Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin H. Latrobe, 28 March 1798

From Benjamin H. Latrobe

Francis’s Hotel March 28th. 1798.


I should have taken the liberty to deliver to you the enclosed letter from Mr. Randolph immediately on my arrival two days ago, had he not told me, that he has therein done me the favor to recommend me to you, with a view to interest your kind offices for me in an application I had intended to make to the Executive of the United States, during my stay at Philadelphia.—I had understood that it was the intention of the Government to erect an Arsenal and a Manufactory of arms at Harpers ferry, and as I am now engaged in Virginia, in the Penitentiary house, and am consulted by several of the Canal companies,—to have designed & directed a Work of such magnitude as, I suppose, this Arsenal will be, would have at once decided me to sell my Pensylvanien property & consider myself as a Virginian for the rest of my life.—But upon some previous enquiry, I am told, that although I have very strong recommendations to several Gentlemen highly in the confidence of the President, I am not likely to succeed, should I apply; and that it will not avail me to have had an education entirely directed to the object of becoming useful as an Engineer & Architect, & to have given proofs of some degree of skill,—for I am1 guilty of the crime of enjoying the friendship of many of the most independent & virtuous men in Virginia, & even was seen at the dinner given to Mr Monroe.—I have therefore resolved not to run the risk of a refusal, and should esteem it a mark of favor in you to permit the enclosed letter to pass for a general recommendation. Since my arrival in America, it is been my very anxious wish to become known to you, & to improve an old acquaintance with, and admiration of your works, into a personal Knowledge of you.

If you will permit me, I will do myself the honor to wait upon you, at your apartment tomorrow morning, being engaged for this evening to meet Mr Caleb Lownes.—

I am, with the sincerest respect Yours

B. Henry Latrobe

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 28 Mch. 1798 and so recorded in SJL; second page bears faint image of text in TJ’s hand, probably the result of coming into contact with PrC of TJ to Latrobe, 18 Oct. 1798, before the PrC had dried. Enclosure: Edmund Randolph to TJ, 11 Mch. 1798, which is recorded in SJL as received 28 Mch. 1798 but has not been found.

Born into a Moravian family in Yorkshire, his mother a native of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) was educated in German Moravian schools and then worked for prominent civil engineering and architectural practices in England before emigrating to Virginia in the spring of 1796. He immediately undertook architectural commissions, and in 1797 it was his design for a new Virginia penitentiary that won out over several other plans, including one by TJ (see James Wood to TJ, 3 Mch., TJ to Wood, 31 Mch. 1797). In 1798 he relocated to Philadelphia, where he received commissions for the Bank of Pennsylvania and the city’s waterworks. He continued to work both as an architect and as an engineer, and in 1803 TJ appointed him surveyor of public buildings. The two collaborated as Latrobe redesigned significant portions of the U.S. Capitol. He also worked on the White House, designed government buildings in Washington and elsewhere, and completed a wide variety of private architectural commissions and engineering projects. He was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in July 1799 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884]: 283).

In March 1798 Latrobe could well consider himself not likely to succeed in obtaining a commission from the U.S. government. In January he had written a play, The Apology, for a benefit performance by a Richmond theatrical company. The comedy, which from a variety of circumstances received only a single, poorly executed performance in Richmond, transparently spoofed Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett (as “Skunk, a newspaper editor”), and other Federalists. Appearing only months after the revelation of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds, the play also featured adultery in its plot. Soon after Latrobe wrote the above letter Cobbett’s Porcupine’s Gazette took acidic notice of The Apology and its author (Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe [New York, 1955], 86–9, 129–30). For the dinner given to Mr Monroe, which Latrobe attended, see Horatio Gates to TJ, 15 Feb. 1798. admiration of your works: during his residence in Virginia Latrobe had consulted the Notes on the State of Virginia on a variety of topics (Latrobe, Virginia Journals description begins Edward C. Carter II and others, eds., The Virginia Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1795–1798, New Haven, 1977, 2 vols. description ends , 1:112–13, 151; 2:336, 393–4).

1Word interlined in place of “have been.”

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