Washington: The Legislature and the President's House by Charles Dickens

Washington: The Legislature and the President's House is chapter VIII of Charles Dickens' American Notes for general circulation, a travelogue that recorded his journey to the United States of America.

He left the United Kingdom from Liverpool on 3 January 1842 and returned in the month of June.

He boarded RMS Britannia with his wife Catherine and her house cleaner, Anne Brown. This was his first visit to America.

From the very beginning of the essay, Dickens embarks upon a satiric description of American people and their country.

He left Philadelphia for Washington one cold morning at six o'clock on the steamboat he met Englishmen settled in America and was disgusted to find that they suffered from 'insolent conceit and cool assumption of superiority.'

They were overly familiar with other people and owned an inquisitiveness, which Dickens had never come across.

At Baltimore, he found that they stared at him unabashedly and commented rudely on his person and appearance. Some would touch him while some others called upon friends and relatives to come and see him with as much indifference as if he were a stuffed figure.

He called Washington 'headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva' and openly criticised their 'odious practices of chewing and expectorating' in private and public places.

This 'custom' he observed was 'inseparably mixed up with every meal and morning call, and with all transactions of social life.'

Dickens substantiated his observation with a spectacle he saw onboard his vessel.

Two young American gentlemen sat opposite each other at a distance of four paces to chew and before long a magical circle of yellow formed around them as they spat out chewed tobacco and refilled their mouths with fresh tobacco.

In the course of their journey, Dickens traveled by car, the railroad, and steamboat as was required. At Baltimore, Maryland, he noticed slaves attending to them and he remarked that it filled him with a sense of self-reproach. He did not hide his contempt for America's practice of slavery."


Upon his arrival at Washington Dickens described Washington and Capitol Hill, as he perceived it. He used satire to expose all that he considered required improvement or which seemed deficient compared to his country Britain.

Critics suggest that Dickens attitude of sharp criticism must be viewed under the circumstance of the U. S. A. being an erstwhile colony of Britain.

His tone revealed that he was like an anxious parent criticizing his child because he expected a lot more from him. His description of Washington implied his disillusionment.

The hotel in which he stayed was a picture of household activity, dominated by an iron triangle. It was supposed to function as a calling bell but none of the servants ever responded to it. He described the city from the front window of the hotel.

The road, the straggling houses, an open ground, a lopsided building which looked like a church, the coaches with their slave drivers, a restaurant called 'The City Lunch,' an oyster shop and a tailor's shop stood in their 'street in Washington.'

Dickens acidic comment on the city was, 'To the admirers of cities it is a Barmecidal Feast: a pleasant field for the imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness.'

He found the city had seen laid out by a Frenchman as a huge project but it lay empty as if it needed people to realize the design of the architect.

He called Washington 'dull and sluggish water' and felt that few people would reside here unless they were obliged to.

He described Capitol Hill next, with its two houses of assembly and a fine rotunda, which was decorated, with Colonel Trumbull's paintings of the revolutionary war of independence. He saw the two statues, one of Washington and the other of the figure of justice.

The House of Representatives was no doubt 'a beautiful and spacious hall, of semicircular shape' and furnished with proper sitting arrangements but it was 'a singularly bad one for all purposes of hearing. The Senate, which is smaller, is free from this objection.'

The parliamentary forms, Dickens noted had been modeled on the lines of Britain.

Often, Dickens had been asked whether the lawmakers of Washington impressed him.

He realized that perhaps he did not possess a nature that could venerate others; he confessed that neither the lawmakers of Washington nor the House of Commons and the House of Lords of Britain had ever been able to affect him.

He found them to be poor representatives of the lofty ideals of the U.S. A., which declared that 'All Men are created Equal and are endowed by their creator with the Inalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.'

He found that ... aidings and abettings of bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.'

Their sessions in the house were not qualified by what they said but for how long they spoke. Dickens observed that such legislators sat in both house and among all parties, 'the actors were all there.' He perceived that the true, honest, patriotic people of America remained aloof from such games of politics.

He conceded that there were men of great character and great abilities but he did not mention any individuals.

After visiting the House of Representatives 'nearly every day' he wrote about it unflatteringly, 'There are more quarrels than with us, and more threatening than gentlemen are accustomed to exchanging in any civilized society of which we have recorded, but farmyard imitations have not as yet been imported from the Parliament of the United Kingdom.'

He was disgusted to find the American habit of masticating tobacco in these great men too, equally responsible for making the premise dirty as the two unknown passengers on RMS Britannia/He visited the Patent office and the post office at Washington and deplored American Ambassador's corrupt practice of accepting gifts from foreign countries.

  • Describe Washington and Capitol Hill as Dickens views them in 'Washington: The Legislature and The President's House'
  • Present a portrait of American people as depicted by Dickens.
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