Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin Henry Latrobe to Thomas Jefferson, 28 August 1809

From Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Washington Augt 28th 1809

Dear Sir,

I have packed up & sent to Richmond to be forwarded to Monticello a box containing the Model of the Capital of the Columns of the lower Vestibule of the Senatorial apartments of the North Wing of the Capitol; which is composed of Ears of Maize. On a short frustum raising it about 4 feet from the Ground it may serve for a Dial stand, and should you appropriate it to that use I will forward to you an horizontal dial cut in Pennsylvanian Marble of a proper size. This Capital, during the Summer Session obtained me more applause from the Members of Congress than all the Works of Magnitude, of difficulty & of splendor that surround them.—They christened it, the Corn Cob Capital,—whether for the sake of the allitteration I cannot tell, but certainly not very appropriately. A few days ago I struck the center of the great Arch of the Senate Chamber. It is as you know a half dome of 60 feet diam. No accident whatever attended the operation. The new Arch of the Supreme court room was compleated some time in June, & the Plaisterers have already finished it in a very superior style.—There is in fact no doubt whatever of the Senate’s occupying their permanent chamber this Session. I dread however the effect of an arrangement made by a committee of the Senate appointed on the last day of the Summer Session for the purpose of examining into the accomodations proposed for the Senate on the floor of the Chamber, & directing what should be done.—This committee composed of Messrs Anderson, Thruston & Lloyd, annulled the arrangement I had made to accomodate the house of Rep. with permanent seats along the Wall, &, in fact, by that means rendered their attendance on the floor very inconvenient to themselves & to the Senators. I should not wonder if the ill blood occasioned hereby, were to prevent any further appropriation for the Capitol from passing the house of Representatives.—

I have still here belonging to You a Stone from the Missouri which has now been for near two Years in the hands of our Italians. It is not yet entirely finished. Franzoni has cut on one side an Indian Warrior smoking his pipe with his Tomahawk bow & arrows besides him. The face & figure are copied from an Indian who was here & are highly characteristic. Andrei has added a venerable Oak under which the Indian reposes. An Eagle occupies a branch of the tree, & a Rattlesnake is also introduced, as well as a deer in the back ground, Andrei’s part of the work is most laboriously wrought but stiff, and he in fact has delayed the compleation of the piece, which is not yet quite ready. They have worked at it, at spare hours:—The piece is about 7 inches square.—

My attention to the public work is so unremittingly required, that I despair of being able to visit you at Monticello this autumn. In fact neither my time nor my spirits permit me to look to any thing as likely to happen, which is to give me as much pleasure, as such a visit would afford. After laboring for 6 Years here for the public, I find myself an object of suspicion & hatred, & persecuted by the most unmanly abuse in the public papers. To have injured my private fortune, and wasted the best Years of my life in successful labors for the public avails me nothing. Were I a politician & could I reap the advantages of political eminence,—and enjoy the indemnity against the slander of one1 party which is given by the praise of the other which politicians possess,—I should not complain, but for the last 10 Years of my life I have never been mentioned in the papers but to be slandered, nor has one solitary paragraph ever hinted that I might possibly possess honesty, taste or skill.—

But I beg your pardon for intruding upon you2 these complaints. Accept the assurances of my warmest attachment & respect.

Yours most truly

B H Latrobe

RC (DLC); at head of text: “Thos Jefferson Esqr”; endorsed by TJ as received 4 Sept. 1809 and so recorded in SJL.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), architect and civil engineer, was born in Yorkshire, attended Moravian schools in Germany, and trained in British engineering and architectural firms. He began practicing architecture on his own in 1792 and immigrated to Virginia in 1796, where his successful design for Richmond’s Virginia State Penitentiary (1797–1806) won him national recognition. Latrobe moved to Philadelphia in 1798 and Washington in 1807. TJ appointed him surveyor of public buildings on 6 Mar. 1803, and he held that post until 1812, working closely with TJ on the redesign of the United States Capitol and the President’s House. After the Capitol was burned by British forces in 1814, Latrobe began the work on its reconstruction, 1815–17. In his frequent correspondence with TJ, he often defended his work on the Capitol building and its expense. Latrobe advised TJ on the building program for the University of Virginia in 1817. Other highlights of his extremely productive career included the Philadelphia Waterworks (1798), a dry dock for the Washington Navy Yard (1802), the Baltimore Cathedral (1805–10, 1817–21), the Washington Canal (1810–15), and the New Orleans Waterworks (1809–20), on which he was working when he died (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1901, 22 vols. description ends ; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 31 vols. description ends , 30:225n; Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe [1955]; Latrobe, Papers description begins John C. Van Horne and others, eds., The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1984–88, 3 vols. description ends ; TJ to Latrobe, 6 Mar. 1803 [DLC]).

TJ eventually placed a circular sun dial of his own design on Latrobe’s corn cob capital (TJ to Latrobe, 27 Aug. 1816). The construction supports for the great arch were removed on 25 Aug. 1809 without a repeat of the fatal accident that occurred when a vault of the Capitol collapsed in September 1808 (Latrobe to James Madison, 8 Sept. 1809, Latrobe, Papers description begins John C. Van Horne and others, eds., The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1984–88, 3 vols. description ends , 2:764). The red stone block from the missouri was acquired during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, possibly sent by Meriwether Lewis to TJ with a collection of other specimens from Fort Mandan (Lewis to TJ, 7 Apr. 1805 [DLC]). The carving took two more years to complete (Latrobe to TJ, 1 Aug. 1811).

1Reworked from “our.”

2Preceding three words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Anderson, Joseph; as U.S. senator search
  • Andrei, Giovanni; and carving for TJ search
  • Capitol, U.S.; B. H. Latrobe works on search
  • Capitol, U.S.; construction and repair of search
  • Capitol, U.S.; corncob capitals for search
  • Congress, U.S.; approves B. H. Latrobe’s capital design search
  • corn; cob capitals for U.S. Capitol search
  • Franzoni, Giuseppe Antonio; and carving for TJ search
  • Indians; sculpture of, for TJ search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; and model of corncob capitals search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; identified search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; letters from search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; proposed visit to Monticello search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; works on U.S. Capitol search
  • Lewis and Clark Expedition; and stone block for TJ search
  • Lloyd, James search
  • marble; Pennsylvanian search
  • Missouri River; stone from search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Visitors to; Latrobe, Benjamin Henry search
  • penal institutions search
  • Pennsylvania; marble from search
  • Senate, U.S.; chamber of search
  • sundials; and corncob capital base search
  • Thruston, Buckner search
  • Virginia, University of (Charlottesville); design of search
  • Virginia; State Penitentiary search