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The Potomac River - A Trickle Through History

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A jogger along the Potomac River.
In Virginia, all geese are swans.
- John Adams

Some rivers quietly flow through the annals of history. They become borders, transportation routes, battle sites and a part of the identity of a people. What would the American West be without the Mississippi? London without the Thames? Paris without the Seine? Egypt without the Nile? The Potomac River in many ways defines Virginia, a state with arguably the richest history of any American state. In the same way, the Potomac River's bubbling presence in the story of the American Republic is undeniable and is generally unconsidered.

The Potomac runs down from two sources in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, between Maryland and West Virginia then down through (not coincidentally) the border of Virginia and Maryland, and into the Chesapeake Bay. It was named by Algonquin natives, meaning 'a trading place'. Other natives called the river 'Cohongorooton', meaning a river of geese1. Luckily, for the purposes of this Entry, and the sanity of its author, the Potomac name was preferred by those westerners who first came to explore the area. One of the first of these explorers was Captain John Smith - the same John Smith who is remembered for his association with the native girl Pocahontas and is immortalised in a Disney film. He chose to call the river 'Petomek'. The spelling has slowly evolved over the years2, and only relatively recently was it standardised.

With a watershed of only about 15,000 square miles (around 8% of the drainage area of a major American river like the Ohio and about 1% of the watershed of the mighty Mississippi) the Potomac is not really a significant river, nor is it a part of a particular water system (potamologically3 speaking). However, it is by this river that the capital of the United States stands. Its significance in the American saga, and not its natural beauty or geographical convenience, is what sets the Potomac apart from other rivers.

Washington - Personally and Geographically

Though it might seem bizarre to modern students of American geography, [George] Washington shared the 18-Century version of 'Potomac fever'4 that was especially virulent among Virginians, believing that the very river that flowed past his mansion provided the most direct access to the interior waterways of North America. This illusion probably derived its credibility from the long-standing claim that the western borders of the Old Dominion extended to the Mississippi, or even to the Pacific, producing a habit of mind that regarded Virginia as the gateway to the West. Washington embraced this illusion with passionate intensity - so did [Thomas] Jefferson - and starting in 1762 began joining and leading several organisations for improving navigation on the upstream sections of the river. The Potomac mythology stayed with him all his life. (It even played a significant role in the decision to locate the national capital on the Potomac in 1790.) His strenuous efforts yielded no practical results - the natural water route to the interior did not exist, and the man-made version, the Erie Canal, turned out to be in New York - but they did reveal where his thoughts were flowing.
- From His Excellency George Washington by Joseph Ellis (Faber and Faber, March 2005)

George Washington was a realist, whose particular talent throughout the war for American Independence had been his ability to see things as they are, and not as he wished them to be. And yet, he had an odd, illusory fascination with the River Potomac. This river was intimately connected with his vision of his beloved Virginia. He firmly believed throughout his life that his river was the best and only access point on the Atlantic to the western water networks of the Ohio Valley. He actually subscribed to and encouraged the publication of a magazine taking the river's name.

Washington even used his prestige and time to chair meetings of the Potowmack Company, whose intent was to make it possible to run vessels up through the upper reaches of the river. He corresponded with an interested Thomas Jefferson about the company's progress. All this effort was pretty much just a waste of time5. There was, Washington surely knew, a great big mountain range, named the Appalachians, from which the Potomac drew its headwaters, and even a mythical and beautiful river like the Potomac can not flow up an incline, through a mountain range and into the ocean.

So how do we explain Washington's fascination with the Potomac? There are several possible answers. Perhaps it was a sort of Virginian vanity which made Washington believe that not only were Virginia's citizens remarkable, but also the state's geographic features. Perhaps Washington was in fact so enamored with his countrymen that he quite literally believed there was something in the water. Washington probably hoped that his vision of a Potomac western passage was true because he knew it would enrich his homeland immeasurably. Had he been correct, the city of Alexandria, Virginia would have lived up to its Egyptian namesake in commercial success and Chesapeake Bay would today brim with cargo ships from all over the world. The Statue of Liberty would probably have shone not to the shores of New York, but to Maryland and Virginia.

Perhaps, as was so often the case in Revolutionary times, the explanation was a thirst for glory. If Washington could be later seen as a visionary who saw the potential of the mighty Potomac, he could be an American Alexander, the benefactor of a great Alexandria, the First in War, First in Peace and First in the Potomac. However, to fully grasp the nature of George Washington's connection to the Potomac River, we must consider the stories of two places which are now intimately related to him - his plantation home and the home of the government he helped to found.

Mount Vernon

George Washington romantically thought of himself as the American Cincinnatus, the Roman man who assumed dictatorial powers in a time of crisis, resolved it, then went back to his farm to live out the rest of his days peacefully. Washington could probably have been crowned as a king had he wished, but instead, after the Revolution, he retired peacefully to his estate - Mount Vernon. He inherited the plantation when he was just 20 years old, and considered it home until his death at the age of 67. It was an enormous, 8,000-acre plantation, with the main house and its piazza overlooking the blue Potomac.

Much of Washington's later years, especially before and after his eight-year Presidency, was devoted to improving his plantation's operations and his home. Each morning, he rode out to survey his lands and the work being done by its 300 slaves. Each day, he must have glimpsed the beautiful Potomac several times. It would be difficult to not have an abiding love for a river that accompanies you through life and greets you each morning. The Potomac was Washington's partner, a witness to every event in his life, from his service as a young officer in the French and Indian War to his final act of magnanimity, the gift of freedom to all of his slaves.

One oft-unnoticed detail of history took place in Mount Vernon in 1785. The Potomac was not only a witness to the events, but was the primary concern of them. This would later be known as the Mount Vernon Conference. A group of delegates from the states of Virginia and Maryland had met in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss disputes about the navigation, fishing and trade over the Potomac River. Washington invited them to his home for the deliberations and, not surprisingly, they accepted. The conference was very successful. It produced something known as the Mount Vernon Compact, to govern the river. The report issued by the committee ironed out a few other details and was soon ratified by both states.

Excited by the success of this meeting, the Virginia General Assembly called for a meeting of the states to discuss arbitration of interstate commerce. This would be known as the Annapolis Convention. It was not as successful. Some historians would prefer to call it an utter flop. However, it was the Annapolis Convention, spurred by the Mount Vernon Conference, that called for a convention in Philadelphia in May of the following year. This convention would eventually produce the United States Constitution. In some fleeting way, the Potomac River can therefore claim a small but important part in the creation of the US Constitution.

The river and Washington's beloved Mount Vernon must have meshed into a single entity in the mind of America's First President. Since, by all accounts, Washington did not particularly enjoy his time in public service, Mount Vernon must have greeted him as a well-earned piece of domestic paradise when he retreated to it for long breaks during his Presidency. He must have particularly cherished the sight of it, and the beautiful Potomac, when he left public service once and for all in 1797.

Washington, DC

The story of how the capital city of the US came to sit on the Potomac mostly revolves around the story of a dinner party in 1790 at Thomas Jefferson's home. The question of where to put this city had been a running debate for quite some time. There had been many temporary capital cities over the course of the Revolution and the subsequent years. However, the Constitution had called for a permanent seat of government, and so a single site had to be chosen. Each region, and each state, vied for the capital. There were some 16 or so candidates, but the leading choices were sites in the areas of Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York. A site on the Potomac was considered to be a possibility, but not necessarily a serious one.

James Madison, one of America's founding fathers and a Virginian, was the leader in Congress of pushing towards a permanent capital on the Potomac. He held the same sort of delusion about the Potomac which gripped Washington, and to a lesser extent, Jefferson. He led the fight against a Pennsylvania site, and even attempted to argue that the geographic centre of the nation was at the Potomac, and more specifically the absolute centre was, eerily enough, Mount Vernon. Of course, this silly claim was easily refuted by anyone with a map. Madison was mocked for his delusions, on the floor of the US Congress no less, in a way that Washington never would have been.

At the same time, Madison was also the leader in fighting against a public debt scheme, championed by the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. The idea behind the debt scheme was that all the states would pool their debts (incurred during the Revolutionary war) and the Federal Government would raise some revenue and pay the debt off, rather than allowing the states to do it individually. For the most part, southern states, specifically Virginia, had already retired their debts, and did not want to pay for the debt of the northern states, who had (in their view) irresponsibly put off payment. Virginians, and most southerners, were adamantly against Hamilton's piece of legislation.

During the time of all this political maneuvering, the nation's capital was in New York City. Jefferson invited his friend Madison and his arch-enemy Hamilton to dinner, and over one of the courses6 they agreed to a bargain. Hamilton would encourage his allies to support a Potomac site for the national capital and would reduce Virginia's monetary burden for the debt assumption plan. In exchange, Madison would allow Hamilton's plan to pass Congress, though he personally voted against it. Four Congressmen with districts situated around the Potomac ended up switching their votes to allow for the debt assumption plan to go through.

It is fitting that the new national capital, to be known as Washington, was created from a messy, politically-charged process. The District of Columbia was carved out of Maryland, bordering the Potomac River. The finer details of how and where to build the new city were left to President Washington. He chose a chunk of land just a stone's throw away from Mount Vernon. The rest, as they say, is history. Washington, DC7 is now the largest city on the Potomac. In the early spring, the city's blooming cherry blossom trees, a gift from the Empire of Japan, are reflected by the glittering Potomac. Today, the Jefferson Memorial is visible across the Tidal Basin, an extension of the Potomac, and the massive Washington Monument towers above the city and its river. Thus, two of the river's most fervent admirers are now immortalised in stone on its banks.

Across the Tidal Basin from Jefferson's memorial building is a statue and memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While his body was laid to rest in New York, his image in sculpture gazes out across the capital. When he wanted to get away from the rigours of office, he used to take relaxing voyages on his presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, on, you guessed it, the Potomac. In fact, some of the most personable and humorous stories about Roosevelt come from the times he spent on the Potomac. Other Presidents have taken advantage of their proximity to the river as well. President John Quincy Adams used to regularly swim nude through the river (take a look at his portrait before you consider doing likewise). Harry Truman gambled and told salty stories with his friends on the yacht he inherited after his predecessor, President Roosevelt, died. The Kennedy family used to sail on the Potomac during long weekends. The Potomac has been a cherished recreational venue for American politicians, and for ordinary citizens to an even greater extent. Fishing, hunting, swimming and boating abound, and apparently there are lots of geese to shoot at.

American Rubicon

Any river is a natural boundary, between the far bank and the near bank. Some rivers are such powerful boundaries that separate cultures emerge on either side of them. This is what has happened with the Potomac. To the north of the river is what is generally considered to be the northeastern part of America8. Culturally, the Potomac is an important dividing point in America.

Look, for instance, at the election results for the past century or so. With few exceptions, Virginia and all states south have been solidly conservative, while Washington, DC, Maryland and the states to the north have been mostly liberal. States to the north of the Potomac are, according to census demographics, more diverse, while the states south of the river are more homogeneous.

So it is fair to say that today the Potomac is an important divider in America (especially for the Atlantic Coast). However, it was an even more important divider during the time of the greatest conflict between the North and the South - the American Civil War. During this war, the states south of the Potomac were not only different from the northern states. They were at war with them.

Just as ancient history has dramatized the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar to begin his own Civil War, American history remembers the times that the Confederate General Robert E Lee crossed the Potomac, thus moving into northern territory. He invaded the north twice, first leading to the bloodiest battle of the war, Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, particularly in the American South), and then to the war's decisive battle at Gettysburg. Both times he was forced to abandon his attack and recross the Potomac. Various Union generals invaded across the Potomac on several occasions (thus giving the conflict the name 'The War of Northern Aggression' by some) but most had to slink back in humiliating defeat. The river was crossed step by step, soldier by soldier, mostly by way of connected pontoons that formed a temporary bridge that would be dismantled when the army was across.

A River Runs Through it

Probably more than any other river, the story of the Potomac is the very story of its country. The winding tale of the Potomac is not so much just a narrative of the river, but of the winds and turns it took along with its country. It has soaked up the blood and sweat of Patriots, British soldiers, Loyalists, Union men, Confederates, protestors, workers and just plain ordinary folks.

The War of 1812 saw the British threaten the new capital city repeatedly by sailing up the Potomac, until eventually they took the city. President James Madison, the same man who had fought to have the capital city placed on the Potomac, had to flee across the river when news of the imminent attack came. The British demolished the White House and set fire to bridges spanning the river. One of these was the Long Bridge, which was later rebuilt as the 14th Street Bridge, only to have a Boeing 747 crash into it in 1982.

During the American Civil War, dozens of battles raged through northern Virginia, many right along the Potomac. The Union of northern states named its major eastern army the 'Army of the Potomac'. That army fought many of the battles whose names now litter northern Virginia in historical markers. The major battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Harper's Ferry, Antietam, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House were all fought not far from the Potomac. Thousands and thousands of American lives were lost in these battles.

1Plenty of geese did and still do call the Potomac home.2The list of spelling variations on the name is nearly endless, but it really involves combinations of different spellings of the three syllables. The first syllable, 'Puh-' has been spelled 'Pa-', 'Po-', and 'Pow -'. The second syllable, pronounced '-toe-', can be spelled '-ta-', '-taw-', '-to-' and '-tow-'. The last syllable, '-meck' varies between '-mac', '-muck', '-mek', '-meke', '-macke', '-mak', '-mack', '-moke', etc. This creates some interesting variations such as Powtowmack, Patowmeck and dozens more. And that's not even counting the spelling variations of the alternative 'Cohongorooton' name.3Potamology is the study of rivers, which is a new one to this Researcher.4Note: The term 'Potomac Fever' also can refer to a condition afflicting horses, a mentality afflicting politicians, or a gay a capella group based out of Washington, DC.5Construction of a canal owned by the Chesapeake and Ohio company (which had bought out Washington's Potowmack Company) actually began in later years, intending to do what Washington could not. The parts that improved the navigability of the natural line of the Potomac were in use for a few years, but the scheme was eventually abandoned, uncompleted. The area around the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is now a national park.6Jefferson had a taste for French cuisine, and probably would have offered multiple courses.7DC stands for 'District of Columbia', named for Christopher Columbus. Thus the capital district was named for the person who 'found' America, and the city for the person who 'founded' America.8Sure, Maryland (which is to the north of the Potomac) was for a while a 'slave state', and it is south of the famous Mason-Dixon line, but it fought on the Union side of the Civil War and is now a very liberal state, unlike its neighbours to the south.

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