WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("Go: Washington") as President, to David Stuart (Commissioner for the Federal City), Philadelphia, 20 November 1791. 9 pages, 4to (8 7/8 x 7 3/8 in.), one edge of first leaf lightly browned, a few tiny repairs at extreme edge, otherwise in very fine condition.
IN SPITE OF L'ENFANT'S REFUSAL TO SUPPLY A MAP OF THE NEW FEDERAL CITY, THE PRESIDENT IS OPTIMISTIC THAT "THE ROOTS OF THE PERMANENT SEAT ARE PENETRATING DEEP & SPREADING FAR & WIDE"
An exceptionally lengthy letter (Washington himself terms it "of an enormous length"), giving detailed advice to the Commissioners on issues relating to the construction of the new capital city and handling its troublesome designer. Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825), trained as a military engineer, came to the United States at about the same time as Lafayette, shared the hardships of the Continental Army's encampment at Valley Forge, served in the southern campaigns, was wounded at Savannah and was captured at the fall of Charleston. Settling in New York in 1784, he designed the emblem and certificate for the Society of the Cincinnati, redesigned New York's Federal Hall (1789, see illustration on p. 51) and in 1791 was chosen at Washington's request to lay out the new Federal City. (Regarding the complex political maneuverings which preceded the selection of the site, see notes to the following lot). L'Enfant submitted a completed plan in August and immediately began work on the site, but he soon exceeded Congress's available budget and serious difficulties "arose through his unwillingness to submit to the authority of the Commissioners of the Federal District, or even to that of the President" (DAB). The Commissioners frequently complained to Washington of L'Enfant's high-handed behavior and their disagreements taxed even Washington's considerable powers of diplomacy. The construction of public buildings in the new capital was to be financed by the ongoing sale of building lots to the public, but the lack of an accurate plan proved a serious obstacle. L'Enfant had stubbornly declined to let his plan be copied by the Commissioners, whom he regarded as simple land speculators, partly out of a concern that once published, alterations to his design would be demanded.
Writing to Stuart, one of three Commissioners, the President voices "a degree of surprise & concern not easy to be expressed" that "Maj[o]r L'Enfant had refused the map of the Federal City when it was requested by the Commissioners for the satisfaction of the purchasers at sale." In regards to the troublesome L'Enfant, he expresses regret that men like him, who possess undeniable creative talents, "should almost invariably be under the influence of untoward dispositions, or else are sottish, idle or possessed of some other disqualification by which they plague all those with whom they are concerned. But I did not expect to have met with such perverseness in Major L'Enfant as his late conduct exhibited."
"Since my first knowledge of this Gentleman's abilities...I have viewed him not only as a scientific man but one who added considerable taste to professional knowledge; and that, for such employment as he is now engaged in; for projecting public works & carrying them into effect, he was better qualified than any one..." But Washington also perceived that L'Enfant had a very high opinion of himself, "and of course that he would be so tenacious of his plans as to conceive that they would be marred if they underwent any change or alteration. But I did not suppose that he would have interfered further in the mode of selling the lots." He remains certain that "all those who have any Agency in the business have the same objects in view, although they may differ with respect to the mode of execution." The surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, "who is also a man of uncommon talents in his way, and of a more placid temper," reports that "no information had been required either from him, or L'Enfant." In conclusion, Washington observes that "the feelings of such men are always alive, and, where their assistance is essential...it is policy to humour them or to put on the appearance of doing it."
In the wake of L'Enfant's refusal to supply a plan, Washington has given L'Enfant specific notice "through a direct channel" that "he must, in future, look to the Commissioners for directions"; since, "having laid the foundation of this great design" (his plan), "the Superstructure [buildings] depended upon them." He has told L'Enfant of his confidence in the existing Commissioners, and that "it would give me great concern to see a goodly prospect clouded by impediments which might be thrown in the way, or injured by disagreements," which might serve to encourage "those who are enemies to the Plan." Washington reassures Stuart that "I have never heard" L'Enfant express "any dissatisfaction at the conduct of the Commissioners towards him." Moreover, the Major stubbornly argues "that the Sale was promoted by witholding the general map." Washington is not of that opinion, believing that the absence of a plan served to "impede" rather than encourage buyers of the lots: "as none who knew what they were about would be induced to buy, to borrow an old adage 'A Pig in a Poke.'"
Ellicott, though, had obtained a copy of L'Enfant's map and it had been forwarded by Samuel Blodgett, one of the early district land-owners, to a Boston engraver, Samuel Hill. But several months later, the engraving was still not finished. Washington expresses puzzlement at the delay but assures Stuart that "as soon...as a correct draught of the city is prepared, the same, or some other shall be pressed to the execution." (In fact, two Philadelphia engravers, Thackara and Vallance, issued a detailed plan in November 1792.) Ellicott, he adds, believed the early version of the plan to have been too inaccurate for use.
Then, concerning the specifics of the surveying, Washington stresses that "it is of great importance that the City should be laid out in to squares and lots with all the dispatch that the nature & accuracy of the work will admit. And it is the opinion of intelligent and well informed men, now in this city...that for this purpose & to accommodate the great interests of Georgetown & Carrollsburg, it would be advisable to lay all the ground into squares which shall be west of the Avenue leading from Georgetown to the President's House, thence by the Avenue to the House for Congress, & hence by a proper Avenue...to the Eastern Branch [the Anacostia River]" He urges Stuart and the Commissioners to "appoint as early a day for the Sale" of lots as "a certainty of their completion will warrant."
"It is with pleasure that I add as my opinion that the Roots of the permanent Seat are penetrating deep & spreading far & wide. The Eastern states are not only getting more & more reconciled to the measure, but are beginning to view it in a more advantageous light as it respects their policy and interests"; in fact, some "who were its bitterest foes while the question was pending in Congress" now report that they would oppose attempts to repeal the Act creating the city, which some had suggested. "The rumours that were spread at the Sale, that Congress would never reside there, is one of the expedients" which the plan's enemies will resort to, Washington writes, "with a view to discourage the Sales of the Lots & buildings."
Washington promises when he next sees Major L'Enfant "to bring him to some explanation of the terms on which he will serve the public" and to "impress upon him the necessity of dispatch" in his work, so that "as early a Sale as circumstances will admit, may ensue." Despite his tone of optimism in this letter, quarrels with L'Enfant grew more acrimonious, and by the end of the month, he wrote Jefferson to state firmly that L'Enfant "must know, there is a line beyond which he will not be suffered to go." (Fitzpatrick, 31: 433). Washington's and Jefferson's patient efforts to bring the brilliant but highly tempermental architect into compliance with the Commissioners proved fruitless, and on 27 February 1792, Jefferson formally notified L'Enfant that his services were no longer needed.
Published in Fitzpatrick 31:419-424.
Provenance: Judge E.A. Armstrong, in 1939.