Thomas Jefferson Papers

George Washington to the Commissioners of the Federal District, 31 January 1793

George Washington to the Commissioners of the Federal District

Jan. 31. 93.

I have had under consideration Mr. Hallet’s plans for the capitol, which undoubtedly have a great deal of merit. Doctor Thornton has also given me a view of his. These last come forward under some very advantageous circumstances. The grandeur, simplicity, and beauty of the exterior, the propriety with which the apartments are distributed, and economy in the mass of the whole structure, will1 I doubt not give it a preference in your eyes, as it has done in mine, and those of several others whom I have consulted.2 I have therefore thought it better to give the Doctor time to finish his plan, and for this purpose to delay till your next meeting a final decision. Some difficulty arises with respect to Mr. Hallet, who you know was in some degree led into his plan by ideas we all expressed to him. This ought not to induce us to prefer it to a better: but while he is liberally rewarded for the time and labor he has expended on it, his feelings should be saved and soothed as much as possible. I leave it to yourselves how best to prepare him for the possibility that the Doctor’s plan may be preferred to his. Some ground for this will be furnished you by the occasion you3 will have for recourse to him as to the interior of the apartments, and the taking him into service at a fixed allowance, and I understand that his necessities render it material that he should know what his allowance is to be.

Dft (DLC: Washington Papers); in TJ’s hand except for additions by Washington noted below; mutilated upper right portion supplied from PrC; at head of text in Washington’s hand: “(Private)” and “Gentlemen”; at foot of text in TJ’s hand: “Private. to Dr. Stewart. or to all the gentlemen,” which Washington lined through and replaced with “The Commr. Fedl. District”; on verso in TJ’s hand: “Dr. Thornton has given more views of his”; endorsed by Bartholomew Dandridge, Jr. PrC (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand, but lacks his notation on verso. Recorded in SJPL; only one letter to the Commissioners of this date is recorded in SJL. The text Washington sent to the Commissioners reflected the changes he made to TJ’s Dft (DLC: Presidential Manuscripts General; Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends , xxxii, 324–5).

This clear expression of presidential preference for Dr. William Thornton’s plan for the capitol, which was reinforced by TJ’s letter on the following day to Daniel Carroll, induced the Federal District Commissioners in March 1793 to award the West Indian-born, Scottish-educated physician and self-taught architect a prize of $500 and a lot in the Federal District as the winner of the competition that had begun in March 1792 for the best design of the United States Capitol (Commissioners to Washington, 11 Mch., to Stephen Hallet, 13 Mch., and to Thornton, 5 Apr. 1793, in DNA: RG 42, DCLB; Glenn Brown, History of the United States Capitol, 2 vols. [Washington, D.C., 1900–03], i, 4–9). Although Thornton’s prize-winning plan no longer exists, its character and evolution have been imaginatively reconstructed on the basis of contemporary comments and related manuscripts and drawings in Fiske Kimball and Wells Bennett, “William Thornton and the Design of the United States Capitol,” Art Studies: Medieval, Renaissance and Modern, 1 (1923), 76–92, which argues that important elements of it were derived from a design for the Capitol drawn by Stephen Hallet, a French-born architect whose Capitol plan had heretofore been the one most favored by the Commissioners. For the subsequent modifications of Thornton’s design, see Brown, History, 1, 9–31.

1Word interlined in place of “would.”

2Washington here interlined “and are deemed men of Skill and taste in Architecture.”

3Washington here interlined “probably.”

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