George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 5 January 1791

From Alexander Hamilton

Treasury Department January 5th 1791

The Secretary of the Treasury has the honor respectfully to inform the President of the United States that in pursuance of his instructions, due public notice was given in the Gazettes of Virginia and of the principal sea ports of the United States, that proposals would be received at the Treasury Office untill the 31st Ultimo, for building by Contract a Light-house, and the necessary appurtenances at Cape Henry, a copy of which notification is among the papers in this enclosure1—That in consequence of this measure seven setts of propositions have been delivered or transmitted by Companies or Individuals which will also be found among the papers enclosed and are numbered from 1 to 7.2 that on due examination of the terms proposed, those marked No. 1—No. 2—No. 3. No. 5. & No. 6. do not appear, as the Secretary humbly conceives, at all consistent with the interest of the United States—that the propositions marked No. 4 & No. 7. not only appear to be more advantageous, but to be on terms more favourable than those on which the two similar establishments of New York & Philadelphia were erected before the revolution. In examining these two it will be perceived that although the proposals of Mr Clarke are the lowest, yet his building contains much fewer cubic feet of wall, than that of Mr Macomb, & consequently will cost him considerably less; and that its base at the surface of the Earth is but three fourths of that required; which on a sandy foundation, and in a very exposed situation may hazard the whole structure. The buildings specified in the proposition of Mr Macomb would undoubtedly cost much less if reduced to the size of those of Mr Clarke. They are nearly such as those erected on Sandy-hook and Cape Henlopen, the latter of which has been in a great measure taken as a model. These establishments appear to have borne the test of repeated examination, and the trial of time. They are on ground similar to Cape Henry, and there can be no doubt, but that the extent of their bases contributes to their stability. Of the two propositions contained in No. 4. that for hewn stone at 15,200 dollars, on account of the superior weight & strength of that material, will probably be found most capable of going through those trials by wind & weather to which such buildings are peculiarly subjected. It remains for the President to determine whether the hazard of a more contracted diameter on a sandy foundation and in a situation of extreme exposure; is not sufficient to deter from a plan untried, as far as is known, in any but a covert situation, and to give a preference to a building like that designated in the notification; and finally to signify his pleasure, which, or whether either, of the several proposals now submitted, shall be accepted.

Alexander Hamilton
Secy of the Treasury


For background on the politics involved in the planning of the Cape Henry lighthouse, see Thomas Newton, Jr., to GW, 17 July and 24 Oct. 1789, GW to Newton, 12 Oct. and 23 Nov. 1789, and Beverley Randolph to GW, 18 Dec. 1789 and 14 Jan. 1790.

The selection of a contractor for the lighthouse and the beginning of construction were delayed during the spring and summer of 1790, in large part by uncertainty about whether the site chosen by Virginia authorities was suitable, since it was exposed to drifting sand (see Hamilton to GW, 6 May 1790). GW instructed Hamilton to engage Edward Carrington, U.S. marshal for Virginia, to visit the site to determine its suitability and to determine another for Virginia cession if it proved unacceptable (William Jackson to Hamilton, 7–10 May 1790, Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:408). When Carrington proved unable to attend to the business in a timely manner, GW referred the issue to Thomas Newton, Jr., one of the Virginia commissioners appointed as trustees of the existing site under the act of 1782 (Hamilton to Randolph, 19 June 1790, ibid., 468–69). Newton reported that shifting sands did not present a problem at the site, and the cession was surveyed accordingly (see Newton to Hamilton, 11 July 1790, ibid., 491–92). After this issue was settled, Hamilton wrote to Randolph that after GW’s return from Rhode Island “measures will be taken for the early completion” of the lighthouse (Hamilton to Randolph, 19 Aug. 1790, ibid., 560–61). At GW’s instruction Hamilton placed notices in several newspapers calling for proposals for building the lighthouse.

In his letter to GW on lighthouses of 3 Jan. 1790, Hamilton noted that the Virginia commissioners had estimated the cost of constructing the Cape Henry lighthouse on the existing plan at $34,076.66. On 11 Jan. 1791 Lear wrote to Hamilton that GW had decided the contract should be made with John McComb, Jr., a New York bricklayer (DNA: RG 26, Lighthouse Services Correspondence). The contract, dated 31 Mar. 1791, is in DNA: RG 26, Lighthouse Letters Received, Lighthouse Deeds and Contracts. A revised contract, correcting errors in the first, was signed in April 1791 (Hamilton to Richard Harison, 14 April 1791, Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 8:283). On the construction of the buildings, see Hamilton to McComb, 1 April 1791, and Thomas Newton, Jr., to Hamilton, 18 July 1791, ibid., 238, 555. Using the stone on the site, McComb began laying the foundation at the beginning of August 1791 and completed the lighthouse in October 1792 (see Newton to Hamilton, 8 July, 8 Aug. 1791, and Tench Coxe to Hamilton, 17 Oct. 1792, ibid., 533, 9:19, 12:587).

1The enclosed copy of the notice Hamilton caused to be published in newspapers has not been found.

2Hamilton enclosed a memorandum summarizing the various proposals made for building the lighthouse, which reads:

“No. 1. by Lemuel Carter of Norfolk to be built of Brick above the foundation; according to proposals in the Virginia Gazettes.
Dollars. 24,000.  
No. 2. by Moore & Robinson of New York; according to proposals in Greenleaf’s paper, & to the elevation exhibited. If of Brick— Dls. 21.842.  
by the same—If of hammered stone 22.342.  
the payments as may be agreed.
No. 3. By James Pearson of Philada of Brick according to proposals published, except the diameter at the top of the Walls. 22.133.30
by the same—of hewn stone & hammer dressed &c. 25.466.60
by the same—of larger dimensions 27.333.30.
No. 4. By John McComb Junr of New York according to the proposals, If of hewn stone Dollars, 15.200.  
If of Brick faced with hewn stone 14.900.  
This person is recommended by the Chief Justice of the United States, & the Sheriff of the City & County of New York. he also produced a letter from Messrs Nicholas Cruger and Peter Kemble of New York as his sureties; either of these would afford sufficient security to the United States.
No. 5. James Tutt of Fredericksburg, Virginia—[Hamilton noted at the bottom of the page: “This person is recommended by the Honorable James Munroe Esqr. of Virginia.”]
Upon the plan of the notification, except facing with hewn ashler instead of dressed Stone 19.502¼
No. 6. By Thomas Warren & others of Richmond, Virginia; If of hewn stone— Dollars 40.000.
Ditto of Brick— 38.333⅓
These persons are recommended by the Governor of Virginia.
No. 7. by Joseph Clarke of Annapolis.
On a plan of his own & of dimensions smaller than those specified in the notification Dollars, 13,000.
This person is recommended by the Governor of Maryland & the Collector of Annapolis” (DLC:GW).

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