George Washington Papers

From George Washington to William Deakins, Jr., and Benjamin Stoddert, 2 March 1791

To William Deakins, Jr., and Benjamin Stoddert

Philadelp[hi]a March 2nd 1791.


Majr L’enfant comes on to make such a survey of the grounds in your vicinity as may aid in fixing the site of the federal town and buildings: his present instructions express those alone which are within the Eastern branch, the Potowmac, the Tyber, and the road leading from George-town to the Ferry on the eastern branch. He is directed to begin at the lower end, and work upwards, and nothing further is communicated to him. The purpose of this letter is to desire you will not be yourselves misled by this appearance, nor be diverted from the pursuit of the objects I have recommended to you. I expect that your progress in accomplishing them will be facilitated by the presumption which will arise on seeing this operation begun at the eastern branch; and that the proprietors nearer Georgetown who have hitherto refused to accommodate, will let themselves down to reasonable terms.1

This communication will explain to you the motive of my request in a letter of the 28th ultimo. I now authorize the renewal of the negotiations with Mr Burns, agreeably to former ⟨powers⟩2 at such time and in such a manner as, in your judgments, is likely to produce the desired effect. I will add, however, that if the lands described by the enclosed plat within the red dotted line from A to C, thence by the Tiber to D, and along the north line to A can be obtained, I shall be satisfied, although I had rather go to the line AB.3 I have referred Majr L’enfant to the mayor of George-town for necessary aids and expences. Should there be any difficulties on this subject, I would hope your aid in having them surmounted, tho’ I have not named you to him or any body else, that no suspicions may be excited of your acting for the public. I am Gentlemen, &c.


LB, DLC:GW; copy, partially in GW’s hand, DLC:GW.

1Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, a French-born engineer and Continental army veteran, had written to GW on 11 Sept. 1789 seeking employment in the task of laying out the proposed Federal City, the site of which was then being debated in Congress. Describing his vision for the city, L’Enfant wrote that “the plan Should be drawn on such a Scale as to leave room for that aggrandisement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.” No response to this letter has been found, but L’Enfant’s work during this period established him as one of the leading architects in the country. During the 1780s L’Enfant had designed and remodeled dozens of buildings in and around New York City. GW was undoubtedly familiar with this work. L’Enfant was requested by GW to survey the site for the new Federal City sometime in January 1791. The selection of L’Enfant to design the basic plan of the city was first revealed by Jefferson in a letter to the commissioners dated 29 Jan. 1791: “The President, having thought Major L’Enfant peculiarly qualified to make such a Draught of the Ground as will enable himself to fix on the Spot for the public Buildings; he has been written to for that Purpose, and will be sent on, if he chuses to undertake it” (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 19:67–68). L’Enfant was apparently in New York at the time and did not arrive in Philadelphia to receive specific instructions until the end of February or the beginning of March. At that time Jefferson directed him “to proceed to George town where you will find Mr. Ellicot employed in making a survey and map of the federal territory. The special object of asking your aid is to have drawings of the particular grounds most likely to be approved for the site of the federal town and buildings. You will therefore be pleased to begin on the Eastern branch, and proceed from thence upwards, laying down the hills, vallies, morasses, and waters between that, the Potowmac, the Tyber, and the road leading from George town the Eastern branch, and connecting the whole with certain fixed points of the map Mr. Ellicot is preparing. Some idea of the height of the hills above the base on which they stand would be desireable” (Jefferson to L’Enfant, 2 Mar. 1791, in 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 19:355–56). L’Enfant arrived in Georgetown on the evening of 9 Mar. 1791 and presented himself to Thomas Beall, the mayor of Georgetown (see GW to Jefferson, 16 Mar. 1791). He was instructed to begin his work on the Eastern Branch in order to facilitate the efforts of Deakins and Stoddert to purchase land adjacent to Georgetown from Robert Peter, David Burnes, and others (see GW to Deakins and Stoddert, 3 Feb., 17 Feb., and 28 Feb. 1791).

2In the letter-book copy the space for this word is left blank; the word “powers” is taken from the copy.

3In the copy in DLC:GW, the words from the beginning of the paragraph to this point are in GW’s hand.

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