Monday is Presidents Day, the day Generation X recalls vaguely that used to be two separate holidays: Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday. And while we ponder the lost extra day off, lets explore what connection these two presidents–arguably the two greatest presidents–have to Georgetown.
As we all learned in grade school, George Washington never lived in the White House, nor any other Presidential house in DC. The first capital of the country following the ratification of the Constitution was New York.
But as president, Washington was given the power to choose the location of the new capital. And for various reasons (including the proximity to his own home in Mount Vernon) Washington chose to place DC on the banks of the Potomac and the Anacostia. This new 100 square mile diamond engulfed the existing cities of Georgetown, MD and Alexandria, VA.
And since Georgetown was the only developed part of the new DC north of the rivers, it was there that Washington set up shop when overseeing the planning of the new city. Specifically he met in the legendary Suter’s Tavern. This tavern is lost to history, but was located close to what is now 31st and K St.
Funnily, the Old Stone House on M St. is tied up in this history. It is the oldest continuous home in DC*, having been built in 1765. The main reason it lasted this long is that for a long period people mistakenly thought it was Suter’s Tavern and thus had been the location of Washington’s meetings. By the time the mistake was discovered, the home had become historic simply due to its age.
And while we’re talking about George Washington and Georgetown, it should be stated that the neighborhood was not named after the President (who was only 19 years old when Georgetown was founded). It is either named after the two Georges who owned most of the land that became Georgetown (George Gordon and George Beale) or King George II. GM prefers the first theory.
(*It’s actually technically not the oldest house in DC. There’s a house in Kalorama that was built in Massachusetts in 1754. It was relocated to DC in the 30’s).
The sixteenth president’s connection to Georgetown is far more melancholic.
Lincoln was devastated by the death of his son Willie in 1862. And according to contemporary reports, he visited Willie’s tomb at Oak Hill Cemetery and held his body. This devastatingly sad image formed the basis of George Saunder’s award winning 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo.
On a later occasion, he visited a home on what is now called N St. to attend a seance. While reports of the evening are actually rather amusing, since the event occurred in 1863 it seems likely that Lincoln was seeking a message from Willie. For a detailed account of the seance, read this article.
It’s almost wrong to state that these two great men walked the same streets we do. So much has changed since then. This is particularly true of Washington, but it’s also true of Lincoln. A huge percentage of buildings in Georgetown post-date the Civil War. Nonetheless, the paths of the streets are the same, and the home of Lincoln’s seance is still here. We live surrounded by history.