PITTSBURGH — In December 1833, a young man from Chester, N.H., moved to Washington to take up a position as a clerk in the House of Representatives, spending his first day touring the city with Rep. Franklin Pierce, who later would become president and a profoundly divisive figure in the country.

Benjamin Brown French saw many of Washington’s sights that day, but it was the Capitol that attracted his attention and spurred his awe. “Will it always be the capitol [cq] of my happy country?” he wrote in his diary, which in time would become one of the most insightful resources for students of 19th-century America. “I fear the seeds are already sown whose fruit will be disunion, but God forbid it!”

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