The GW Who Lacks a Memorial

Watercolor portrait of George Watterston circa 1811 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

George Watterston (1783-1854) was perhaps the most prominent writer to establish himself in early Washington, DC, and one of the first people to head up the Library of Congress.  He was the author of a number of satirical novels about social life in the young capital, which is how I first became acquainted with him.

Watterston was born with the nation, in the year that marked the end of the Revolution, to an unknown mother aboard a ship docked in New York City harbor.  His father, a Scottish immigrant and master builder, moved the family to the District of Columbia in 1791, soon after it was designated as the location for the new capital.  Watterston’s development and that of “Washington City” were thus closely intertwined.

Watterston was educated as a lawyer but turned away from the profession in distaste.  Instead, he wrote a novel entitled The Lawyer; Or, Man as He Ought Not to Be, published anonymously in 1808, and with that his literary career was launched.  In 1813, Watterston became the editor of the Washington Star Gazette, a Republican newspaper, promoting and chronicling Washington as it grew.

Two years later he was named Librarian of Congress, the Congressional Library being then a young and small institution.  What there was of it had, in fact, been destroyed in 1814, when the British succeeded in invading the capital, torching the Congress’s new home and the books inside.  Watterston rebuilt the collection, aided by Thomas Jefferson, who generously donated his personal library.

Watterston’s patronage job, which he held for the next 15 years, freed him to write.  His literary output entailed funny, shrewdly observed novels; statistical compendia; books on gardening and landscaping; sketches of political figures, and traveler’s guides.  A Whig in politics, he got a rude jolt when Andrew Jackson became president and promptly dismissed him from his post as Librarian, in order to put a Democratic supporter in.

The Washington Monument under Construction, ca. 1876, courtesy of the US National Archives via the Commons on Flickr.

The Washington Monument, circa 1876.

Watterston then founded the Washington Monument Building Society, which envisioned and built the massive obelisk that dominates the Mall.  This massive and expensive undertaking, begun in 1833, would not be complete until 1885.  At the time of Watterson’s death in the mid-185os, the Monument had attained a height of just 150 feet.  Still, I think it’s a terrific thing to have to one’s credit, don’t you?  Watterston deserves a biography, if not a modest monument of his own.

Images from this source and this.

6 responses

  1. I didn’t know any of this Susan – or that he was a recognized writer before his appointment, or even what he looked like. Great article. You’ve a talent not just for the interesting untold story but a snappy way of encapsulating it all. So did Madison appoint him? I only know Watterson’s name because another factor besides political party which did him in was that he’d been named among those Washingtonians during the 1828 campaign who had attacked the moral character of Rachel Jackson.

    • Carl, Thanks for writing in–so fascinating. I didn’t know that Watterston was among whose who attacked Rachel Jackson. (Poor thing.) No wonder he lost his job! And, yes, he was a Madison appointee.

      I got interested in Watterston when working on my Ph.D. He wrote a novel called A Winter in Washington that’s worth reading, and produced many editions of a “stranger’s guide” to Washington DC. Naturally, as a librarian, he was in a great position to collect information about the history of the city, while, as a novelist, he wrote tellingly about its social mores. He was a great crank who nonetheless contributed a lot to the capital’s culture.

    • It’s been a while since I looked at it, but I think the narrative does include some veiled identities. If I recall correctly, the plot is built around the adventures of a family who goes to Washington for the social season.

  2. Nice article and very well written. I enjoyed learning something about what was a undoubtedly an interesting man.