George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, 31 January 1793

To the Commissioners for the District of Columbia


Gentlemen,Philadelphia January 31st 1793

I have had under consideration Mr Hallet’s plans for the Capitol, which undoubtedly have a great deal of merit. Doctor Thornton has also given me a view of his.1 These last come forward under some very advantageous circumstances. The Grandeur, Simplicity and Beauty of the exterior—the propriety with which the apartments are distributed—and the œconomy in the mass of the whole structure, will, I doubt not, give it a preference, in your eyes, as it has done in mine, and those of several others whom I have consulted,2 and who are deemed men of skill and taste in Architecture. I have therefore thought it better to give the Doctor time to finish his plan, and for this purpose to delay ’till your next meeting a final decision.3 Some difficulty arises with respect to Mr Hallet, who, you know, was in some degree led into his plan by ideas we all expressed to him. This ought not to induce us to prefer it to a better: but while he is liberally rewarded for the time and labour he has expended on it, his feelings should be saved and soothed as much as possible. I leave it to yourselves how best to prepare him for the possibility that the Doctor’s plan may be preferred to his. Some ground for this will be furnished you by the occasion you probably4 will have for recourse to him as to the interior of the apartments, and the taking him into service, at a fixed allowance, and I understand that his necessities render it material that he should know what his allowance is to be.5 With great esteem I am, Gentlemen Your most Obedt Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Tobias Lear’s writing, DLC:GW; Df (partially mutilated), in Thomas Jefferson’s writing, DLC:GW; Df (letterpress copy), DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC:GW. The dateline and approximately the right half of the first six lines of the draft at DLC:GW have been mutilated; these words are preserved in the letterpress copy of the draft.

1In March 1792 the D.C. commissioners advertised an award of $500 and a lot in the Federal City to the person who by 15 July 1792 could provide the best plan for a U.S. Capitol. The commissioners also offered $250 to the designer of the second best plan (see National Gazette [Philadelphia], 22 Mar. 1792; entry for 14 Mar., DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings). However, finding no design fully satisfactory, the commissioners began to work with French architect Stephen Hallet in an effort to make his plan more suitable. After months of work, Hallet submitted to GW on 28 Jan. a revised plan for the Capitol (JPP, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends 37).

William Thornton submitted a partially finished plan to GW on 29 Jan. (ibid.,37–38; GW to David Stuart, 30 Nov., Stuart to GW, 10 Dec. 1792). A Quaker, antislavery advocate, inventor, and self-trained architect, Thornton (1759–1828) was born on the island of Tortola in the West Indies. As a young boy Thornton moved to England to pursue his education, eventually attending the University of Edinburgh 1781–83. He received his M.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1784 but chose to experiment with steamboats rather than practice medicine. In 1787 Thornton immigrated to the United States, where he soon settled in Philadelphia. In 1793, following the selection of his building plan for the U.S. Capitol, Thornton moved to the federal district, and the next year the president appointed him a D.C. commissioner, a post he held until the commission’s dissolution in 1802. In 1802 Thornton accepted a job at the State Department as the clerk in charge of patents. By the time he died in 1828, Thornton’s clerkship had evolved into the first U.S. Patent Office.

2In the draft Jefferson ended his sentence at this point; GW inserted the additional clause above the line on the draft at DLC:GW.

3Thornton’s design so impressed the president and Jefferson that the latter privately asked commissioner Daniel Carroll to devise a means of “soothing the mind of poor Hallet” (Jefferson to Daniel Carroll, 1 Feb. 1793, 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 25:110). For the commissioners’ opinion of, and intention to approve, Thornton’s design, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 11–12 Mar. 1793. GW and the commissioners approved Thornton’s plan in early April (see GW to D.C. Commissioners, 2 April, D.C. Commissioners to Thornton, 5 April 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent). For GW’s admiration of Thornton’s design, see GW to Stuart, 1 Feb., to D.C. Commissioners, 3 Mar. 1793 (first letter).

4GW inserted the word “probably” above the line on the draft at DLC:GW.

5On 7 Feb. the commissioners wrote Jefferson that they looked forward to seeing “the Plan of the Capitol so highly Satisfactory to the President” but felt “sensibly for poor Hallet, and shall do every thing in our power to soothe him,” including employing him in some capacity (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent). For Hallet’s attempt to regain the favor of the commissioners, see Jefferson to GW, 26 Mar., and note 2.

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