George Washington Papers

To George Washington from William Thornton, 31 May 1799

From William Thornton

City of Washington 31st May 1799


Finding that the Board of Commissrs were exceedingly urged, by Mr George Walker, to lay off and divide certain small portions of Ground, within the lines of his property, between the intersection of various Avenues & Streets, which do not appear in the general plan of the City to have ever been designed for private Occupancy; and perceiving the Board were disposed to adopt the proposal, I declared the measure expressly contrary to the intention of the late President of the United States, and accordingly wrote a formal protest, setting forth the injury that the City would sustain, by admitting a principle which would induce every proprietor to make similar Claims, and requested that the Board would not sanction the Divisions by Signature, until the Opinion of the late president should be fully known, if any hesitation remained on the Minds of my Colleagues after the perusal of your Letters of the 26th of Decr 96, and the 27th of Feby 97.1 Those Letters explain clearly in my Opinion the Sentiments I have repeatedly heard you express; but, lest your meaning may be misconstrued, in a point so essential to the future Benefit of the City, I request you will pardon me for making so free as to solicit a further Declaration of your former Opinions, if they can be more explicit. There is perhaps one point that may be considered as omitted; I mean the Declaration of these portions as Appropriations; for although many of them are very small, not containing a Standard Lot, and if occupied by Individuals might justly be considered as nuisances, yet if appropriated to public Use, they would be, not only highly useful but also ornamental, as they would serve for Churches, Temples, Infirmaries, Public Academies, Dispensaries, Markets, Public walks, fountains, Statues, Obelisks &c; and if the whole were to be paid for, as Appropriations, they amount to only 381,683 Square feet, or eight acres, at £25=£200. The only Doubt remaining on the minds of the Commissioners relative to these portions of Ground, was the power of non-insertion; but, it appears to me that their not having been inserted leaves them exactly in the same predicament as the other Portions of the city intended for Appropriation, but neither yet expressly designated as Appropriations nor even as reservations. They may be considered as reservations because the points of Squares have been cut off and these latter therefore are rendered, by your Declaration of 26th Decr 96, subject to payment, and consequently to public Appropriation. If no objection can be made to this, which indeed is warranted by the Deeds of Trust, surely less validity must be given to objections against the adoption of Areas heretofore considered only as streets, which by adoption will be paid for, and rendered highly useful and ornamental. If any objection can arise it has justly been observed in your Letter last quoted, that they might with equal propriety ask payment for the Streets; for these spaces differ in nothing from the Avenues but in extent, and every Avenue might by a parity of claim be reduced to a Street, or be charged to the Public. No Individual has ever contended for the insertion of these irregular portions, except Mr George Walker, but the principle being admitted the right will be universally claimed. Many have sold Lots, fronting on these open Spaces—The Map of the City has been published without them, and complaints of injustice will certainly be made by persons who have already purchased if these Spaces be filled up by private Lots; beside, these Insertions not accompanying the Maps now dispersed, Strangers might be liable to continual Impositions, by purchasing Lots apparently on open Areas in the Map, but in reality only fronting Stables or greater Nuisances; for these Lots are too small to admit of Houses all round and Conveniences within: so that it appears not only against the plan of the City to insert them, (unless for public appropriation which I should advocate) but it would be highly unjust to Individuals, as well those who may purchase as those who have become proprietors, and it would materially injure the convenience of the City, by occupying for private purposes, those places so easy of access, and so necessary for the Public.2 I have the honor to be Sir with the highest esteem your very respectful Friend &c.

William Thornton

ALS, DLC:GW; copy, DLC: William Thornton Papers; copy, DNA: RG 42, General Records, Letters Received, 1791–1867.

1By an agreement of 30 Mar. 1791 the landholders within the new Federal District, of whom George Walker (d. 1802) was one of the largest, conveyed their land in the district to the public with the understanding that after it was laid off the land would be divided equally between themselves and the public. The proprietors, who retained their homesteads, would be paid £25 per acre for the land taken by the public except for what was to be used for streets and avenues (see copy, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802). In his letter to the District of Columbia commissioners of 26 Dec. 1796, a little more than two months before he left office, GW wrote, among other things: “With respect to the claims of individual proprietors, to be compensated for the spaces occasioned by the intersection of Streets and avenues, I should conceive that they might, with equal propriety, ask payment for the Streets themselves; but the terms of the original contract, or cession, if a dispute on this point should arise, must be recurred to, for I presume the opinion of the President, in such a case, would avail nothing. But, if angles are taken off, at these spaces, the case is materially altered; and, without designing it, you make a square where none was contemplated, and thereby not only lay the foundation of claim for those angles but for the space also which is made a square by that act.” And on 27 Feb. 1797, a week before his departure, he wrote: “With regard to the open areas in the City, occasioned by the intersection of the Streets and avenues . . . the Proprietors are entitled to no allowance for the spaces which are occasioned—simply—by the width of those Streets and avenues; but, where the areas have been enlarged by taking off the angles, in order to encrease the size of the squares, or to throw them into a circular form, it appears reasonable and just, that they should receive payment for the proportion secured to them by contract, for all such additions; but without any encroachment thereon, or change in the plan.”

2GW wrote Thornton on 1 June supporting Thornton’s position, at least to the extent of reaffirming his strong opposition to any unnecessary “Departure from the engraved plan” of the city. George Walker wrote GW on 5 Aug. to rebut what Thornton had written in his letter to GW. Two days later GW forwarded Walker’s letter to the District of Columbia commissioners, and on 19 Aug. two of the commissioners, Gustavus Scott and Alexander White, overrode the objections of Thornton as the third commissioner and approved the divisions proposed by Walker. See the editor’s notes in Harris, Thornton Papers, description begins C. M. Harris, ed. Papers of William Thornton: Volume One, 1781-1802. Charlottesville, Va., 1995. description ends 1:495.

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