Thomas Jefferson Papers

I. James Madison’s Advice on Executing the Residence Act, [before 29 August 1790]

I. James Madison’s Advice on Executing the Residence Act

[Before 29 Aug. 1790]

“The act for establishing the temporary and permanent seats of the Government of the U. States” requires the following steps for carrying the latter into effect.

  • 1. The appointment of three Commissioners of sufficient respectability
    • having good will to the general object without any particular bias of private interest. Quer. If local situation or interest be an objection outweighing the advantage of proximity and zeal for the object, as the President is to prescribe the place, and the Commissioners only to define the district, and as the subsequent discretion in the Commissioners will give no opportunity of sacrificing their trust to local considerations. The essential point seems to be that the Commission should be filled by men who prefer any place on the Potowmac to any place elsewhere. On this supposition, it may be easy to find men who would suit.1
    • residing (a majority at least) so conveniently to the scene of business as to be able to attend readily and gratis
    • Should it be adviseable after securing a majority near at hand to make an appointment with a view to attach particular parts of the Union to the object, N. England, particularly Massachusetts, first occurs—and next, S. Carolina and Georgia.
      Mr. Ellicott Mr. Gorum
      Mr. Fitzhugh (of Chatham) [Gorham] Mr. Bull
      Mr. Loyd (of Annapolis) Mr. O. Wolcott Mr. Tucker
      Revd. Mr. Lee Massey Mr. of R.Isd. Mr. Baldwin
  • 2. That the President inform himself of the several rival positions; leaving among them inducements to bid against each other in offers of land or money. As the location when compleated by the survey will not be mutable by the President, it may be well to have the offers so framed as to become ipso facto absolute in favor of the U. S. on the event which they solicit.
  • 3. That the President direct the survey of the District which he shall ultimately elect. It seems essential that the District should comprehend the water adjoining the establishment, and eligible that it should comprehend the opposite shore. The legality of this seems to be decided by the clause confining the purchase or acceptance of land for the use of U. S. “to the East side of the river within the said district” which <would see[m to]> imply that the whole district was not necessarily to be on that side.—Quer: whether it will not be convenient to accept in the first instance so much less than 10 miles square as will allow places to be afterwards taken in, which may not now be attainable, or it may not be prudent now to accept.
  • 4. The district being defined and the requisite quantity of ground secured, the next step must be to fix the site for the public buildings—and provide for the establishment or enlargement of a town within the district. As no special authority is given for the latter purposes the consent of proprietors will be necessary: but as they will have a common interest with the public, voluntary arrangements between them and the Commissioners may be readily procured in favor of any plan which the President may patronize. Should any difficulties be apprehended on this point they can be guarded against in the negociations preliminary to the actual location of the district.
  • 5. The plan for the public buildings is to be approved by the President. The Commissioners will no doubt submit different ones formed by themselves, or obtained from ingenious Architects. Should it be thought proper to excite emulation by a premium for the best, the expence is authorized, as an incident to that of the buildings.
  • 6. The completion of the work will depend on a supply of the means. These must consist either of future grants of money by Congress, which it would not be prudent to count upon, of State Grants, of private grants, or the conversion into money of lands ceded for public use which it is conceived the latitude of the term “use” and the spirit and scope of the act will justify.

MS (DLC: Madison Papers); entirely in Madison’s hand; undated (for a discussion of probable date, recipient, and use, see Editorial Note above). The above text, which in a technical sense must be removed from the Jefferson corpus, was nevertheless beyond doubt a result of the close collaboration that existed between TJ and Madison on this as on other important questions.

This document came to be attributed to TJ through an error made in 1889 in preparing copies of documents from the Jefferson, Madison, and other collections then in the Department of State for use in the so-called Potomac Flats Case. To these copies were added others drawn from other departments of government, from the Library of Congress, and from the private collection of the Special Assistant United States Attorney, Hugh T. Taggart, who conducted the case for the government (Hugh T. Taggart to John Blair Hoge, 21 June 1889, DNA: RG 59), The resultant record of the case, which obviously reflects Taggart’s zeal and interest in the history of the District of Columbia, is a very valuable historical source containing some documents not elsewhere available but is unfortunately extremely rare (United States v. Martin F. Morris et al: The Record in the Potomac Flats Case, Equity No. 10,306, Supreme Court of the District of Columbia [Washington, 1898], 7 vols.). Taggart searched the files himself, made a careful list of the documents desired, identified their sources, and, since copies were to be drawn from other repositories than the Department of State, was careful to point out that “perspicuity in the record will best be subserved by an arrangement of them in chronological order, and to accomplish this it will be necessary for the copies to be made separately, and not attached in any manner to each other” (Taggart to Hoge, 21 June 1889, DNA: RG 59, enclosing a list in which the third item clearly describes two undated memoranda by TJ as being a single one—the two documents printed in Vol. 17: 460–3; there is nothing in Taggart’s descriptive note of this third item applicable to the above document by Madison; the list of copies actually transmitted to Taggart merely described this third item as “Proceedings to be had under the Residence Act”; enclosure in William F. Wharton to the Attorney General, 30 July 1889, DNA: RG 60). Despite Taggart’s care, the two texts by TJ and that by Madison became consolidated as one in the preparation and printing of the record of the Potomac Flats Case. This was probably because all three are undated but the text of Madison’s memorandum was also inexcusably garbled (see Record, vii, 2155–9; Padover, National Capital, p. 30–6, especially p. 32 for comparison with passage indicated in note 1, below). Thus in a historically important legal record prepared by an attorney with a meticulous regard for textual accuracy there came to be imbedded a consolidation and garbling of texts that has misled subsequent scholars.

For searching various series in the National Archives and collections in the Library of Congress and for locating the above text in the Madison Papers, the Editors are indebted to Mr. H. B. Fant of the National Hisorical Publications Commission.

1The text of this query, anchored to the main body of the text by a cross, is written in the margin of the first page except for the two concluding lines which are on the verso of the third page—a fact which accounts for the garbled passage referred to above.

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