From David Burnes
Philadelphia Feby 12th 1793
I Presume to Address you a second time on a Subject which materially concerns me and my famely—I have applied to your Commissioners for redress to no purpose—You informed my Son the Commissioners would do every thing that was right1 if they had done right in my opinion they would have paid me for the Presidents Square Octr 1st 1791 when they began Occupying the above mentioned Square and I deprived of the use of the Ground. The Sales have taken place pretty generally on my Ground, I therefore expect payment Immediately, for all the appropriated ground, otherwise I must bring Suit against the Commissioners in order to make them do Justice—Mine is a peculiar case and requires Immediate redress—I possess no other Lands than those in the Center of the City All cut up and rendered useless for farming2—I hope to be redressed through your interference and Procure from the Commissioners of the Federal City such assistance as the nature of the Original agreement and my exigencies render absolutely requisite.3 I have the Honour to be with great respect Your Obt & Hble Sert
P.S. I came to this City in order to Sell Lots but received no encouragement whatever4 I am Sir yr Hbl. Ser.
ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.
1. Burnes’s son, James, often appealed to the D.C. commissioners on behalf of his family (James Burnes to D.C. Commissioners, 11 Mar. 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). For David Burnes’s involvement with the Federal City, see GW to William Deakins, Jr., and Benjamin Stoddert, 28 Feb. 1791, note 1. No correspondence has been found between GW and James Burnes.
2. In 1791 the proprietors and the commissioners had agreed that land destined for roads was to be given freely and land set aside for public use would be sold for £25 per acre (Thomas Jefferson to GW, 10 April 1791). Burnes’s complaints rested first on the fact that the mouth of Goose Creek split his property as it spilled into the Potomac River. Second, much of his land lay in areas that would become Pennsylvania Avenue and nearby streets and on the edge of squares on which public buildings were planned (see the map by Joseph M. Toner, Sketch of Washington in Embryo, in Bryan, National Capital, description begins Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan. A History of the National Capital: From Its Foundation through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act. 2 vols. New York, 1914–16. description ends 51a). Claiming that these circumstances made “150 Acres” of his land worthless, Burnes argued that “there can be no square where it is cut to pieces by Streets,” and he asked for an “advance” of “1000 or 1500 pounds and let a final Settlement take place hereafter” (Burnes to D.C. Commissioners, 9 April 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). Burnes also resisted calls to allow passage through his property for the transportation of stone to the site of the President’s House, arguing that his newly repaired fences and crops would be ruined and thus harm his only significant source of income (see Burnes to D.C. Commissioners, 6 April 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). When Burnes refused to comply with the commissioners’ request that he remove his fence by 10 April, the commissioners proposed that he instead build a gate. As of June 1793, Burnes had done neither (see D.C. Commissioners to Burnes, 5, 8 April, 25 June 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent).
3. On 14 Feb., Tobias Lear answered Burnes’s letter: “The President of the U.S. directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter to him of the 12t[h] inst.—and to inform you, that, altho’ he is exceedingly sorry to learn that any misunderstanding has taken place between the Commissioners & yourself, relative to your land in the federal City; yet, as the Commissioners were appointed, according to law, for the special purpose of managing all matters within the District & city respecting the ground & public buildings, and thereby releiving the President from the details of that business (which the duties of his Office would have made it impossible for him to have ent[er]ed into) he declines any interference on the subject of your letter—and adds, that, from his knowledge of the Characters of the Gentlemen acting as Commissioners, he does not beleive there can be any intention, on their part, to avoid a strict compliance with the terms of the Contract made with the proprietors, or to withhold what is justly due to any individual concerned therein. But, that, if you conceive yourself injured by any conduct of their’s, the door is open for an appeal to that tribunal where every Citizen has a right to seek for justice” (DLC:GW). In a letter of 8 April, Burnes did threaten to sue the commissioners: “I have been told by the President of the United States to bring suit, also by many other Friends offering money to support me in my Just claim” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). The commissioners replied that same day, telling Burnes that “there is no occasion for any threats to induce us to do you justice,” and they offered to investigate his claims (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent).
4. Along with his son and another proprietor, George Walker, Burnes had been in Philadelphia since the latter part of January. However, he believed that Samuel Blodget, Jr., with the approval of the commissioners, had undercut his own effort in that city to sell lots (see Burnes to D.C. Commissioners, 8 April 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received). Despite his complaints, Burnes had sold all of his lots by 1798 (Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial, description begins Bob Arnebeck. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790–1800. Lanham, Md., and London, 1991. description ends 483).