Impressions of Washington: Frances Few, 1808

Development of Pierre L'Enfant's Plan for the City of Washington was still in its infancy when Frances Few visited Washington in the early 1800s.
Development of Pierre L'Enfant's Plan for the City of Washington was still in its infancy when Frances Few visited Washington in the early 1800s. (Source: Library of Congress)

Frances Few, of a prominent New York family, spent the winter of 1808-1809 in Washington, D.C. with her aunt. She had a lot to say! Initially, Few was very pleased with the city and its parties. But as the 19-year-old’s stay wore on, she was decidedly less impressed with the city and its politics. 

We arrived in this city on Sunday [September 25]. It is beautifully situated at the junction of the Eastern branch of the Potomac. The main river, the distant hills, and the surrounding woods make the view charming and the houses are at such a distance from each other as not all to impede the view.

The wings of the Capitol are nearly finished. The body of the building is not yet begun. The wings are three stories high and built of a stone resembling marble but softer and consequently not as handsome. The architecture I admire much. The President’s house is built of the same materials and surrounded by a wall of dark stone which loks very like the wall belonging to the State Prison but it is not finished and may be improved on.

I have been to Georgetown. It is separated from Washington by a Bridge. It is a neat little place and owes its importance to Washington for the inhabitants of the latter place spend their money in the former where the shops are tolerable good but much dearer than in N York or Philadelphia.

This is the eleventh of October and the weather has been such as to admit of my setting with the windows up. I took a walk as the sun was going down; the scenery around me was beautiful. The hills of Georgetown, the town, the river, and the heavens gloriously tinged by the setting dun conspired with the silence to create the most solemn and agreeable sensations.

[The president’s house] is a large building well-furnished but not as elegantly as the houses of many merchants in N York.

I went to Congress to hear the debates and heard a very tedious speech from Mr. Quinsy - but I was very much pleased with the room. It is of an oval form; the room is supported by twenty-four white stone pillars of the Corinthian order which are very beautiful. The ceiling is painted but in my opinion is rather dashing. The speaker’s chair is very tawdry, decorated with crimson and green velvet, trimmed with yellow fringe and the wood painted lilac and yellow.

I was more shocked than I can express at seeing two droves of negrows [sic] pass. Each drove contained eight or ten persons chained together. They were followed by an overseer. What a sight for a country that boasts of being a land of liberty and asylum for the oppressed.[1]

Last night, the Marines serenaded us. Their band is superior to any I ever heard. They played six tunes. “When wild wars deadly blast was blown”, and “Of all the airts the wind can blaw” exceeded any music you can have an idea of… I shall take all the pains I possibly can to please them that they may come again.

I went this morning to pay the president a visit, which it is the custom to pay on the first day of the New Year but as that came on a Sunday we went this day [January 2, 1809]. And we were regaled with music, cakes, and ice-cream. There were three or four hundred people all very much dressed. They amused themselves with walking in the different rooms and with hearing the music. The President looked very happy and was all the morning engaged in receiving his visitors.

Great men are only great when viewed at a distance. Tis enough to cure one of ambition to spend a little time here. How my opinion of our legislatures is changed. How disappointed I am in them. Oh, they are governed by the petty trifles of the day- by selfish and interested views. “I have had a peep behind the curtain” A peep that has made me sick to loathing- happiness is not here.

Mr. Madison this day took the inauguration oath and read a short speech to the most numerous assembly that I ever saw. Mr. Jefferson appeared one of the most happy among this concourse of people.  The foreign Ministers were at the Capitol. The gallery and every part of the house was crowded and the number of carriages was so great it was difficult to get to the door.


Cunningham, Noble E. Jr. “The Diary of Frances Few, 1808-1809.”The Journal of Southern History, 29.3 (August 1963): 345-361.


  1. ^ The slave trade was outlawed in DC in 1850,  partially because of the reaction many had to seeing it in the capital. Actual slavery itself was not outlawed in DC until 1862. For more information about slavery in DC, check out this page by the Library of Congress.
Last Updated: 
October 19, 2020