George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 8 September 1791

From Thomas Jefferson

George town [Md.] Sep. 8. 1791.


We were detained on the road by the rains so that we did not arrive here till yesterday about two oclock. as soon as horses could be got ready, we set out & rode till dark, examining chiefly the grounds newly laid open, which we found much superior to what we had imagined. we have passed this day in consultation with the Commissioners, who having deliberated on every article contained in our paper, & preadmonished that it was your desire that they should decide freely on their own view of things, concurred unanimously in, I believe, every point with what had been thought best in Philadelphia, they decided also the following additional matters.1

Quere 2. lots to be sold in four places, viz., on the Eastern branch, near the Capitol, near the President’s house, & in the angle between the river & Rock creek.2

3. The ready money payment at the sale to be increased to one fourth, & so advertized immediately. they will send advertisements to some printer in every state.

7. the houses in the avenues to be exactly 35 feet high, that is to say their walls. none to be higher in any other part of the town, but may be lower.

11. the compromise stated to you by mister Johnson has put this matter out of all dispute.3

13. the map to be engraved on account of the Commissioners, & the sales of them for the public benefit.4

19. they have named the City & the territory, the latter after Columbus.5

Tomorrow they meet to take measures for carrying into execution all the several matters contained in the paper which I have the honor to return to you, as I believe you have no copy of it.6 Mr Madison & myself propose to pursue our journey in the morning, four days more will bring me to my own house. we were told in Baltimore that that place was becoming better humored towards this, and found it better that the government should be here than in Philadelphia. I have the honor to be with sentiments of the highest respect & attachment Sir Your most obedt & most humble sert

Th: Jefferson


For background to this document, see Memorandum for Thomas Jefferson, c.27 August.

1On 31 Aug. Jefferson invited Pierre-Charles L’Enfant to dine with him and James Madison the next day “to converse with him before their departure on several matters relative to George town” (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 22:112). Whether L’Enfant accepted is uncertain. Jefferson and Madison left Philadelphia on 2 Sept. and arrived at Georgetown on 7 Sept., spending that afternoon examining the ground selected for the Federal City, where workmen under the direction of L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott were busy opening paths through the woods for streets. On 8 Sept. Jefferson and Madison met with the three commissioners for the federal district.

2The decision to sell lots at four widely separated places in the Federal City was undoubtedly intended to appeal to the interests of all of the proprietors. As indicated by Jefferson’s notes on GW’s second query in the enclosure below, the commissioners postponed designating the specific location of the lots to be sold. On 9 Sept. Ellicott suggested to the commissioners selling lots near the Eastern Branch and Georgetown, since these could be readily developed for commercial purposes, but he urged them to delay selling lots around the federal buildings, shrewdly noting that these would rise considerably in value once the buildings were constructed. Instead, he suggested selling lots on the edges of the city that might be appropriate for gardens or pasturage. The commissioners considered Ellicott’s recommendations but did not instruct him specifically which lots should be surveyed before the October sale. Ellicott also sent to L’Enfant a report on the commissioners’ meeting, expressing surprise that they had not rendered a decision about the lots to be sold (Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial, description begins Bob Arnebeck. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790–1800. Lanham, Md., and London, 1991. description ends 61).

3Jefferson is alluding to the problem of acquiring the lots in Hamburgh and Carrollsburgh from dozens of owners. Earlier efforts at outright purchase had been unsuccessful (see William Deakins, Jr., and Benjamin Stoddert to GW, 9 Dec. 1790, and GW to Deakins and Stoddert, 17 Feb. 1791). Thomas Johnson apparently had suggested to GW exchanging each lot in the undeveloped towns for one lot in the Federal City (see Jefferson’s note to query 11 in the enclosure below). This was the solution adopted by the commissioners in 1793–94.

4This decision resolved an issue raised in Jefferson’s letter of 19 Aug. 1791 to L’Enfant: “A person applied to me the other day on the subject of engraving a Map of the Federal territory. I observed to him that if yourself or Mr. Ellicot chose to have this done, you would have the best right to it.” The commissioners did not agree with Jefferson that L’Enfant or Ellicott possessed the right to publish a map of surveys performed while employed by the federal government, and Jefferson’s opinion might have contributed to L’Enfant’s belief that he was independent of the authority of the commissioners (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 22:47–48).

5The commissioners had agreed to name the Federal City “Washington” in honor of the president, as Jefferson informed GW in a note at the bottom of the enclosed memorandum. The idea of naming the Federal City in honor of GW had been proposed publicly as early as August 1789 (Bowling, Creation of Washington, D.C., description begins Kenneth R. Bowling. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va., 1991. description ends 225). William Loughton Smith had suggested to L’Enfant in April 1791 “calling this new Seat of Empire, Washingtonople” (Matthews, Journal of William L. Smith, description begins Albert Matthews, ed. Journal of William Loughton Smith, 1790–1791. Cambridge, Mass., 1917. Reprint from Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 51 (1917-18):20-88. description ends 62).

6On 9 Sept. the commissioners drafted a memorial to the state of Maryland seeking legislative sanction for the proposal to exchange lots in Hamburgh and Carrollsburgh for lots in the Federal City and requesting authority to license the sale of liquor and the building of wharves in the district, as well as to regulate the disposal of earth displaced for cellars, wells, and foundations, to establish a registry of deeds for the district, and to give a bill of sale from the commissioners the same legal force as a deed. They also asked that the Maryland legislature pass a law permitting foreigners to purchase land in the District of Columbia. On 9 Sept. the commissioners officially informed L’Enfant of the names of the Federal City and the district as well as the alphabetical and numerical system for naming streets. They also instructed him to have 10,000 engraved copies of his plan prepared in advance of the October sale (Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial, description begins Bob Arnebeck. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790–1800. Lanham, Md., and London, 1991. description ends 61–62).

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