George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James Hoban and Stephen Hallet, 1 July 1793

To James Hoban and Stephen Hallet

Mount Vernon 1st July 1793.


I have considered in the best manner my small knowledge in Architecture, & the peculiar situation of my own Private concerns (which brought me here)1 will enable me to do—the observations made by mr Hallet on the plan which has been exhibited by Doctr Thornton—& on acct of its exterior beauty, & the arrangement of the Apartments, had been adopted. But if this plan is as expensive as it is represented to be—will require such a length of time to execute it—(either of which would be an important objection to it)—and withal so exceptionable in the true principles of Architecture & so defective in some of the ends which are proposed, it ought to be relinquished for one more practicable—more simple—less expensive—and which can be executed in the time allowed by Law.2

Having made this declaration, justice to, & respect for the abilities & character of Doctr Thornton call upon me to add that he should, before his plan is laid aside, be informed of all the objections to, & observations on it. If he cannot obviate them I persuade myself he will have candour enough to acknowledge it, & will readily see the propriety of a change which will bring the building within the compass of our means and time. For this purpose, It is my wish & desire that you would both, by Thursday’s stage, if practicable, set out for Philadelphia with Doctr Thornton’s Plan, & Mr Hallett’s last one, together with the sections of the first—the observations—calculations—& in short every paper relative to both, & to a final decision that as little time as possible may be lost in fixing this matter.3

The reason why I propose your going to Philadelphia is because Mr Blodget is now there, and because, if it did not suit Doctr Thornton to repair to Georgetown immediately I could not be present at the meeting—In the packet enclosed I have written to the Secretary of State to have the matter fully investigated before him4 & to report the result that a plan being fixed upon the foundation may be begun & in forwardness by the Sale.5

I think it reasonable that the necessary expences of your journey should be borne by the public—and if circumstances render it improper, or inconvenient for both of you to go, that one ought to do it—but both would be best, as every light & understanding of the subject ought to be had as the decision must be final & ought to be prompt. I am Gentlems &c.


1The anticipated death of GW’s estate manager Anthony Whitting had prompted GW to pay a short visit to Mount Vernon, but by the time GW departed Philadelphia on 24 June, Whitting was dead (GW to Whitting, 9 June, James Craik to GW, 15 June, Tobias Lear to GW, 24 June 1793; JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 189).

2On criticism of William Thornton’s plan for the Capitol, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 23 June, and note 4, and the second letter that GW wrote Thomas Jefferson on 30 June 1793. Section 3 of “An Act for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the Government of the United States,” 16 July 1790, requires that “suitable buildings for the accommodation of Congress, and of the President, and for the public offices of the government of the United States” be provided “prior to the first Monday in December, in the year one thousand eight hundred” (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).

3Thornton’s original drawings have not been found; see a description of his plan in his letter to the D.C. Commissioners of c.10 April 1793 (Harris, William Thornton Papers description begins C. M. Harris, ed. Papers of William Thornton: Volume One, 1781-1802. Charlottesville, Va., 1995. description ends , 242–49). On Stephen Hallet’s failed attempt to have his design of the Capitol selected by GW and the commissioners, see GW to D.C. Commissioners, 31 Jan. 1793, and note 1. On the competition for the design of the Capitol and for illustrations of Hallet’s various designs, see Jeanne F. Butler, Competition 1792: Designing a Nation’s Capitol (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 1976), 11–96. The following Thursday was 4 July.

4Samuel Blodget, Jr., was the superintendent for the Federal City. See GW to Jefferson, 30 June (second letter). Also enclosed in this packet was GW’s first letter to Jefferson of 30 June 1793, and probably the “notes” that Hallet gave to GW during their meeting in Georgetown on 24 June (JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 189; Thornton to Thomas Jefferson, c.12 July 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 , 26:489–95).

5GW hosted a meeting to review Thornton’s plan at his Philadelphia home on 15 July. On the results of that meeting, see Jefferson to GW, 17 July 1793, and JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 198–99. The next public sale of lots in the Federal City began on 17 Sept. 1793, and the cornerstone for the Capitol was laid the following day (GW to D.C. Commissioners, 16 Sept. 1793; 2–9 Sept. 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

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