George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 2 January 1791

To Thomas Jefferson

Sunday 2d Jany 1791

Dear Sir,

The enclosed Notes are sufficiently descriptive to comprehend the two objects fully; but it is necessary to remark, that if the first line begins at a point on Hunting Creek, the fourth line cannot, in any part touch (Though it will include) the Town of Alexandria; because Huntg Creek is below the boundaries of the Town. And, if it could be so ordered as for the first line to avoid touching the town—that is, to allow room for its extending backwards, as well as up and down the River, without throwing too much of the district into Virginia, it would be a desirable measure.1 Where are the Acts, or Resolutions of the States of Virginia & Maryland (respecting the Cession of the ten miles Square) to be met with? If to be brought from the Archives of these States, much time will be required in obtaining them: but quere, are they not among the deposits of the Genl Governmt? The presumption is, that they were transmitted by the two States above mentioned.2 Yrs Affectly

Go: Washington

ALS, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers.

1The “enclosed Notes” have not been found. They should not be confused with the surveyor’s notes referred to in GW to Jefferson, 4 Jan. 1791, which have been assigned as the enclosure to this letter by some writers. The enclosures were probably surveyor’s notes relating to fixing the boundaries of the federal district. Among them were probably notes to be used in defining the starting point for the survey on Hunting Creek announced in GW’s proclamation of 24 Jan. 1791. Without the enclosures, the identities of “the two objects” cannot be known with certainty. The first object may have been the starting point on Hunting Creek. In his letter to surveyor Andrew Ellicott of 2 Feb. 1791, Jefferson informed him that the “first object” of his mission was to survey the lines from the courthouse in Alexandria to Hunting Creek described in the proclamation of 24 Jan. 1791 to establish the starting point for the survey of the boundaries of the federal district (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 19:68–70). The identity of the second object is unclear, but it may have been to fix the point where the second line of experiment crossed the Potomac above the lower end of the canal around Little Falls. GW had apparently discussed fixing this point “just above the commencement of the canal” with Jefferson in August 1790 (see Memorandum from Thomas Jefferson, 14 Sept. 1790). In his letter to Ellicott of 2 Feb. 1791, Jefferson instructed the surveyor to take special note of “the canal and particular distance of your crossing it from either end.”

2In December 1788 the Maryland general assembly passed “An act to cede to Congress a district of ten Miles square in this State for the seat of the Government of the United States” (Kilty, Laws of Maryland, description begins William Kilty. The Laws of Maryland . . .. 2 vols. Annapolis, 1799–1800. description ends 2: Nov. 1788 Session, ch. 46). The act authorized the representatives from Maryland to cede “any district in this State not exceeding ten miles square, which the Congress may fix upon and accept for the Seat of Government of the United States.” Because of competition within the state between advocates of a site on the Potomac and those who favored a site on the upper Chesapeake, preferably Baltimore, the Maryland legislature did not express a preference for any particular site. At the end of January, Maryland governor John Eager Howard transmitted copies of the 1788 act of cession along with a copy of the December 1790 act providing for the condemnation of up to 130 acres of land within the federal district for the use of the federal government (see Howard to GW, 22 Jan. 1791). On 3 Dec. 1789 the Virginia general assembly passed “An act for the cession often miles square, or any lesser quantity of territory within this state, to the United States, in Congress assembled, for the permanent seat of the general government.” According to the preamble the purpose of the act was to facilitate the establishment of a seat of government at a “central and convenient” location, “having regard as well to population, extent of territory, and a free navigation to the Atlantic ocean, through the Chesepeake bay, as to the most direct and ready communication with our fellow-citizens in the western frontier” and that “it appears to this Assembly, that a situation combining all the considerations and advantages before recited, may be had on the banks of the river Patowmack, above tide water . . . where in a location of ten miles square, if the wisdom of Congress shall so direct, the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia may participate in such location.” The act then committed the state to relinquish “a tract of country, not exceeding ten miles square, or any lesser quantity, to be located within the limits of this state, and in any part thereof as Congress may by law direct” (13 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 43–44). The intent of the legislature was to encourage the establishment of the federal seat in the vicinity of Hancock, Md., which was the only place where a district ten miles square could be laid out to include land in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, while permitting the federal government to designate any site in the state. The terms of the Residence Act fixed Conococheague Creek, downriver from Hancock, as the westernmost point at which the federal district could be located. GW was certainly familiar with the general terms of the Maryland and Virginia acts (see David Stuart to GW, 3 Dec. 1789). As secretary of state Jefferson was responsible for maintaining the archives of the federal government and was thus the person to whom this question was properly referred.

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