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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

THE COUNTRY was free; war was over now, people felt; for ever, many fondly hoped. Settled in New York, where appeals to his talents as an architect and engineer made him prosperous for a time, L’Enfant believed such hopes to be vain, and that the country should at once make preparations so exhaustive that its wealth and defenselessness should not tempt any greedy enemy. He placed the problem before Congress, in a memoir still unprinted, which offers particular interest in our days, when the same problem is being again discussed.

“Sensible,” wrote L’Enfant, in the creditable if not faultless English he then spoke, “of the situation of affairs, and well impregnated with the spirit of republican government, I am far from intimating the idea of following other nations in their way of securing themselves against insult or invasions, surrounded as they are with powerful neighbors, who, being the objects of reciprocal jealousy, are forced to secure not only their frontier, but even their inland towns with fortifications, the much happier situation of the United States rendering those measures of little or no necessity.”

The States must act differently; but not to act at all would be folly. “How and upon what foundations could it be supposed that America will have nothing to fear from a rupture between any of the European Powers? … A neutral Power, it will be said, receives the benefit of a universal trade, has his possessions respected, as well as his colors, by all the Powers at war. This may be said of a powerful nation, but this America is not to expect; a neutral Power must be ready for war, and his trade depends on the means of protecting and making his colors respected. America, neutral without [a] navy, without troops or fortified harbors could have nothing but calamity to expect.” She cannot live free and develop in safety without “power to resent, ability to protect.”

A noteworthy statement, to be sure, and which deserves to be remembered. L’Enfant draws, thereupon, a plan of defense, especially insisting, of course, on the importance of his own particular branch, namely engineering.

Houdon’s brief visit, shortly after, in order to make Washington’s statue for the State of Virginia, must have been particularly pleasant to the major, to whom the great sculptor could bring news of his co-Academician, the old painter of the Gobelins Manufacture, father of the officer.

An unprinted letter of L’Enfant to the secretary of Congress, sitting then in New York, gives a number of details on Houdon’s stay in America. The Federal Congress had thought of ordering, in its turn, a statue of Washington, which would have been an equestrian one; but what would the cost be? A most important question in those days. On behalf of Houdon, who knew no English, L’Enfant wrote to Charles Thomson that Mr. Houdon could not “properly hazard to give him any answer relating [to] the cost of the general’s equestrian statue”; there are a great many ways of making such work, and Congress must say which it prefers. A book belonging to Mr. Houdon will shortly reach these shores, where particulars as to the “performance of the several statues which have been created in Europe are mentioned, together with their cost.” The book is on a vessel, soon expected, and which brings back Doctor Franklin’s “bagage.”

Congress had thought also of a marble bust for the hall where it sat. Houdon was taking home with him a finished model of the head of the great man, and had exhibited it, for every one to say his say, in the “room of Congress.”

Such busts, L’Enfant wrote, are “generally paid in Europe five thousand French livres”; but as many duplicates will probably be ordered from him, Houdon will lower the price to one hundred guineas. “He begs leave, however, to observe that a bust of the size of nature only may be fit for a private and small room, but not for such a large one as that devoted for the assembly of a Congress, where it should be necessary to have a bust of a larger size to have it appear to advantage.”

The price had been asked, too, of duplicates in plaster of Paris, for private citizens. The answer was: four guineas, also in the thought that a goodly number would be wanted, “provided that there be a subscription for a large number, and that the gentlemen who will have any of these busts in their possession consider themselves as engaged to prevent any copy from being taken; this last condition he humbly insists upon.”

As for the original, Houdon is anxious to know what the compatriots of the general think of it; any criticism would be welcome: “Mr. Houdon hopes that Congress is satisfied with the bust he has had the honor to submit to their examination, begs the gentlemen who may have some objections to communicate them to him, and he flatters himself that Congress will favor him with their opinion in writing, which he will consider as a proof of their satisfaction and keep as a testimony of their goodness.”

He is just about to sail, and the bust has to be removed at once: “Mr. Houdon, being to embark to-morrow morning, begs leave to take out the general’s bust from the room of Congress this afternoon.”

L’Enfant’s chief work in New York consisted in the remodelling of the old, or rather older (but not oldest), City Hall, the one which preceded that now known, in its turn, as the old one. The undertaking was of importance, the question being of better accommodating Congress, which had left Philadelphia with a grudge toward that city, and was now sitting in New York. A large sum, for those days, had been advanced by patriotic citizens, which sum, however, L’Enfant’s habit to see things “en grand” caused to be insufficient by more than half. The city hoped that the devising of such a structure would be for it one more title to be selected as the federal capital, and it therefore did not protest, but on the contrary caused a “testimonial” to be officially presented to L’Enfant, highly praising his work: “While the hall exists it will exhibit a most respectable monument of your eminent talents, as well as of the munificence of the citizens.” L’Enfant received “the freedom of the city” by “special honorifick patent,” as he wrote later, and he was, moreover, offered ten acres of land near Provost Lane, “which latter he politely declined.”

The building won general admiration for its noble appearance, the tasteful brilliancy of its ornamentation, and its commodious internal arrangements. The only objections came from the Anti-Federalists, who called it the “Fools’ Trap,” in which appellation politics had, obviously, more to do than architecture.

L’Enfant, a man of ideas, had tried to make of the renovated hall something characteristically American, if not in the general style, which was classical, at least in many details. National resources had been turned into use; in the Senate chamber the chimneys were of American marble, which, “for beauties of shade and polish, is equal to any of its kind in Europe.” The capitals of the pilasters were “of a fanciful kind, the invention of Major L’Enfant, the architect.… Amidst their foliage appears a star and rays, and a piece of drapery below suspends a small medallion with U. S. in a cipher. The idea is new and the effect pleasing; and although they cannot be said to be of any ancient order, we must allow that they have an appearance of magnificence.” The frieze outside was so divided as to give room for thirteen stars in so many metopes. A much-talked-of eagle, with thirteen arrows in its talons, which, unluckily, could not be ready for March 4, 1789, when Congress met in the hall for the first time under the newly voted Constitution, was the chief ornament on the pediment. On the 22d of April the news could be sent to the Salem Mercury: “The eagle in front of the Federal State-House is displayed. The general appearance of this front is truly august.” The emblem was thus at its proper place when the chief event that Federal Hall, as it was then called, was to witness occurred, on the 30th of the same month, the day of the first inauguration of the first President of the United States.

Crowds came to visit what was then the most beautiful building in the country; but better than crowds came, and one visit was for the major more touching and flattering than all the others put together—the wife of his general, now the President, Mrs. Washington, caused Colonel Humphreys and Mr. Lear to make arrangements with L’Enfant for her to inspect the hall, in June of the inauguration year.

The expensive and greatly admired monument was to experience the strange fate of being survived by its author. Becoming again City Hall when Congress, soon after, left New York to go back, reconciled, to Philadelphia, it was pulled down in 1812, the building itself being sold at auction for four hundred and twenty-five dollars: and thus disappeared, to the regret of all lovers of ancient souvenirs, the beautiful chimneys in American marble, the “truly august” eagle with its thirteen arrows, and the first really American capitals ever devised, and which, though in a new style, were yet “magnificent.”

One solitary souvenir of the building remains, however, that is, the middle part of the railing on which Washington must have leaned when taking the oath; a piece of wrought iron of a fine ornamental style, now preserved with so many other interesting relics of old New York on the ground floor of the New York Historical Society’s Museum. In the same room can be seen several contemporary views of Federal Hall, one in watercolor, by Robertson, 1798; another, an engraving, showing every detail of the façade, represents, as the inscription runs, “Federal Hall, the Seat of Congress.—Printed and sold by A. Doolittle, New Haven, 1790.—A. Doolittle Sc. Pet. Lacour del.”

Shortly before the inauguration of the first President, L’Enfant had had to lend his help for the devising of a grand, artistic, historical, and especially political procession, a Federalist one, arranged in the hope of influencing public opinion and securing the vote of the Constitution by the State of New York. This now revered text was then the subject of ardent criticism; famous patriots like Patrick Henry had detected in it something royalistic, which has long ceased to be apparent, and were violent in their denunciation of this instrument of tyranny. New York was in doubt; its convention had met at Poughkeepsie in June, 1788, and it seemed as if an adverse vote were possible. The procession was then thought of.

It took place on Monday, the 23d of July, and was a grand affair, with artillery salute, trumpeters, foresters, Christopher Columbus on horseback, farmers, gardeners, the Society of the Cincinnati “in full military uniform,” brewers showing in their ranks, “mounted on a tun of ale, a beautiful boy of eight years, in close-fitting, flesh-colored silk, representing Bacchus, with a silver goblet in his hand,” butchers, tanners, cordwainers “surrounding the car of the Sons of Saint Crispin,” furriers exhibiting “an Indian in native costume, loaded with furs, notwithstanding it was one of the hottest days in July.”

The chief object of wonder was the good ship Hamilton, presented by the ship-carpenters, mounted on wheels, a perfect frigate of thirty-two guns, with its crew, complete, firing salutes on its way. The confectioners surrounded an immense “Federal cake.” The judges and lawyers were followed by “John Lawrence, John Cozine, and Robert Troup, bearing the new Constitution elegantly engrossed on vellum, and ten students of law followed, bearing in order the ratification of the ten States.” The tin-plate workers exhibited “the Federal tin warehouse, raised on ten pillars, with the motto:

  • When three more pillars rise,
  • Our Union will the world surprise.”
  • —tin-plate poetry, for the tin warehouse. Then came learned men, physicians, clergymen, the regent and students of Columbia University, scholars, and among them Noah Webster, famous since as a lexicographer, and then as a professor and journalist, now admired by everybody, but, in those days of strife, only by Federalists—“a mere pedagogue,” disdainfully wrote Jefferson later, “of very limited understanding and very strong prejudices,” in saying which he himself, maybe, showed some prejudice, too.

    A grand banquet, at which, according to the New York Journal and Weekly Register, bullocks were roasted whole for the “regale” of the guests, was held at the extreme point reached by the procession, called by the same paper the “parade des fêtes champêtres.” The President and members of Congress sat under a dome devised by L’Enfant. It was “surmounted by a figure of Fame, with a trumpet proclaiming a new era, and holding a scroll emblematic of the three great epochs of the war: Independence—Alliance with France—Peace.”

    This was greatly admired. “The committee,” we read in a note printed by their order in the Imperial Gazetteer, “would be insensible of the zeal and merit of Major L’Enfant were they to omit expressing the obligation which they are under to him for the elegance of the design and the excellence of the execution of the pavilion and tables.”

    The whole was a considerable success. “As it redounds much to the credit of the citizens, …” another paper observes, “it ought to be remarked that there was not the least outrage, or even indecency, notwithstanding 6,000 or 7,000 people (as supposed, spectators included) had collected, and that the whole company was dismissed at half after five o’clock.”

    Three days after the procession the vote was taken at Poughkeepsie, and if any influence at all could be attributed to the effect on public opinion of the quasi-mediæval pageant, its organizers must have felt proud, for in an assembly of fifty-seven the Constitution was actually voted by a majority of two.