George Washington Papers

Memorandum from Thomas Jefferson, 29 August 1790

Memorandum from Thomas Jefferson

[New York, 29 August 1790]1

Proceedings to be had under the Residence act.

a territory not exceeding 10. miles square (or, I presume, 100 square miles in any form) to be located, by metes and bounds.

3. commissioners to be appointed.

I suppose them not entitled to any salary.

[If they live near the place they may, in some instances, be influenced by self interest, & partialities: but they will push the work with zeal. if they are from a distance, & Northwardly, they will be more impartial, but may affect delays.]2

the Commissioners to purchase or accept “such quantity of land on the E. side of the river as the President shall deem proper for the U.S.” viz. for the federal Capitol, the offices, the President’s house & gardens, the town house, Market house, publick walks, hospital. for the President’s house, offices & gardens, I should think 2. squares should be consolidated. for the Capitol & offices one square. for the Market one square. For the Public walks 9. squares consolidated.

the expression “such quantity of land as the President shall deem proper for the U.S.” is vague. it may therefore be extended to the acceptance or purchase of land enough for the town: and I have no doubt it is the wish, & perhaps expectation. in that case it will be to be laid out in lots & streets. I should propose these to be at right angles as in Philadelphia, & that no street be narrower than 100. feet, with foot-ways of 15. feet. where a street is long & level, it might be 120. feet wide. I should prefer squares of at least 200. yards every way, which will be of about 8. acres each.

The Commissioners should have some taste in Architecture, because they may have to decide between different plans.

They will however be subject to the President’s direction in every point.

When the President shall have made up his mind as to the spot for the town, would there be any impropriety in his saying to the neighboring landholders, “I will fix the town here if you will join & purchase & give the lands.” they may well afford it from the increase of value it will give to their own circumjacent lands.

The lots to be sold out in breadths of 50. feet: their depths to extend to the diagonal of the square.

I doubt much whether the obligation to build the houses at a given distance from the street, contributes to it’s beauty. it produces a disgusting monotony. all persons make this complaint against Philadelphia. the contrary practice varies the appearance, & is much more convenient to the inhabitants.

In Paris it is forbidden to build a house beyond a given height, & it is admitted to be good restriction. it keeps down the price of ground, ⟨keep⟩s the houses low & convenient, & the streets light & airy. fires are much more manageable where houses are low. this however is an object of legislation.

AD, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers (apparently formerly in DLC: District of Columbia Miscellany, which Julian Boyd cited as District of Columbia Papers); AD (letterpress copy), DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers. The final sentence does not appear in the letterpress copy (see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 17:460–61). The word in angle brackets is taken from the letterpress copy.

Once Congress had committed itself to placing the new federal city somewhere along the Potomac River, circumstances required the president to move swiftly and decisively to carry out the terms of the 16 July 1790 Residence Act. Because Congress had achieved only a tenuous compromise, which could conceivably unravel before the ten-year time limit for creating a suitable seat of government expired, many skeptics believed that the federal government would never be dislodged from its temporary home in Philadelphia. It was GW’s challenge to use his executive power to translate the fragile congressional resolve into a new federal city worthy of the new American republic.

The Residence Act authorized the president to appoint three commissioners who would be responsible for surveying the boundaries of a district ten miles square on a suitable site on the Potomac between the mouths of the Eastern Branch (today’s Anacostia River) and Conococheague Creek. They were also responsible for purchasing acreage or accepting gifts of land on the eastern side of the Potomac and providing suitable buildings for the use of the federal government. The president was authorized to accept grants of money to defray the costs of public buildings, presumably from the states or private landowners whose property values would be enhanced by proximity to the new federal seat. All of this was to be accomplished under the president’s direction before the first Monday in December 1800, when the government would begin operations in the new district (1 Stat., description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 130 [16 July 1790]).

Sometime after GW signed the Residence Act and before Congress adjourned on 12 August, the president sought the advice of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on how he should proceed under the new law that provided him with much latitude. Soon afterwards, each produced a memorandum, which may or may not have been presented to GW, and the three most likely discussed their opinions before they left New York at the end of the second session of the First Congress. As a consequence of these deliberations, Jefferson and Madison met with a group of Georgetown, Md., landowners on 13 Sept. 1790 to discuss terms for seating the federal capital between that town and the Eastern Branch (see Memorandum from Madison, 29 Aug. 1790, Memorandum from Jefferson, 14 Sept. 1790).

1This date has been supplied on the authority of a 29 Aug. 1790 entry in Jefferson’s “Summary Journal of Public Letters” stating, “Note of Th:J. on agenda in the 10. miles square” (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 17:461n.).

2The brackets surrounding this paragraph appear in the MS.

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