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Putting It All Together

The Octagon was one of the first signs of grandeur and growth in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of its 200+ years of development and expansion. Studying its history provides an excellent starting-off point to understand the society of early Washington, D.C., and the politics surrounding the city’s creation. Use the following activities with your students to expand on what they learned.

Activity 1: Capital Decision: An informal debate
Lead a class discussion on the regional tensions that were at stake in the compromise that led to Congress’ decision to move the capital to D.C. Then, break students into groups and have them informally debate whether Congress made the correct decision when it moved the capital to a small, undeveloped town instead of an established city. In each group, have each student choose to be one of the following:

  • A northern businessman from Philadelphia, the capital 1790 to 1800. Many Philadelphians hoped the D.C. project would fail so the capital would remain in their city.
  • A southern plantation owner like John Tayloe. Notable southerners wanted the capital located in the slaveholding southern region.
  • A northern or southern politician who supported the compromise.
  • A northern or southern politician who did not support the compromise.

They will use the information from the readings to understand their arguments, but assign additional research for this discussion and give them time to prepare. During the small-group discussions, have students consider the pros and cons of moving the federal capital to D.C. Finally, have each student submit a short essay to persuade the reader to support the perspective he or she chose.

Activity 2: The Buildings that Built Your Town
Have students research the decisions or events that led to the founding and expansion of their own community. Ask them to identify historic houses or buildings still standing today that played a key role in their community’s early development. Ask them why they think the building is important and how it influenced growth. Hold a classroom discussion asking student opinions on why it is important to preserve historic places like The Octagon and any local historic places students brought up. Let students know that by the late 1800s The Octagon had fallen into severe disrepair, but was then preserved under the stewardship of the American Institute of Architects. Ask students about any buildings or places in use today that they think should be preserved for historic importance and study 50, 100, or 200 years in the future.

Break students up into small groups. Tell each group to choose an historic place in their community they think is important to preserve. Have each group create a poster or display board campaigning to preserve this landmark. If it is possible, they should visit the site and have a photograph taken of them at the place. They can include the photograph in their poster or display. After each group presents its historic place and display, have the class vote on one place to campaign for as a class. Have the class prepare the documentation to nominate the historic site to the National Register of Historic Places if it is not already listed or nominate the place to the National Trust for Historic Preservation This Place Matters program by submitting a class photo at the site.

Activity 3: A Letter from the 19th Century
Have students assume a historical identity and write a fictional letter about the historical events described in this lesson from that person’s point of view. Ask students to imagine they are a member of the Tayloe household (Tayloe family member, slave, or servant) residing in The Octagon and communicating with a far-away relative. Have them choose to write from the perspective of one of the following people:

  • Colonel John Tayloe III: Owned Mount Airy and The Octagon properties
  • Anne Ogle Tayloe: John Tayloe’s wife, who ran the household and entertained distinguished guests
  • President Madison: Declared war on Britain during the War of 1812, moved into The Octagon after the British burned the President’s House, and signed the Treaty of Ghent in The Octagon
  • Dolley Madison: Entertained many foreign and American dignitaries in The Octagon
  • Enslaved Housekeeper: Prepared the public rooms for evenings of entertaining and serving guests
  • Enslaved Cook: Obtained foods and ingredients from the Tayloe farm and local markets, oversaw the kitchen, and prepared fancy meals for entertaining
  • Nurse Servant: Helped the Tayloes raise 15 children
  • Paul Jennings: An enslaved man in the Madison household*

Then, have them choose one of the following events:

  • When construction on The Octagon started in 1799
  • The completion of The Octagon in 1801 and moving in
  • The evening of a formal dinner party
  • The burning of Washington by the British
  • The Madisons moving in after the burning of Washington
  • The signing of the Treaty of Ghent
  • The Tayloes moving back in after the Madison occupation
  • John Tayloe’s death in 1828

Ask your students to do research for their letter online or at a library in order to learn more about his or her historical character's point of view and the event the student chose to write about. Remind students that the enslaved residents of The Octagon likely would have been unable to write or would have to keep their reading and writing skills a secret.

*You may want to direct students to the Paul Jennings supplementary resource. He was enslaved, and he wrote a first-hand account of his life, which students may use as a resource.

 

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