Go West, Young Man; Washington Is Not a Place to Live In

Emmanuel Leutze, "Westward the Course of Empire"(1861)
Emmanuel Leutze, “Westward the Course of Empire”(1861)

GoDCer Ryan sent me a cool fact — or possibly historical rumor — that I’d like to share with the rest of you. It’s a simple, yet well-known quote, but there is some debate as to whether these words were actually spoken (or written), as claimed in 1865.

Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.

Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley

These are popularly attributed to Horace Greeley, former Congressman and then-newspaper editor for the New York Tribune. Others claim that John Soule wrote the words in his Terra Haute Express back in 1851. The founder of Grinnell College in Iowa even claims to have been the young man who heard Greeley speak those words.

Either way, these words were the embodiment of Manifest Destiny … America was to expand west, from sea to shining sea.

Also, the part about the rent still rings true today. Everything else is false. I don’t find this place to be dusty at all and the food is dramatically improving. Screw you Greeley, don’t insult my city.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • gonzodc

    disagree…i think it still holds. food sucks, rents are too damned high and there is plenty of dust on my car every morning. :p

  • Anon20009

    From the day the first building was built within the District of Columbia, it has been national sport to ridicule and belittle the CIty of Washington. You see it over and over again, in the writings of famous visitors such as Dickens and deTocqueville, or the housing shortage comedies produced in WWII Hollywood and on, to the reaction to the contemporary shenanigans of our local politicians. (The fact that Greeley was from the great metropolis to the north is part of a whole other story of sniping back and forth between the two cities.) Sometimes it’s done with good reason, sometimes it’s just spiteful, but I think it has become part of our national DNA by now, in part reflecting the American people’s ambivalent relationship with government in general. But still they come to Washington, on family visits or class trips, or fight hard multi-million dollar campaigns to land a job here; some still end up mocking it, or marvelling at it, or both…. and a lot come back to stay.

  • Hi, this is a common sentiment in history, it is the classic push-hypothesis of migration that was especially made famous by Frederick Jackson Turner, but is largely a misconception. Poor city residents did not have the capital to migrate west and settle farms. Not sure what I expect from a blog on history, but I’m not aware of strong evidence that poor urban residents were ever pushed out of city in the manner envisaged by these platitudes.

  • Gayle

    No, there was the whole “back alley” culture of immigrants and blacks. In fact, these alleys existed right next to the US Capitol. If you read any of the Washington, DC newspapers from the mid to late 20th century, you’ll see the anti-immigrant front page articles. It was so bad that you would have thought the poor were aliens. The attacks on the color of their skin (Italians) plus what they ate (those “macaroni eaters”) and cultural identifiers (i.e., organ grinders with monkeys) were fodder for newspaper writers of the day. Add to that the fact that the newspapers were filled with melodramatic writings and you get the picture. When you figure that immigrants spent what little they had to come to America, they had already traversed the unknown and tended to stick to the urban areas, DC included.