Arriving in Washington today, we still see what Henry James saw at the beginning of the century, “a city of palaces and monuments and gardens, symmetries and circles and far radiations.” Washington remains a mix of the democratic and the imperial, and if for James the capital was “the place of business, the estate-office” for “a huge flourishing Family,” the family is now only larger and more contentious—it’s the whole Western world.

James was back in the United States in 1904 after almost a lifetime passed in Europe, and what struck him in Washington was how little the handsome public buildings told a visitor about the life of the nation. At the Capitol he saw three American Indians, “arrayed in neat pot-hats, shoddy suits and light overcoats.” They were a demonstration “of what the Government can do with people with whom it is supposed able to do nothing.” And...

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