George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, 11 April 1794

To the Commissioners for the District of Columbia

Philadelphia April 11th 1794.


Your letter of the 23d Ulto came duly to hand, but as you did not expect to meet again until the 12th instt I have, accordingly, postponed my reply to the contents of it ’till now.

I am sensible that the No. East quartr of square Number 21. is subject to the disadvantage of a North and East front (not desirable I confess) but these are more than counterpoised in my estimation by the formation of the ground, which, though expensive to improve, on account of a steep declevity on the other two sides, can never (if a quarter of the square is taken, and improved) have the view from it obscured by buildings on the adjoining lots. I was on the ground, and examined it in company with Mr Blodget during the Sale in September last; and after comparing the advantages and disadvantages, resolved to fix on that spot if a quarter of the square could be obtained, and the price not run upon me, beyond the usual Sales; for doing which there could be no just cause; for, as I have observed before, it is not less than the area mentioned that would secure my object; and to improve it would be expensive, from the shape of the ground. If, after this explanation, I can be accomodated without involving inconveniences, I would rather the matter should be fixed now than delayed to a future period—first, because I had rather be upon a certainty (one way or other) than remain in doubt; and 2dly because it would be convenient to me to know, whether there would be a call (for some money which I expect to receive in a few days) for that purpose, or that I might apply it to some other.1

I was not unmindful of your communication respecting Major Rivardy; but, unluckily, the Secretary of State mistook (as I have lately discovered) the purport of my direction to him on this head.2 It was, that your employing the Major for the purposes designated, wd be perfectly agreeable to me if you were satisfied with his character, and that he had abilities adequate to the undertaking; that he was an entire stranger to me; and that I had rather you should pursue your own judgment in, than be prompted to, a choice by me. He understood these sentiments as applying to the measure (of the utility and ind⟨ee⟩d necessity of which I had no doubt) and not to the man. Hence the mistake has happened, nor should I have discovered it, had not our late enquiry for Engineers brought to view that nothing had been concluded between you and Majr Rivardy. The employment as Engineer may occupy him three or four months—The fortifications at Baltimore, Alexandria and Norfolk were assigned to him that you might be enabled to judge whether under these circumstances it would be best to adhere to the Major, or employ Mr Vermanet, or any other3—Your more perfect knowledge of the business—and of the situation of things than I possess will direct you better than any advice I could give; for in truth I have little knowledge of characters proper for such Surveying, levelling &ca as the City requires; and besides, I have been unfortunate hitherto in those whom I have been instrumental in bringing forward for the subordinate Offices in the City.4

Mr Greenleaf is here, and told me on tuesday last that he should set out for George town as yesterday or today, but if he does not call upon me before eleven oclock (Post hour) this letter will go by the Mail.5 With very great esteem & regd I am—Gentlemen Your Obedt Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, DLC: Records of the U.S. Commissioners of the City of Washington, 1791–1869; ALS (letterpress), DLC:GW; LB, DLC:GW. The text in angle brackets is from the letter-book copy.

1GW met with Samuel Blodget, Jr., the former superintendent for the District of Columbia, during the public sale of lots, which began on 17 Sept. 1793 (D.C. Commissioners to GW, 16 Sept. 1793). On GW’s purchase of this lot in square 21, see the letter to GW from the D.C. commissioners of 23 April, and n.2 to that document. Perhaps GW expected to receive prompt payment on a debt owed by William Lyles (GW to Lyles, 24 March 1794).

2On the intention of the D.C. commissioners to employ the Swiss engineer John Jacob Ulrich Rivardi, see their letter to GW of 28 January.

3On the appointment of Rivardi in March as the engineer in charge of fortifying the ports at Baltimore, Md., Alexandria, Va., and Norfolk, Va., and the hiring of John Vermonnet in May to supervise the fortifications at Annapolis, Md., and Alexandria, which had been reassigned to Vermonnet, see ASP, Military Affairs description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends , 1:87–95.

4This may be a reference to the problems encountered earlier with Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott. Both had been hired as chief surveyors for the District of Columbia, and both had been dismissed from their positions after prolonged disagreements with the D.C. commissioners. On the firing of L’Enfant, see GW to L’Enfant, 28 Feb. 1792. On the dismissal of Ellicott in December 1793, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 23 Dec. 1793, and n.8.

5On James Greenleaf’s financial investment in the Federal City, see GW to the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, 20 Aug. 1793, and n.3 to that document. Tuesday last was 8 April.

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