On Oct. 13, 1792, the cornerstone was laid for an executive mansion in the swampy new capital city named after the first president of the United States. The impetus for moving the capital from Philadelphia to Washington was a desire to place it closer to the geographical -- and political -- center of the new nation. By that standard, we should have moved the nation's capital to St. Louis or Kansas City a century ago, but by then we had all these big, beautiful buildings in Washington, and a history to go along with them.
Much of that legacy would take shape on the site that George Washington himself selected for an executive mansion. It was destined to be burned down by the British, and remodeled and improved numerous times, but the relatively modest villa at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is always called -- at first unofficially, and later by fiat -- "the White House."
The first president to reside there was John Adams, who moved in on Nov. 1, 1800, just as he was about to be unseated by Thomas Jefferson. The place was barely furnished and construction unfinished. Putting the best face on things, Adams dutifully wrote his wife, Abigail, still in Massachusetts, a letter beneath a dateline reading: "Presidents house. Washington City."
"My dearest friend," Adams' letter began, "we arrived here last night, or rather yesterday, at one o Clock and here we dined and Slept. The Building is in a State to be habitable. And now we wish for your Company."
The new nation's second president concluded his brief missive with another poignant sentiment, this one for the ages: "Before I end my Letter I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it," John Adams wrote. "May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."
It is a prayer, to paraphrase a later president, that was not answered fully. We, the people, generally give our best effort at the ballot box, but ascertaining which candidate will rise to the occasion after taking the oath of office, is an art, not a science. There is another side of the equation, too: The presidents and "first families" who occupy that house generally try to do their best. It cannot be an easy job, as Americans have an ungovernable streak that runs through our national DNA. If you doubt that, ask the British parliament and crown. Or remember the exasperated words uttered by the dowager countess in "Downton Abbey" (played by the immortal Maggie Smith).
Sitting (uneasily) in a swivel chair, she was informed that this wasn't a new contraption but rather an invention of Thomas Jefferson. "Why," she asked, "does every day involve a fight with an American?" Posed that way, the answer is contained in the question.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.