Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin Henry Latrobe to Thomas Jefferson, 7 March 1818

From Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Baltimore, March 7h 1818.

Dear Sir,

I arrived here with my family on the 12h of Jany and a few days afterwards was taken ill of my old complaint, the Hemicrania, a complaint in which no one, I believe, can more heartily sympathise with me than yourself, as I believe you are often severely afflicted with it. I was confined to my room for three weeks. Immediately on my recovery I was called to Annapolis to examine the bar at the mouth of the harbor with a view to a proposition to Government for the Establishment of the Naval Depot at that place. The bar is composed entirely of blue mud, a stratum, which occurs constantly1 & in regular succession in the geological formation of the country. If it is this stratum, which not easily yielding to the attrition of water has remained higher than the sandy strata above & below it, or if it is,—what all blue clay, ooze, or marsh mud is,—the product of marine water acting upon vegetable matter, and has been thrown in by the Chesapeake,—(as its form indicates);—in either case it is easily removed, & will not be redeposited, or at all events, many centuries must elapse before it will be again produced. My report, will, I presume, be printed in which case, I will immediately transmitt to you a copy of it.

I did not remove into the house which I have taken here untill my return from Annapolis, and could not get it so arranged as to enable me to unpack my books untill 2 days ago, when I found the enclosed book of prices.—I have added to it, the prices allowed by myself & paid within the last six months. Any good workman can make a good profit upon them.—Here in Baltimore the same secrecy is observed, by the measurer’s, that obtains in Philadelphia. The price book, as there, exists only in manuscript. This combination cannot last many Years. It will bring in a competition from New England, which will break it up. In Philadelphia it will be more durable, being supported by a rich & numerous Guild, the Carpenters company, into which it is the interest of every young workman to be enrolled.

I much fear that I shall be under the necessity of appealing to Congress, or the public on the business of the Capitol. Mr Lane being an inmate of the Presidents family, has had influence enough to prevent my being even heard:—and I feel every day the effect of the situation in which I am relatively to the President. And yet out of the President’s house no man is less respected than2 the Commissioner. For the President personally no one has more respect than myself. I suffer from the regular course of so bad a system as that of the public buildings.

But I will not trespass upon the time or patience, which you have so many more agreeable & useful means of employing, than to hear my complaints, further, than by extracting from public documents, the following facts which Show the effect of the system formerly3 established by you, virtually, in which the architect could controul the expenses, by controuling the contracts, & the manner of working, compared with4 the management of Commissioners, who had no professional knowledge.

Cost of the N. Wing of Lath & plaister internally, half finished, & in decay, under the first Commissioners.— } $
Stone 6$ ⅌ Ton, bricks 4.50 to 6$ ⅌ M. 307.735.38

Cost of the South wing, magnificently executed, finished, in all its parts, vaulted & filled with Sculpture } 274.841.01½
 Stone 8–12$ ⅌ Ton, bricks 8$ ⅌ M.

Repairs & finishing of the West side of the North wing in the stile of the South wing—1806 & 1807. }   28.142.25
Expenses of repairs 1815–1818.
 Appropriation 1815.  500.000
1816. 125.000
1817. 200 000

If of this sum, of 825.000, $225.000 be allowed for the presidents house, there will have been expended on the repairs of the Capitol alone, which are not half finished, 600.000. Now there remained after the conflagration: All the external walls of the Capitol uninjured, excepting in the Architraves of some of the windows,—all the vaulting of every kind internally,—many rooms wholly uninjured,—in fact work which, on reference to my books, had cost 190.000 dollars in the South wing, & I presume 200.000 in the North wing!!!—and yet I must bear the blame of all this,—even a hearing being refused me!

I hope you will forgive my intruding this statement upon you. I know it to be useless at present to attempt to swim against the current. It will turn of itself in time.

I enclose a pamphlet which I printed some time ago. Please to receive it as a mark of the unalterable respect & attachment with which I am


B H Latrobe.

RC (DLC); at head of text: “Thos Jefferson Esqr Monticello”; endorsed by TJ as received 13 Mar. 1818 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: (1) The Book of Prices adopted by the House Carpenters of the Borough of Pittsburgh, February 15, 1813 (Pittsburgh, 1813; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 6 [no. 243]). (2) Latrobe, Opinion on a Project for Removing the Obstructions to a Ship Navigation to Georgetown, Col. (Washington, 1812; TJ’s copy in PPAmP, inscribed “Thos Jefferson Monticello from the Author”; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 5 [no. 217]).

hemicrania is a “headache confined to one side of the head; migraine.” blue mud is “a bluish marine sediment, typically coloured by organic matter and iron sulphide” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ).

1Manuscript: “constanly.”

2Manuscript: “that.”

3Word interlined.

4Preceding two words interlined in place of “&.”

5Latrobe here keyed a note with an asterisk: “In 1803 very little was done. Congress sat in the Oven 1804–1805 even.” The “Oven” was a temporary structure used by Congress during construction of the Capitol.

Index Entries

  • Annapolis, Md.; naval depot at search
  • Baltimore, Md.; builders’ prices in search
  • building materials; bricks search
  • building materials; lath search
  • building materials; plaster search
  • building materials; stone search
  • Capitol, U.S.; and the “Oven” search
  • Capitol, U.S.; and War of1812 search
  • Capitol, U.S.; B. H. Latrobe works on search
  • Capitol, U.S.; construction and repair of search
  • Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia; B. H. Latrobe on search
  • Chesapeake Bay; mentioned search
  • health; headaches search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; works sent to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; headaches search
  • Lane, Samuel; as commissioner of public buildings search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; and Annapolis naval depot search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; and builders’ prices search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; and J. Monroe search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; family of search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; health of search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; letters from search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; Opinion on a Project for Removing the Obstructions to a Ship Navigation to Georgetown, Col. search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; works on U.S. Capitol search
  • Monroe, James; and B. H. Latrobe search
  • Opinion on a Project for Removing the Obstructions to a Ship Navigation to Georgetown, Col. (B. H. Latrobe) search
  • Philadelphia; builders’ prices in search
  • Pittsburgh, Pa.; builders’ prices in search
  • Potomac River; and navigation search
  • President’s House; reconstruction and repairs to search
  • sculpture; for U.S. Capitol search
  • The Book of Prices adopted by the House Carpenters of the Borough of Pittsburgh, February 15, 1813 search
  • War of1812; British destruction in Washington search
  • Washington, D.C.; British destruction in search