George Washington Papers

To George Washington from the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, 11–12 March 1793

From the Commissioners for the District of Columbia

George Town 11[–12]th March 1793


Doctor Thornton’s Plan for a Capitol has been laid before us;1 the rooms for the different Branches of Congress and the Conference Room, are much to our satisfaction and its outward appearance we expect will be Striking, & pleasing On the whole it gains our preference tho. we cannot but fear that several of the Small Rooms, of which there seems to us, there are more than necessary will want Light, perhaps by lessening the number of them the Objection may in some Measure be obviated—We have no estimate Accompanying the Plan, nor can one be formed soon which could give much satisfaction:2 In our Idea the Capital ought in point of propriety to be on a grand Scale, and that a Republic especially ought not to be sparing of expences on an Edifice for such purposes, yet under the uncertain State of our funds depending altogether on opinion though the current Seems to be gaining Strength we cannot but feel a degree of anxiety for the Event of Expensive undertakings, when According to the Candor of the World our Charecters will be judged, not on present Circumstances but on efficiency or want of funds when the Fact is disclosed: However we are willing to Act on your and our Ideas of propriety Regarding the destined Use and Circumstances of the United States Risking in some measure the efficiency of the Funds. It has been our wish from the beginning that there sho[u]ld be an inspection of our management of the Money subject to our disposition at proper Periods, and that Desire is Strengthened by a late Attempt as we have heared, to get Commissioners appointed by an improper Authority—We wish Investigations whilest Facts and Circumstances are Recent, and you therefore, greatly oblige us by Appointing Gentlemen to examine this subject and thereby open an Opportunity to Objections, to establish their Charges, or to us to close their Mouths3—The enclosed Copies of the Correspondence of the Commissioners at their last meeting with Major Ellicott, Manifest their dispos[it]ion and Intentions towards him the latter part of that sitting, he and Mr Briggs promised to be here agains the present meeting, but neither have yet come, and after being here a week we now (Monday) do not know whether to expect either of them to return again4—The Slow progress of the work gave us uneasiness, but making ourselves sure of its Accuracy we had patience, we are undeceived, for led by Information, which we did not invite, we have ordered a few of the Squares to be remeasured, it has been done by the Instruments used by Major Ellicott, for the like purposes, and the enclosed returns show the Result—Mistakes of Distances might now and then happen accidentally, but we can imagine nothing to excuse the certifying work as done, when it had not been done, when Confession and Embarrassment were so plainly to follow from it—We shall discharge Majr Ellicott, if he has not already discharged himself,5 and making as little Noise as we can avoid Run over a good deal of his work, which maybe speedily done, with a Chain sufficiently accurate to detect great errors, and we are led to think it the more necessary as we are told the Instances are not few where Division have been prepared, and taken place without any Actual Measurement, on the ground—We are truely sorry to find ourselves under a necessity to give you unpleasant Information so often but yet hope these errors may be set right without Remarking what has been marked out, for we are told that the Stakes appear to stand very well in the lines—Monday night Mr Blodget has arrived we hear nothing farther of Majr Ellicott or Mr Briggs.6 We are Sir, with great regard and true esteem, your most Ob. Hble Serts.

Th. Johnson

Dd. Stuart

Dan. Carrol

P.S. we expect the work will go on.

Con⟨’d⟩ Tuesday Evening 12th. Just as we were going to close the foregoing about 8 OClock Yesterday Evening Majr Ellicott his Brother Benjn7 and Mr Briggs arrived in a Stage—Anxious to get from here and determined to have an Intercourse with the Major in writing we wrote our letter to him enclosed,8 but before we could get it ready he had retired to Bed, tired we doubt [not] with his Journey, several letters, enc[l]osed passed between us to Day, on Receiving a Verbal message to the last of ours in effect that he agreed to every thing purposed, that he had not pen and Ink there, at Prout’s House 9, and it would be 10 OClock Tomorrow before he could for a certainty, give an Answer, we rode there and obtained possession of the large Plat,10 our Conver[sa]tion has ceased,11 and the Chief Business we have to do here at present, is to put the Surveyors Department on a Satisfactory Footing which we hope to do in the Morning—It is useless to trouble you with particulars of what past Verbally they cannot be collected to points.


LB, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent.

1Sometime between 3 and 11 Mar., William Thornton delivered to the commissioners his plan, which has not been identified, along with a letter from GW praising the design (GW to D.C. Commissioners, 3 Mar. 1793 [first letter]). GW formally approved the plan on 2 April (GW to D.C. Commissioners, 2 April 1793).

2Although the commissioners selected Thornton’s plan, they hired Stephen Hallet as supervising architect in early April and asked him to make detailed drawings based on Thornton’s design (see 10 April 1793, in DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings). Hallet objected to Thornton’s design as unpractical, time-consuming, and expensive, charges which Thornton addressed in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of c.12 July 1793 (Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 26:489–95). To resolve the impasse, GW asked Jefferson to convene a meeting in Philadelphia in July 1793, attended by Hallet, James Hoban, and two representatives of Thornton, William Williams and Thomas Carstairs (GW to Jefferson, 30 June, to Hallet and Hoban, 1 July 1793). All present approved Hallet’s altered version of Thornton’s design (Jefferson to GW, 17 July 1793). For GW’s opinion of this altered plan, see GW to D.C. Commissioners, 25 July 1793.

3On 9 Sept. 1793 GW informed Robert Townsend Hooe of Alexandria, Va., and David Ross of Bladensburg, Md., of their appointment to investigate the commissioners’ accounts and expenditures. In their report to the commissioners dated 31 Oct., Hooe and Ross declared the federal district’s treasury records to be accurate and complete (see 29 Oct.—1 Nov., DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings). The commissioners enclosed the report in a letter to GW of 3 November.

4For the enclosed correspondence, see notes 8, 11. Quaker Isaac Briggs (1763–1825) helped Andrew Ellicott establish the boundary of the federal district and worked on the Federal City until December 1793. He became the first surveyor general of American territory south of Tennessee in 1803 and mapped the first public mail route between the Federal City and New Orleans. He spent the last years of his life working as chief engineer on the Erie Canal. Briggs wrote a letter to the commissioners on 12 Jan. 1793 defending Ellicott (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received).

The commissioners had begun their March meeting on the previous Monday, 4 Mar., and concluded it on Thursday, Mar. 14 (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings).

5By order of the D.C. commissioners, George Fenwick, an assistant to Ellicott who later went on to help James R. Dermott resurvey the Federal City and take new soundings of the Potomac River beginning in 1795, had examined several of the questionable squares (see 8–9 Mar. 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings; Ehrenberg, “Mapping the Nation’s Capital,” description begins Ralph E. Ehrenberg. “Mapping the Nation’s Capital: The Surveyor’s Office, 1791–1818.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36 (1979): 279–319. description ends 94, 290). The enclosed report from Fenwick has not been identified. For the commissioners’ dismissal of Ellicott, see note 11.

6Samuel Blodget, Jr., whom the D.C. commissioners in early January had appointed superintendent of the Federal City, had since that time been in Philadelphia selling lots and lottery tickets for the District of Columbia (D.C. Commissioners to Blodget, 5 Jan. 1793, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent; Blodget to D.C. Commissioners, 26 Jan., 3 Mar. 1793, in DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received).

7Benjamin Ellicott (1765–1827), a surveyor and cartographer, began working in the federal district in 1791 with his older brother Andrew Ellicott and Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He continued to work on the Federal City until December 1793 (see GW to D.C. Commissioners, 3 April 1793, n.6). He later helped survey western New York for the Holland Land Company, and he represented that state in Congress 1817–19.

8In their letter to Ellicott of 11 Mar., the commissioners wrote: “We received information of many Inaccuracies in the returns of work done in the City, and of several Squares certified and divided which had not been measured or marked on the Ground—Expecting you and Mr Briggs would be here early in the Meeting in Consequence of your Promise, to be down the first Day of it we forbare for several Days to go into an Exemination: At length Dispairing of seeing you within the Time, that could be any way convenient to us to Stay, we got Mr Finwick to remeasure in some Instances, where it would be done, and we enclose you the result drawn up in a Short View, which seems too well to verify the information—You cannot be surprized Sir that under these Circumstances the eight Day our meeting we had formed Conclusions, very contrary to the Confidence essential to your Office, and that we now desire you will not proceed in it untill you can satisfy us that these things have not happened from any reprehensible Cause, and to prevent the possibility of any misunderstanding and misrepresentation we request you will be particular in writing” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent).

9In early 1791 Englishman William Prout had purchased 500 acres in the federal district that bordered on the Eastern Branch and ran northward from there to a point just past the planned intersection of Massachusetts and Maryland Avenues. Since he lived and worked in Baltimore as a merchant, Prout rented the house on his land to Ellicott, who used it as an office (Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial, description begins Bob Arnebeck. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790–1800. Lanham, Md., and London, 1991. description ends 45, 140; Joseph M. Toner’s map, “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).

10On the plat in Ellicott’s possession, see Jefferson to GW, 18 Feb. 1793 (first letter).

11The correspondence on 12 Mar. between the commissioners and Ellicott began with disagreements over the manner in which Ellicott would defend his surveys and character before the commissioners and ended with the commissioners’ dismissal of him. Ellicott first informed the commissioners that in response to their letter to him of the previous day, “it will in my opinion be most proper, and expedient, to have the explanation immediately at the office in the City. . . . It is my meaning, that the explanation should be personal much information may be given by few words which would take much writing.” The commissioners responded with a short note: “We cannot agree to receive a Verbal Explanation, and wish it in writing, as soon as possible, for our stay here grows extremely Irksome.” Ellicott countered that such “an explanation in writing . . . will be a work of time: which at present, is of too much importance, to be wasted in an enquiry that, will eventually be found too trifling, to need one moments attention—I therefore wish to know, whether the business alluded to in mine of this date, is to stop or no?” The commissioners’ last letter to Ellicott of 12 Mar. reads: “We think it very far from a work of Time to give us the Satisfaction required and in the Manner we desired, and from 10. to 110 Feet of Land in a Square not so triffling a Difference, between Seller and Buyer as not draw at least their Attention—The work cannot with propriety nor shall proceed, till what is done has been examined and Mistakes endeavoured at least to be rectified—The Surveyors Department was soon to have been in other Hands, it is as well it should be so immediately—This is to inform you that we shall no longer expect, or desire, your Services, and to acquaint you to deliver up to us, in the House we now are, all papers concerning the Business you have had in Hand, and all the Instruments and property belonging to the City” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received; DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent). For the continuation of this dispute, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 13 Mar. 1793, and note 3.

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