James Madison Papers

Memorandum on the Residence Act, [ca. 29 August] 1790

Memorandum on the Residence Act

[ca. 29 August 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*
    • residing (a majority at least) so conveniently to the scene of business as to be able to attend readily & 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 Massachussetts, first occurs—and next, S. Carolina & Georgia.

Mr. Ellicott Mr. Gorum1 Mr. Bull2
Mr. Fitzhugh (of Chatham) Mr O. Wolcott Mr. Tucker
Mr. Loyd (of Annapolis)3 Mr.   of R. Isd. Mr. Baldwin
Revd. Mr. Lee Massey4

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 oppos⟨ite⟩ shore. The legality of this seems to be decided by the clause confining the purchase or acceptance of land for the use of the U. S. “to the East side of the river within the said district” which imply5 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 & 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 purpose 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 agst. 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” & the spirit & scope of the act will justify.

Ms (DLC). In JM’s hand. Although undated, this memorandum was obviously composed sometime between the signing of the residence act on 16 July 1790 and the president’s proclamation of 24 Jan. 1791 fixing the national capital in the vicinity of Georgetown. It was almost certainly drawn up before JM left New York (around 1 Sept.) after the adjournment of the second session. A similar memorandum by Jefferson can be positively dated 29 Aug. 1790 (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (19 vols. to date; Princeton, 1950—). description ends , XVII, 460–61; XIX, 27–29, 58–60). JM apparently prepared this advice on executing the residence act for the president, though no written request from Washington has been found.

1Nathaniel Gorham.

2Probably John Bull (1740–1802), who had served as a South Carolina delegate to Congress, 1784–1787 (Biographical Directory of Congress [1971 ed.], p. 664).

3Edward Lloyd IV (1744–1796), whose family had long been prominent in Maryland politics.

4Lee Massey (1732–1814), a lawyer and clergyman, had been rector of Truro Parish, Fairfax County, 1767–1777 (Rutland, Papers of George Mason, I, lxxviii).

5JM wrote “would be” before “imply,” but deleted it without changing the verb form.

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.]

* 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 & the Comisrs. only to define the district, and as the subsequent discretion in the Comissrs. will give no opportunity of sacrificing their trust to local considerations. The essential point seems to be that the Commission sd. 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.

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