Thomas Jefferson Papers

Enclosure: Circular from Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 30 March 1818


Circular from Benjamin Henry Latrobe

WASHINGTON, March 30th, 1818.


IN resigning my office as Surveyor of the Capitol, I publickly assigned those reasons which1 were personal. It was my intention to lay those that regarded the public interests, before the proper authorities: but a severe illness, which confined me immediately after my removal from the city, and especially the consideration of the thanklessness, and general uselessness of every attempt of an individual to correct what he may think improper in the administration of a public concern, in which he has had a share, have prevented my taking the steps proposed.

On my present visit to Washington, I have, however, found that the old charge against me, of extravagance, in the expenditure on the public buildings is still alive: and the authority on which it is asserted is so respectable, that I owe it2 to my interests and character to refute it.

This I can most effectually do, by comparing the cost of the capitol, during the period from 1803, to 1811, while I had a controul over the expenditures, with the expenditure on the same objects, during the time before and after that period. For, since the period of the restoration of the public buildings, from the year 1814, I have not only had no controul over the expenditures, in the remotest degree, but not even a knowledge of their nature and amount. And I must also remark, that the restoration of the capitol ought not to have cost $50,000 more than the parts restored had originally cost, notwithstanding all improvements and alterations. It would be a waste of time and paper to enter here into the details producing this sum, but whenever required I shall be ready to explain them.

1. The north wing of the capitol, left unfinished by the first commissioners, (a) stands charged with $ 337,735  38
To this must be added a portion of the general expenses of the commissioners’ office, (b) 63,005  38
Of temporary buildings 1,890  32
Of the cost of the freestone—island of Acquia 6,000  00
73,895  703
Or somewhat less than one-fourth of the sum expended in 1808, on all the public buildings, in contingencies, 18,000
355,735  38
I omit any proportion of the article for commissions of agents, &c. of $59,033 52, in order to avoid overcharge. As this includes the cost of all the foundations of the south wing and centre, &c. deduct a most ample allowance therefor (c) 30,000
Actual cost of the unfinished north wing $325,735  38
In 1803, the situation of Congress, in the north wing of the capitol, and in the temporary building on the foundations of the south wing, was so inconvenient, that it was resolved to build the south wing, and I was appointed surveyor of the public buildings. From that time, 1803 to 1811, I became, and hold myself principally responsible for the economy of the work. 50,000 dollars were then appropriated to the public buildings generally, and to the highways. The series of state papers, in the Library of Congress, having been destroyed by the British, they have been restored to the year 1809; between which years, and 1814, there is a chasm. Not having been able to refer here to any other collection, I cannot give a detailed synopsis of the expenditures on each object of appropriation from the year 1810 to 1811. But my object in this statement will be attained, by an appeal to the letter of the superintendent of the city, of December 16, 1808, and the President’s message of March 25th, 1808, enclosing my annual report.
From the former it appears, that the south wing, which was then finished, and had been occupied for a year, was charged with 323,234  26
From which deduct the items in my report, of March 25, 1808 12,433  00
Furniture. (See ditto.) 21,216  34
Pulling down condemned walls, clearing the ground, removing earth, making the road east of the capitol,5 (as per the books in my possession) 2,318  00
Repairs of temporary buildings, 1803 555  13½
Fitting up the temporary Representatives’ Chamber, in the north wing 689  23
37,211  70½
Total cost of the south wing 286,022  55½
The north wing, from 1807 to 1810, was entirely6 changed in its interior, and built up solidly, excepting on the west side which remained in a ruinous state at the invasion in 1814. From 1803 to 1807, was expended in repairs 3,301  75
In  1807 24,840  50
Appropriation  1808, April 5, 25,000
1809, March 3, 20,000
Balance of accounts, 1812 6,857  75
 Sculpture appropriation, 4,000  00
84,000  00
To which add the sum amply sufficient to have completed the west side 26,000  00
If this sum be added to the cost of the north wing, as left by the commissioners, 325,735  38
It will produce a total of $ 435,735  387
I now appeal to the recollection of every one who has seen the capitol, prior to 1814, whether, after the completion of the works on both wings, prior to 1812, there was not ocular evidence of the vast superiority of workmanship, in its quality and expense in the south, to that in the north wing. If the work had been measured that superiority would be undeniably proved; and yet
the north wing cost $435,735  38
And the south wing, under my direction 286,022  55½
$ 149,712  83
And if the enormous sum of near 50,000 dollars be allowed for the slight work in timber, lath and plaster which was pulled down to make room for solid vaulting, marble and sculpture, there will still remain a balance in favor of the south wing of $100,000.
If I now compare the works executed under my directions, and controul of expenditure, with those that have since been constructed, the account will stand thus:
    Appropriation, 1815— $500,000
1817— 100,000
1818—   200,000
Expenditures by the three commissioners, (a) 1815–1816, on the capitol, 79,211  64
A proportion of contingent expenses, 3,800
1817, By the one commissioner, 76,112  17
      Contingent expences 1,000
1818, By Do. 159,655  11
Estimate to compleat the same, (b) 177,303  46
497,082  38
I have taken great pains, by examination of my books of measurement and estimate, to ascertain what was the actual cost of those parts of the south wing of the capitol which remained entirely uninjured; and have excluded every thing which may require reinstatement, as plastering, glass, and the whole of the wood work of every kind; as well as the sculpture and every part of the hall of Representatives, and find it amounts to 213,450 dollars. But least I should overrate its value, say 200,000
The north wing was more injured than the south, but a value (if the cost be considered as the value) remains, equal to that9 of the south wing: but to avoid overcharge, I will rate it only at 150,000
Total expense of restoring the wings of the capitol, including the value of the existing parts $ 847,082  38
I have proved above, that the south wing executed under my control, cost only 286,022  55½
And I have an undoubted right to claim, that if I had been in Washington and allowed the same control from the commencement, over the expenses of the north wing, which the superintendent allowed me over those of the south, it would not have exceeded it in cost, say 286,022  56
572,045  11
But to avoid all cavil, and in order to allow amply for the marble columns; without remarking on the management of that business, I will add the sum of 75,037  27
647,082  38
Balance in favor of my extravagance, 200,000
$ 847,082  38

My object in these statements has been no other than a defence of my own conduct. They are supported by documents which may always be referred to. That part of them which depends upon calculation, speaks for itself. The amounts taken from my own books, are comparatively small, and make no difference in the general result. Had I entered further into details, a result much more favorable to me, would have appeared. But I content myself with resting my character on the proofs already adduced.

With great respect, I am, &c.
Late surveyor of the public buildings, U. S.

P. S. I will add, that independently of the value of the labor of my pupils, whom the public did not pay, except once, during a short term, the annual salaries from 1803 to 1811, were $3,800, and that the amount paid for the same services since 1814, agreeably to a statement of salaries, commissions and agencies, now before me, of which I have proof, but no official documents, exceeds, annually, $16,000.

Printed circular (DLC: TJ Papers, 212:37913–4); at head of text in Latrobe’s hand: “Thos Jefferson Esqr.”

Latrobe publickly assigned the reasons for his resignation as surveyor of the United States Capitol in an undated, open letter “To the Citizens of Washington & Georgetown” (Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 1 Dec. 1817, and elsewhere). Thomas Munroe was the superintendent of public buildings of the city of Washington, 1802–16. TJ’s brief message of march 25th, 1808 to Congress (JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States description ends , 4:255) covered Latrobe’s 23 Mar. 1808 annual report (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 , 2:565–77). John P. Van Ness, Richard Bland Lee, and Tench Ringgold were the three commissioners of public buildings, 1815–16, while Samuel Lane was the one commissioner, 1816–22.

1Printed text: “whieh.”

2Word interlined by Latrobe.

3Correct sum is “70,895 70.”

4First page ends here.

5Printed text: “capital.”

6Printed text: “en-entirely.”

7Second page ends here.

8Printed text: “estimateto.”

9Body of third page ends here, followed by editorially omitted intermediate sum “Carried forward” of “$ 697,082 08” (rendered with correct figure as “Brought forward, $ 697,082 38” at top of fourth page) and the two footnotes.

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

(a) (a.) See the commissioner’s books, and the President’s message, March 25, 1808.

(b) (b.) Report to the Senate by the superintendent, December 16, 1808.

(c) (c.) President’s Message, March 25, 1808, and report.4

(a) (a.) See the commissioner’s report, February 16, 1818.

(b) (b.) I suppose the estimate to8 be sufficient.

Index Entries

  • building materials; lath search
  • building materials; marble search
  • building materials; plaster search
  • building materials; stone search
  • building materials; timber search
  • building materials; window glass search
  • Capitol, U.S.; B. H. Latrobe works on search
  • Capitol, U.S.; construction and repair of search
  • Capitol, U.S.; marble for search
  • furniture; for U.S. Capitol search
  • glass, window; for U.S. Capitol search
  • House of Representatives, U.S.; chamber of search
  • Lane, Samuel; as commissioner of public buildings search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; and J. Monroe search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; health of search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; resigns from work on U.S. Capitol search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; works on U.S. Capitol search
  • Lee, Richard Bland; as commissioner of public buildings search
  • Library of Congress; destroyed by British troops search
  • marble; for U.S. Capitol search
  • Monroe, James; and B. H. Latrobe search
  • Munroe (Monroe), Thomas; superintendent of District of Columbia search
  • plastering; at U.S. Capitol search
  • Ringgold, Tench; commissioner of public buildings search
  • roads; in Washington, D.C. search
  • sculpture; for U.S. Capitol search
  • Senate, U.S.; mentioned search
  • Van Ness, John Peter; as commissioner of public buildings search
  • War of1812; British destruction in Washington search
  • Washington, D.C.; British destruction in search
  • Washington, D.C.; roads in search
  • woodworking; at U.S. Capitol search