George Washington Papers

Memorandum from Thomas Jefferson, 14 September 1790

Memorandum from Thomas Jefferson

[Alexandria, Va., 14 September 1790]1

In conversations with mister Carrol, mister Stoddard and mister Dickens they were properly impressed with the idea that if the present occasion of securing the Federal seat on the Patowmack should be lost, it could never more be regained, that it would be dangerous to rely on any aids from Congress, or the assemblies of Virginia or Maryland, & that therefore measures should be adopted to carry the residence bill into execution without recourse to those bodies: and that the requisites were 1st land enough to place the public buildings on; & 2dly money enough to build them, and to erect moreover about 20. good dwelling houses for such persons belonging to the government as must have houses to themselves, about as many good lodging houses, and half a dozen taverns.

To obtain this sum, this expedient was suggested to them. to procure a declaration from the proprietors of those spots of land most likely to be fixed on for the town, that if the President’s location of the town should comprehend their lands, they would give them up for the use of the U.S. on condition they should receive the double of their value, estimated as they would have been had there been no thought of bringing the federal seat into their neighborhood, it was supposed that 1500 acres would be required in the whole, to wit, about 300. acres for public buildings, walks &c. and 1200 acres to be divided into quarter acre lots, which, due allowance being made for streets, would make about 2000 lots. the vacant lots in George town now sell at £200. those of Alexandria at £600. suppose those of the new town should bring only £100 clear this would produce 200,000£. a sum adequate to the objects before mentioned. it was further supposed that the assembly of Maryland would interpose to force the consent of infant or obstinate proprietors for a reasonable compensation.

It was also suggested as a more certain means of ensuring the object, that each proprietor within the whole ten miles square, should cede one half his lands to the public, to be sold to raise money. perhaps this would be pushing them too far for the reputation of the new government they were to come under, and farther than is necessary when we consider the sum which may be raised by the sale of lots, the donation of 120,000 Dollars by Virginia, & the possible donation of an equal sum by Maryland. at least it might shew a commendable moderation not to push this proposition till experiment should prove the other resources inadequate, great zeal appeared in the gentlemen beforementioned, & they seemed to approve the proposition for the 1500. acres. that for a moiety of all the lands within the 10. miles square was hazarded only to mister Carrol. they will probably proceed immediately to make the best arrangements practicable, & to come forward with them to the President.2

Queries. 1. Would it not be well, if a position below the little falls should be decided on, to begin the 10. miles just above the commencement of the canal; and accept from Maryland, for the present, only from thence down to the Eastern branch, supposed about 7. miles; and to accept from Virginia 10. miles beginning at the lower end of Alexandria, and running up as far as it will extend, which probably will be as far up as the commencement on the Maryland side. this being accepted, & professedly (as to Maryland) in part only of their cession, when Congress shall meet they may pass an amendatory bill authorizing the President to compleat his acceptance from Maryland by crossing the Eastern branch and compleating the 10. miles in that direction, which will bring the lower boundary on the Maryland side very nearly opposite to that on the Virginia side. it is understood that the breadth of the territory accepted will be of 5. miles only on each side.

2. in locating the town, will it not be best to give it double the extent on the eastern branch of what it has on the river? the former will be for persons in commerce, the latter for those connected with the government.

3. will it not be best to lay out the long streets parallel with the creek, and the other crossing them at right angles, so as to leave no oblique angled lots but the single row which shall be on the river? thus:3

AD, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers (apparently formerly in DLC: District of Columbia Miscellany, which the editors of the Jefferson Papers cited as District of Columbia Papers. see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 17:461–63).

For GW’s consultations with the secretary of state on establishing the new permanent seat of the federal government, see Memorandum from Thomas Jefferson, 29 Aug. 1790, source note.

When GW visited Georgetown, Md., on 11 Sept. 1790, ostensibly to hold a conference on the affairs of the Potowmack Company, he may have raised the prospect with local landowners of locating the federal district in their neighborhood. The president, however, apparently left the task of opening formal negotiations with them to Jefferson and James Madison, who left New York together on 1 Sept. 1790. After tarrying several days in Philadelphia, they were joined by Thomas Lee Shippen near Chestertown, Md., and reached Georgetown on the afternoon of 13 Sept. 1790. They then dined with local landowners Daniel Carroll, William Deakins, Jr., Uriah Forrest, Benjamin Stoddert, and others (see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 17:456, 464–66).

The next day, 14 Sept., the group rode over the neighborhood, dined at Forrest’s home, and visited the Great Falls of the Potomac a few miles above the town. At some point Jefferson discussed with them the terms under which the federal seat might be established in the area, along the lines he had proposed in his 29 Aug. 1790 memorandum to the president. Jefferson and Madison left Georgetown on 14 Sept. and spent the night in Alexandria, Va., where Jefferson drafted this report on the Georgetown meeting. He probably presented it to and discussed it with GW after the two travelers arrived at Mount Vernon on 15 Sept. and before they proceeded south the following day (see Jefferson to GW, 17 Sept. 1790).

1According to the editors of the Jefferson Papers, Jefferson probably drafted this undated “aide-memoire” in the evening of 14 Sept. 1790 at Alexandria (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 17:456).

3Jefferson presented to the president six months later a more elaborate plan of the proposed federal city to be situated at the confluence of the Potomac River and Goose or Tiber Creek (see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 20:16 and following 384).

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