He named Thomas Johnson of Frederick, Daniel Carroll of Montgomery County and David Stuart of Alexandria as the three commissioners to supervise the project. But he himself assumed a direct and personal interest over every aspect of building the new capital on his beloved Potomac. To further American consciousness of the river's grandeur, he purchased paintings of Great Falls and Harpers Ferry by George Beck to hang in the presidential mansion in Philadelphia as work on the capital progressed. By 1795 the man and the new capital were so intertwined that Thomas Johnson told Washington that "the success of the City has now become important to your Reputation."

While he was in Annapolis in 1784 negotiating with the Maryland legislature, Washington had written a letter to his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, stating that he hoped the opening of the Potomac would be approved for "the advantage of the Union at large." From that goal he never wavered. Today, we Marylanders are the beneficiaries of that grand vision. We have as our neighbor, our nation's Capital, named after the man whose vision brought it to the Potomac, with all the accompanying political and economic benefits. And today, the bustling trade of Washington's canal, which at its peak carried some 500 barges along its 218 mile length, has been replaced by a beautiful national park. We also have the example of leadership that Washington brought to Annapolis on many occasions to bridge the regional divisions for "advantage of the Union."

George Washington, for that we thank you,

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