Philadelphia 20th Feby 1797.
Reasons which I have frequently assigned, have prevented me from acknowledging sooner, the receipt of your letter of the 3d instant; relatively to the Memorial of Mr Davidson. Indeed I have so often expressed my unwillingness to depart from the engraved plan in every instance where it could be avoided, that I had hoped no repetition of this sort would have been made to you, by any of the Proprietors.
Whether the area in front of the building intended for the President of the United States be circular, according to Majr L’Enfants plan, or square as the engraved one represents, is immaterial in the abstract, or as it concerns the Public and Mr Davidson only; but if the gratification of that gentleman sets a principle a float, and thereby opens a door to similar applications, it attaches an importance which may involve inextricable difficulties.
To what Mr Davidson alludes in the scored part of the following sentence, "I can venture to assert that numberless deviations were made by Majr Ellicott from the original plan, and I have reason to believe that many have been made since" you, much better than I, can explain—That many alterations have been made from Majr L’Enfants plan by Majr Ellicott, (with the approbation of the Executive) is not denied; that some were deemed essential is avowed; and had it not been for the materials which he happened to possess, ’tis probable no engraving from Majr L’Enfants draught would ever have been exhibited to the public; for after the disagreement which took place between him and the late Commissioners, his obstinacy threw every difficulty it could, in the way of its accomplishment.
To this summary may be added, that Mr Davidson is mistaken if he supposes, that the transmission of Majr L’Enfants Plan of the City to Congress, was the completion thereof. So far from it, it will appear by the message which accompanied the same that it was given as matter of information, to show in what state the business was in, & the return of it requested—That neither house of Congress passed any act consequent thereupon. That it remained as before, under the controul of the Executive. That afterwards, several errors were discovered & corrected, many alterations made, and the appropriations (except as to the Capital & Presidents house) struck out under that authority, before it was sent to the Engraver; intending that his work, & the promulgation thereof, were to give it the final, & regulating Stamp.
I have been thus particular to show that Mr Davidson is not treading on solid ground, or in other words, that he is claiming as a matter of right what can only be yielded on the principle of harmony; or for mutual benefit; and therefore, it only remains to be repeated, that if the proposed alteration would have a tendency towards inviting applications of a similar nature I shall be decidedly against the measure. If on the other hand, the case is singular, & no consequences would be involved in the acquiescence; as it is immaterial whether the area is semicircular or square; as contention may be avoided—and both parties, in a pecuniary point of view benefited, I leave the question, under the provisos before mentioned, to your own decision, as you must have a more comprehensive view of circumstances than I can acquire.
The other part of Mr Davidson’s Memorial is yet more extraordinary; for if the Proprietors—in consideration of having the permanent Seat of the Government established among them, Yielded a portion of their property for public uses—shall, afterwards, take upon themselves to decide what shall not be done with it; they may, by the same parity of reason, direct the uses to which the squares shall be applied. This is too absurd. With esteem & regard—I am Gentlemen Yr Obedient Servt
P.S. I am informed that Mr Hadfield is enquiring, in this City, for Carvers. I earnestly recommend, that all Carving not absolutely necessary to preserve consistency, may be avoided; as well to save time and expence, as because I believe it is not so much the taste now as formerly.
DLC: Papers of George Washington.