George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 17 September 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

Fredericksburg [Va.] Sep. 17. 1790.


In the course of the visit we made the day we left Mount Vernon, we drew our host into conversation on the subject of the federal seat.1 he came into it with a shyness not usual in him. whether this proceeded from his delicacy as having property adjoining George town, or from what other motive I cannot say. he quitted the subject always as soon as he could. he said enough however to shew his decided preference of George-town, he mentioned shortly, in it’s favor, these circumstances. 1. it’s being at the junction of the upper & lower navigation where the commodities must be transferred into other vessels: (and here he was confident that no vessel could be contrived which could pass the upper shoals and live in the wide waters below his island.) 2. the depth of water which would admit any vessels that could come to Alexandria. 3. the narrowness of the river & consequent safeness of the harbour. 4. it’s being clear of ice as early at least as the canal & river above would be clear. 5. it’s neighborhood to the Eastern branch, whither any vessels might conveniently withdraw which should be detained through the winter. 6. it’s defensibility, as derived from the high & commanding hills around it. 7. it’s actual possession of the commerce, & the start it already has.

He spoke of Georgetown always in comparison with Alexandria, when led to mention the Eastern branch he spoke of it as an admirable position, superior in all respects to Alexandria.

I have committed to writing a Memorandum2 for mr Carroll of the kind of conveyance I suggested to him & which I had not the opportunity then to put on paper.3 I inclose it open in your perusal, and take the liberty of asking you to put a wafer into it, when you are done with it, & forward it to mister Carroll. I have the honor to be with the greatest respect & attachment, Sir, Your most obedient & most humble servt

Th: Jefferson

ALS, DLC:GW, docketed by GW, “From Thos Jefferson Esq. and Mr Madison 17th Sepr 1790.”

For the background to this letter, see Memorandum from Thomas Jefferson, 29 Aug. and 14 Sept. 1790 and source notes.

1After leaving Mount Vernon on 16 Sept. 1790 for home via Fredericksburg and Orange, Va., Jefferson and James Madison visited George Mason at nearby Gunston Hall later the same day. This was apparently the first meeting between Jefferson and Mason since the former had returned from France in November 1789 and the first meeting between Madison and Mason since they had opposed one another in the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788. Jefferson had intended to visit Mason on his way to New York in March 1790, but a blizzard forced him to travel by stage and bypass Gunston Hall. He wrote to Mason on 13 June 1790 mentioning the possibility that the federal district might be located in the vicinity of Georgetown, Maryland. Mason owned 2,000 acres along the opposite Virginia shore of the Potomac, as well as Analostan or Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) adjacent to the town. Mason’s enthusiasm for a site near Georgetown also reflected his antipathy to the leaders of Alexandria that grew out of the factional ties and personal relationships of Fairfax County politics (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 16:223, 493–94; Rutland, Mason Papers, description begins Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason, 1725–1792. 3 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1970. description ends 3:1182–85; 13 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 279).

Mason wrote to Jefferson on 10 Jan. 1791, before the location of the federal district was announced, that his son John, who was to about to return from France and establish himself as a merchant on the Potomac, “is very anxious to know the Place where the seat of the General Government will be fixed, as it will in some Measure determine the Place of his Establishment; and desires to know my Opinion, whether Congress can ever be got out of the Whirlpool of Philadelphia? I shall answer him, that it is my opinion it can not, for half a century to come” (Rutland, Mason Papers, description begins Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason, 1725–1792. 3 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1970. description ends 3:1216–19).

Three months after the location of the federal district was announced on 24 Jan. 1791 (see Proclamation, 24 Jan. 1791), Mason wrote to his son John describing its boundaries that embraced Analostan Island and Mason’s property along the Virginia shore, both of which John inherited in October 1792 upon his father’s death. The citizens of Alexandria, Mason wrote on 16 April 1791, were excited by the prospect of the federal district being located nearby, but, he noted, “it is evident, to any cool impartial sensible Man, that if the Inland Navigation of Potomack & Shanandoe is effectually compleated, . . . Alexandria must become a deserted Village” (Rutland, Mason Papers, description begins Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason, 1725–1792. 3 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1970. description ends 3:1225–28; see also 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 19:54–58 and notes).

2GW apparently forwarded to Daniel Carroll the original of Jefferson’s enclosed memorandum. He noted, however, at the head of the text of the undated copy that he made: “From T.J. Esqr. to C.C. Esqr.,” probably inadvertently referring to Charles Carroll of Carrollton instead of Daniel Carroll. GW’s retained copy, entitled “Sketches for the Conveyance of the Lands whereon the Federal Seat is to be fixed,” reads: “The Conveyance to be executed, according to the forms of the laws of Maryland, by the Proprietors of the land designated by the President for the federal Seat.

“The preamble to recite the substance of that part of the residence act which authorises the President to receive grants of lands and money for the use of the United States & to declare that the object of the conveyance is to furnish both land & money for their use.

“The body of the Deed to convey the lands designated for the Seat (suppose 1500 acres) to A & B & their heirs in trust for the following purposes.

“1. to reconvey to the Commissioners their heirs & successors to be named by the President, such portions of the said lands, as the President shall designate for the scite of the public buildings, public walks Streets &ca to remain for the use of the U.S.

“2. to reconvey the residue in such lots, to such persons, & on such conditions as the Commissioners shall direct, for the purpose of raising money, and the money when received to be granted to the President for the use of the U.S. according to the residence Act.

“The effect of this last clause will be such that the President (without any further legislative authority from Congress) may proceed to lay out the town immediately into. 1. public lots: 2 public walks or gardens: 3 private lots for Sale: 4. Streets. The 1. 2. & 4th articles to be reconveyed to the Commissioners, & the 3d to private purchasers as above proposed.

“It is understood that this conveyance will have been preceeded by Articles of Agreement signed by all the Proprietors of the lands in and about those several spots which have such obvious advant⟨a⟩ges as render it presumeable to every one that someone of them will attract the President’s notice & choice” (copy in GW’s hand, DLC:GW).

GW also copied a brief cover letter from Jefferson to Daniel Carroll, apparently also written at Fredericksburg on 17 Sept. 1790 and enclosed in his letter of that date to the president. GW’s retained copy reads: “T. J. has the honor to present his Compliments to Mr C.—and to send him a memorandum of the substance of the conveyance he suggested to him as best calculated to remove the difficulties which were the subject of conversation between them. He had not the residence-act under his eye at the time of writing the memorandum, not being able to get a copy of it: which must account for its deviations from that act, if any should be found, as far as his memory serves him he has adhered to the letter of the Act” (copy in GW’s hand, DLC:GW).

3The terms of the draft conveyance probably reflected proposals made to Daniel Carroll, Benjamin Stoddert, and William Deakins, Jr., by Jefferson and Madison at their 13 Sept. 1790 meeting. The following month a group of nine Georgetown area landowners signed an agreement to surrender property for the use of the federal government (see Agreement of Georgetown, Md., Property Owners, 13 Oct. 1790).

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