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Jean Jules Jusserand (1855–1932). With Americans of Past and Present Days. 1916.


II. Major L’Enfant and the Federal City

LITTLE more than a century ago the hill on which rises the Capitol of the federal city and the ground around it were covered with woods and underbrush; a few scattered farms had been built here and there, with one or two exceptions mere wooden structures whose low roofs scarcely emerged from their leafy surroundings. Not very long before, Indians had used to gather on that eminence and hold their council-fires.

As far now as the eye can reach the picturesque outline of one of the finest cities that exist is discovered; steeples and pinnacles rise above the verdure of the trees lining the avenues within the unaltered frame supplied by the blue hills of Maryland and Virginia.

The will of Congress, the choice made by the great man whose name the city was to bear, the talents of a French officer, caused this change.

Debates and competitions had been very keen; more than one city of the North and of the South had put forth pleas to be the one selected and become the capital: Boston, where the first shot had been fired; Philadelphia, where independence had been proclaimed; Yorktown, where it had been won—Yorktown, modest as a city, but glorious by the events its name recalled, now an out-of-the-way borough, rarely visited, and where fifty white inhabitants are all that people the would-be capital of the new-born Union. New York also had been in the ranks, as well as Kingston, Newport, Wilmington, Trenton, Reading, Lancaster, Annapolis, Williamsburg, and several others. Passions were stirred to such an extent that the worst was feared, and that, incredible as it may now seem, Jefferson could speak of the “necessity of a compromise to save the Union.”

A compromise was, in fact, resorted to, which consisted in choosing no city already in existence, but building a new one on purpose. This solution had been early thought of, for Washington had written on October 12, 1783, to Chevalier de Chastellux: “They (Congress) have lately determined to make choice of some convenient spot near the Falls of the Delaware for the permanent residence of the sovereign power of these United States.” But would-be capitals still persisted in hoping they might be selected.

Congress made up its mind for good on the 16th of July, 1790, and decided that the President should be intrusted with the care of choosing “on the river Potomac” a territory, ten miles square, which should become the “Federal territory” and the permanent seat of the Government of the United States.

Washington thereupon quickly reached a decision; a great rider all his life, the hills and vales of the region were familiar to him; it soon became certain that the federal city would rise one day where it now stands. The spot seemed to him a particularly appropriate one for a reason which has long ceased to be so very telling, and which he constantly mentions in his letters as the place’s “centrality.”

But what sort of a city should it be? A residential one for statesmen, legislators, and judges, or a commercial one with the possibilities, considered then of the first order, afforded by the river, or a mixture of both? Should it be planned in view of the present or of the future, and of what sort of future?

With the mind of an artist and in some sense of a prophet, perceiving future time as clearly as if it were the present, a man foresaw, over a century ago, what we now see with our eyes. He was a French officer who had fought for the cause of independence, and had remained in America after the war, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

Some researches in French and American archives have allowed me to trace his ancestry, and to add a few particulars to what was already known of him.

Born at Paris, on August 2, 1754, he was the son of Pierre L’Enfant, “Painter in ordinary to the King in his Manufacture of the Gobelins.” The painter, whose wife was Marie Charlotte Leullier, had for his specialty landscapes and battle-scenes. Born at Anet, in 1704, on a farm which he bequeathed to his children, he was a pupil of Parrocel and had been elected an Academician in 1745. Some of his pictures are at Tours; six are at Versailles, representing as many French victories: the taking of Menin, 1744; of Fribourg, 1744; of Tournay, 1745; the battle of Fontenoy, 1745 (a favorite subject, several times painted by him); the battle of Laufeldt, 1747, where that young officer, destined to be Washington’s partner in the Yorktown campaign, Count Rochambeau, received, as we have seen before, his first wounds. The painter died a very old man, in the Royal Manufacture, 1787.

Young L’Enfant grew up among artistic surroundings, and, as subsequent events showed, received instruction as an architect and engineer. The cause of the United States had in him one of its earliest enthusiasts. In 1777, being then twenty-three, possessed of a commission of lieutenant in the French colonial troops, he sailed for America on one of those ships belonging to Beaumarchais’s mythical firm of “Hortalez and Co.,” a firm whose cargoes consisted in soldiers and ammunition for the insurgents, and which was as much a product of the dramatist’s brain as Figaro himself. Figaro, it is averred, has had a great influence in this world; Hortalez and Co. had not a small one, either. The ship had been named after the secretary of state, who was to sign, the following year, the United States’ only alliance, Le Comte de Vergennes, a name, wrote Beaumarchais, “fit to bring luck to the cargo, which is superb.” The superb cargo consisted, as usual, in guns and war supplies, also in men who might be of no less use for the particular sort of trade Hortalez and Co. were conducting. “Some good engineers and some cavalry officers will soon arrive,” Silas Deane was then writing to Congress. One of the engineers was Pierre Charles L’Enfant. His coming had preceded by one month the sailing of another ship with another appropriate name, the ship La Victoire, which brought Lafayette.

L’Enfant served first as a volunteer and at his own expense. “In February, 1778,” we read in an unpublished letter of his to Washington, “I was honored with a commission of captain of engineers, and by leave of Congress attached to the Inspector-general.… Seeing [after the winter of 1778–9] no appearance of an active campaign to the northward, my whole ambition was to attend the Southern army, where it was likely the seat of war would be transferred.” He was, accordingly, sent to Charleston, and obtained “leave to join the light infantry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens; his friendship furnished me,” he relates, “with many opportunities of seeing the enemy to advantage.”

Not “to advantage,” however, did he fight at Savannah, when the French and Americans, under d’Estaing and Lincoln, were repulsed with terrible loss. The young captain was leading one of the vanguard columns in the American contingent and, like d’Estaing himself, was grievously wounded. He managed to escape to Charleston. I was, he said, “in my bed till January, 1780. My weak state of health did not permit me to work at the fortifications of Charleston, and when the enemy debarked, I was still obliged to use a crutch.” He took part, however, in the fight, replacing a wounded major, and was made a prisoner at the capitulation. Rochambeau negotiated his exchange in January, 1782, for Captain von Heyden, a Hessian officer.

“Your zeal and active services,” Washington wrote back to L’Enfant, “are such as reflect the highest honor on yourself and are extremely pleasing to me, and I have no doubt they will have their due weight with Congress in any future promotion in your corps.” They had, in fact, in the following year, when, by a vote of the assembly, L’Enfant was promoted a major of engineers, 1783.

His knowledge of the art of fortification, his merit as a disciplinarian, the part he had taken, as he recalls in a letter to Count de La Luzerne, in devising the earliest “system of discipline and exercises which was finally adopted in the American army” (all that was done in that line was not by Steuben alone), rendered his services quite useful. His gifts as an artist, his cleverness at catching likenesses made him welcome among his brother officers. He would in the dreary days of Valley Forge draw pencil portraits of them, one, we know, of Washington, at the request of Lafayette, who wanted also to have a painted portrait. “I misunderstood you,” the general wrote him from Fredericksburg, on September 25, 1778; “else I would have had the picture made by Peale when he was at Valley Forge. When you requested me to sit to Monsieur Lanfang”—thus spelled, showing how pronounced by Washington—“I thought it was only to obtain the outlines and a few shades of my features, to have some prints struck from.”

Some such pencil portraits by L’Enfant subsist, for example in the Glover family at Washington, and are creditable and obviously true-to-nature sketches.

Whenever, during the war or after, something in any way connected with art was wanted, L’Enfant was, as a matter of course, appealed to, whether the question was of a portrait, of a banqueting hall, of a marble palace, a jewel, a solemn procession, a fortress to be raised, or a city to be planned. A man of many accomplishments, with an overflow of ideas and few competitors, he was the factotum of the new nation. When the French minister, La Luzerne, desired to arrange a grand banquet in honor of the birth of the Dauphin (the first one, who lived only eight years), he had a hall built on purpose, in Philadelphia, and L’Enfant was the designer. Baron de Closen, Rochambeau’s aide, writes as to this in his journal: “M. de La Luzerne offered a dinner that day to the legion of Lauzun, which had arrived the same morning (August 2, 1782). The hall which he caused to be built on purpose for the fête he gave on the occasion of the birth of the Dauphin, is very large and as beautiful as it can be. One cannot imagine a building in better taste; simplicity is there united with an air of dignity. It has been erected under the direction of Mr. de L’Enfant, a French officer, in the service of the American corps of engineers.” Closen adds that “Mr. Barbé de Marbois, counselor of embassy of our court, is too modest to admit that his advice had something to do with the result.”

When peace came, those officers who had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Americans returned home, bringing to the old continent new and fruitful ideas, those especially pertaining to equality and to the unreasonableness of class distinctions. Liberty had been learned from England; equality was from America.

L’Enfant was one of those who went back to France, but he did not stay. He had been away five years and wanted to see his old father, the painter, whose end now was near. A royal brevet of June 13, 1783, had conferred on the officer a small French pension of three hundred livres, “in consideration of the usefulness of his services, and of the wounds received by him during the American war.” He sailed for France late in the same year, reaching Havre on the 8th of December.

The Society of the Cincinnati had been founded in May. For the insignia appeal had been made as usual to the artist of the army, L’Enfant, who was, moreover, commissioned by Washington, first president of the association, to avail himself of his journey to order from some good Paris jeweller the eagles to be worn by the members, L’Enfant himself being one. He was also to help in organizing the French branch of the society. Difficulties had first been encountered, for the reason that no foreign order was then allowed in France, but it was recognized that this could scarcely be considered a foreign one. In an unpublished letter to Rochambeau, Marshal de Ségur, minister of war, said: “His Majesty the King asks me to inform you that he allows you to accept this honorable invitation (to be a member). He even wants you to assure General Washington, in his behalf, that he will always see with extreme satisfaction all that may lead to a maintenance and strengthening of the ties formed between France and the United States. The successes and the glory which have been the result and fruit of this union have shown how advantageous it is, and that it should be perpetuated.” Concerning the institution itself the minister wrote: “It is equally honorable because of the spirit which has inspired its creation and of the virtues and talents of the celebrated general whom it has chosen as its president.”

L’Enfant sent to Washington glowing accounts of the way the idea had been welcomed in France, and told him of the first meetings held, one at the house of Rochambeau, Rue du Cherche-Midi, for officers in the French service, and another at the house of Lafayette, Rue de Bourbon, for French officers who held their commissions from Congress, both groups deciding thereupon to unite, under Admiral d’Estaing as president-general.

What proved for L’Enfant, according to circumstances, one of his chief qualities, as well as one of his chief defects, was that, whatever the occasion, he ever saw “en grand.” It had been understood that he would pay the expenses of his journey, and that the Society of the Cincinnati would only take charge of those resulting from the making of the eagles. His own modest resources had been, as Duportail testified, freely spent by him during the war for the good of the cause, and little enough was left him. Nevertheless, did he write to Alexander Hamilton, “being arrived in France, everything there concurred to strengthen the sentiment which had made me undertake that voyage, and the reception which the Cincinnati met with soon induced me to appear in that country in a manner consistent with the dignity of the society of which I was regarded as the representative.” He spent without counting: “My abode at the court produced expenses far beyond the sums I had at first thought of.” He ordered the eagles from the best “artists, who rivalled each other for the honor of working for the society,” but wanted, however, to be paid; and a letter to Rochambeau, written later, shows him grappling with the problem of satisfying Duval and Francastel of Paris, who had supplied the eagles on credit, and to whom the large sum of twenty-two thousand three hundred and three livres were still due. These money troubles caused L’Enfant to shorten his stay in France; he was back in New York on the 29th of April, 1784, and after some discussion and delay, the society “Resolved, that, in consideration of services rendered by Major L’Enfant, the general meeting make arrangements for advancing him the sum of one thousand five hundred and forty-eight dollars, being the amount of the loss incurred by him in the negotiation for a number of eagles, or orders, of the Cincinnati.”