George Washington Papers

To George Washington from David Stuart, 18 February 1793

From David Stuart

Hope Park [Va.] 18th Feby 1793

Dear Sir,

Agreeable to the promise I made in my last, I now sit down to write you more fully on what I touched on at the conclusion of my letter: The information there alluded to, as it concerned Mr Ellicott, was recieved from our Secretary Mr Gantt. Mr Dermott it seems furnished him with the numbers of several squares, which have been divided with the Proprietors, and which he asserts will be found erroneous, and to be laid out and divided on a larger scale than the ground will admit. This if true, would certainly be very serious, as it would render our sales uncertain and disputable. But I must observe, that Dermott and Ellicott have had a disagreement, so that there is no knowing at present, what credit to give to the information. I hope it will be found erroneous. But the jealousy Mr Ellicott has discovered towards him for some time, and his fears of his having too much communication with us, seem to justify some apprehension. You will see this jealousy fully displayed in a late attack upon us generally, and me more particularly, in a Ge: town paper. The general conjecture is, that he at least furnished the materials, tho’ he thinks himself perfectly secure from all suspicion, from his strong declarations of his innocence.1 Feeling myself much hurt at the insinuations against me, I gave him my opinion of the Author and his Co-adjutors in the strongest terms. Among other reasons we had for not being dragged into a Public dispute with him, one was, that besides lasiness, we should probably have been led to prove from many instances, that he had not much regard to truth—From the explanations between us at his departure, it would appear, that we had entirely mistaken each other in our several correspondences: but, I confess I am not sensible of any on our part.

It may be well as he is on the spot, to inform you, that Mr Young has renewed his application to us, to have the appropriations at his point on the Eastern branch, and at his cluster of quarters lessened—He states as a reason for it, that they have been lessened in other places, from what they were originally designed; particularly at the mall, and the fort at Hamburg. The first he mentions to the best of my remembrance will include near 90 acres, and the second ab⟨out⟩ 50, from a survey he has lately had made. They certainly appear to be large, and if they could be lessened without injury to the plan, would be a public saving. I expect his letter will be sent to you at the next meeting.2

I cannot conclude without observing, that I feel myself innocent of all the charges brought against me, by the writer in the Ge: town papers, and that I attribute the more pointed attack against me, partly to the well-grounded suspicion Mr E: entertains, that he is indebted for the letter he recieved from Mr Jefferson, to an opinion I might have given you of him;3 an opinion which he has found equally entertained by my Collegues, and to which all the Proprietors with whom I have conversed, will subscribe: and partly to my having engaged Dermott last Spring, in consequence of a letter from him, informing us that his Brothers would leave him, and wishing us if any one offered, that he might be engaged. I had never seen Dermott before, and have had litde or no communication with him since.4 By the Commissioners, he has never once been consulted on any subject whatever. That he is better qualifyed than anyone he has yet had under him, I have no doubt: and Mr E: has himself often mentioned him, as one of the best calculators he had ever met with. Notwithstanding this, there were circumstances in his character which would ever have rendered him in my opinion unfit to have been at the head of the department: and that we had no such prepossession in his favor as is represented, appears from our not making the smallest opposition to his dismission.5 I am with the greatest respect Your Affecte Serv:

Dd Stuart.


1Stuart’s previous letter to GW has not been found. In the 16 Feb. edition of the Georgetown Weekly Ledger, a person writing under the pseudonym “Decius” attacked an earlier essay in an unidentified issue of the same newspaper. The writer of the first essay, presumably Andrew Ellicott, his brother Benjamin Ellicott, or a close supporter, used the pseudonym “Balaam” and criticized the commissioners for believing the lies of a drunkard, whom readers would have recognized as James R. Dermott, a native of Ireland and a heavy drinker. Dermott, who currently lived in Alexandria, possessed some experience in cartography and surveying and worked for the federal district’s survey department. Balaam singled out Stuart as a conspirator in a plan to promote Dermott to Ellicott’s position by impugning the character and work of the latter. Decius, who was probably Dermott or one of his supporters, attacked Balaam as a “perverter of truth.” He denied that Dermott sought Ellicott’s position as chief surveyor. Most important to Stuart was Decius’s assertion that Balaam’s insinuation of Stuart’s role in the conspiracy “is false.” For the dispute between Ellicott and the D.C. commissioners, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 5 Jan. 1793. For an earlier public attack on Ellicott and his work at the Federal City, and for the surveyor’s response, see GW to Uriah Forrest, 20 Jan. 1793, n.5.

2Writing to the commissioners on 30 Jan. 1793, proprietor Notley Young complained that the plan of the Federal City appropriated too much of his valuable land along the Eastern Branch for a fort and marine pillar. Young contended that “an alteration in the two places on my land, will be attended with benefit to the Public as well as myself” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). The commissioners next met between 4 and 14 Mar. (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings). In his letter to Stuart of 3 Mar., GW responded to Stuart’s query about Young’s claim and stated that he had as yet received no letter from Young. If the commissioners enclosed Young’s petition in any of their March letters to GW, it has not been identified.

3Jefferson’s two most recent letters to Ellicott, under the dates of 3 July 1792 and 15 Jan. 1793, can be found 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 24:151, 25:54–55. Jefferson denied that either of these letters could have fomented discord between Ellicott and the D.C. commissioners (JPP, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends 52; Jefferson to GW, 14 Feb. [second letter], 4 Mar., GW to Stuart, 3, 4 Mar. 1793).

4Ellicott had requested an assistant in early 1792, but he told the commissioners that “Mr [David] Rittenhouse . . . and my Brothers [Joseph and Benjamin] are all whom I would undertake to recommend” (Ellicott to D.C. Commissioners, 7 Mar. 1792, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). The earliest written evidence of contact between the commissioners and Dermott is a letter from Dermott dated 3 Jan. 1793. In it Dermott requested payment of $550 for “my expenditures and other Contracts for the last year” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). Sometime in early 1793 before the writing of this letter, Stuart had met with Dermott while traveling through Virginia on his way to Georgetown. At this meeting Dermott apparently criticized Ellicott and alleged that the chief surveyor had committed major errors in his measurements of the federal district. Stuart asked Dermott to submit his complaint in writing to the commissioners, promising that he also would ask Ellicott to provide a written defense (D.C. Commissioners to GW, 23 Mar. 1794 [second letter], LS, DLC:GW; Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial, description begins Bob Arnebeck. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790–1800. Lanham, Md., and London, 1991. description ends 107). For Ellicott’s quarrel with the commissioners over Dermott’s accusations and his countercharges against Dermott, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 11–12 Mar., nn.4–5, and 13 Mar., n.3.

5Though dismissed for a time by Ellicott, Dermott nevertheless remained in the employ of the D.C. commissioners until 1798, and city planners, lithographers, and surveyors used his 1797 map of the Federal City well into the early 1900s (see ibid., 474; Ehrenberg, “Mapping the Nation’s Capital,” description begins Ralph E. Ehrenberg. “Mapping the Nation’s Capital: The Surveyor’s Office, 1791–1818.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36 (1979): 279–319. description ends 281, 289–97).

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