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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 SAME year in which the New York Federal Hall had seen the inauguration of the first President, the chance of his life came to L’Enfant. He deserved it, because he not only availed himself of it, but went forth to meet it, giving up his abode in New York, “where I stood at the time,” he wrote later, “able of commanding whatever business I liked.” This was the founding of the federal city.

The impression was a general one among the French that those insurgents whom they had helped to become a free nation were to be a great one, too. Leaving England, where he was a refugee during our Revolution, Talleyrand decided to come to the United States, “desirous of seeing,” he says in his memoirs, “that great country whose history begins.” General Moreau, also a refugee, a few years later spoke with the same confidence of the future of the country: “I had pictured to myself the advantages of living under a free government; but I had conceived only in part what such happiness is: here it is enjoyed to the full.… It is impossible for men who have lived under such a government to allow themselves ever to be subjugated; they would be very great cowards if they did not perish to the last in order to defend it.”

L’Enfant, with his tendency to see things “engrand,” could not fail to act accordingly, and the moment he heard that the federal city would be neither New York nor Philadelphia, nor any other already in existence, but one to be built expressly, he wrote to Washington a letter remarkable by his clear understanding of the opportunity offered to the country, and by his determined purpose to work not for the three million inhabitants of his day, but for the one hundred of ours, and for all the unborn millions that will come after us.

The letter is dated from New York, 11th of September, 1789. “Sir,” he said, “the late determination of Congress to lay the foundation of a city which is to become the capital of this vast empire offers so great an occasion of acquiring reputation to whoever may be appointed to conduct the execution of the business that your Excellency will not be surprised that my ambition and the desire I have of becoming a useful citizen should lead me to wish a share in the undertaking.

“No nation, perhaps, had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital city should be fixed.… And, although the means now within the power of the country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extent, it will be obvious that the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any period, however remote. Viewing the matter in this light, I am fully sensible of the extent of the undertaking.”

Washington knew that L’Enfant was afflicted, to be sure, with an “untoward” temper, being haughty, proud, intractable, but that he was honest withal, sincere, loyal, full of ideas, and remarkably gifted. He decided to intrust him with the great task, thus justifying, a little later, his selection: “Since my first knowledge of the gentleman’s abilities in the line of his profession, I have received him not only as a scientific man, but one who has added considerable taste to professional knowledge; and that, for such employment as he is now engaged in, for prosecuting public works and carrying them into effect, he was better qualified than any one who had come within my knowledge in this country.” The President informed L’Enfant that he was to set to work at once, and so bestir himself as to have at least a general plan to show a few months later, when he himself would return from a trip South. On March 2, 1791, Washington announced to Colonel Dickens, of Georgetown, the coming of the major: “An eminent French military engineer starts for Georgetown to examine and survey the site of the federal city.” A few days later the arrival of “Major Longfont” was duly recorded by the Georgetown Weekly Ledger.

L’Enfant’s enthusiasm and his desire to do well and quickly had been raised to a high pitch. He reached the place a few days later and found it wrapped in mist, soaked in rain, but he would not wait. “I see no other way,” he wrote to Jefferson on the 11th, “if by Monday next the weather does not change, but of making a rough draft as accurate as may be obtained by viewing the ground in riding over it on horseback, as I have already done yesterday through the rain, to obtain a knowledge of the whole.… As far as I was able to judge through a thick fog, I passed on many spots which appeared to me really beautiful, and which seem to dispute with each other [which] commands.”

When he could see the place to better advantage, his admiration knew no bounds. In an unpublished letter to Hamilton he says: “Now, when you may probably have heard that I am finally charged with delineating a plan for the city, I feel a sort of embarrassment how to speak to you as advantageously as I really think of the situation determined upon; for, as there is no doubt, I must feel highly interested in the success of the undertaking, I become apprehensive of being charged with partiality when I assure you that no position in America can be more susceptible of grand improvement than that between the eastern branch of the Potomac and Georgetown.”

A few weeks later L’Enfant was doing the honors of the spot to a brother artist, the painter Trumbull, just back from Yorktown, where he had been sketching in view of his big picture of the surrendering of Cornwallis, and who wrote in his autobiography: “Then to Georgetown, where I found Major L’Enfant drawing his plan of the city of Washington; rode with him over the ground on which the city has since been built. Where the Capitol now stands was then a thick wood.” (May, 1791.)

Another visitor of note came in the same year, namely the French minister, a former companion in arms of Lafayette and of L’Enfant himself, Ternant, back from a three days’ stay at Mount Vernon, and who gave his government an account of what he had observed: “I would not leave Georgetown without having seen the ground destined for the federal city. The position seemed to me a most interesting one from every point of view. The French engineer who has already traced the streets, is busy preparing a detailed plan.… The President shows the greatest interest in this new Salente, which is to bear his name.”

The city, L’Enfant thought, must be great, beautiful, and soon peopled, drawn “on that grand scale on which it ought to be planned”; meant to absorb “Georgetown itself, whose name will before long be suppressed, and its whole district become a part of the cession.” It must be quickly filled with inhabitants, because this will strengthen the Union: “I earnestly wish all that the Eastern States can spare may come this way, and believe it would answer as good a purpose as that of their emigration to the West. It would deface that line of markation which will ever oppose the South against the East, for when objects are seen at a distance the idea we form of them is apt to mislead us … and we fancy monstrous that object which, from a nearer view, would charm us.… Hence arises a natural though unwarrantable prejudice of nations against nations, of States against States, and so down to individuals, who often mistrust one another for want of being sufficiently acquainted with each other.”

The city must be beautiful, due advantage being taken of the hilly nature of the spot for grand or lovely prospects, and of its water resources for handsome fountains and cascades: “five grand fountains intended, with a constant spout of water—a grand cascade” at the foot of Capitol Hill, etc., a part of the plan which was, unluckily, left in abeyance. Some had spoken of a plain rectangular plan, “a regular assemblage of houses laid out in squares, and forming streets all parallel and uniform.” This might be good enough, L’Enfant declared, “on a well-level plain, where, no surrounding object being interesting, it becomes indifferent which way the opening street may be directed.” But the case is quite different with the future federal city: “Such regular plans, however answerable they may appear on paper … become at last tiresome and insipid, and it could never be, in its origin, but a mean continence of some cool imagination wanting a sense of the really grand and truly beautiful, only to be met with where nature contributes with art and diversifies the objects.” We may imagine what his feelings would be if he saw, in our days, the steam-shovel busy around the city, dumping as many hills as possible into as many vales, and securing a maximum platitude.

But the city must be more than that; besides being beautiful, healthy, commodious, it should be full of sentiment, of associations, of ideas; everything in it must be evocative and have a meaning and a “raison d’être.” Rarely was a brain more busy than that of L’Enfant during the first half of the year 1791. Surveying the ground, mapping out the district, sketching the chief buildings of the model city that was to be, he presented three reports to Washington, the first, giving only his general ideas, before the end of March, the second in June, the last in August, the two latter accompanied with plans, the last of which being the one which was followed in the building of the city.

By the amplitude of its scope, the logic of the arrangements, the breadth of the streets and avenues, the beauty of the prospects cleverly taken into account, the quantity of ground set apart for gardens and parks, the display of waters, the plan was a unique monument. The selection of the place for what we call the Capitol and the White House, which were then called the Federal House and the Palace for the President, near which the ministerial departments were to be built, had been the result of a good deal of thinking and comparing. “After much menutial [sic] search for an eligible situation, prompted, as I may say, from a fear of being prejudiced in favor of a first opinion, I could discover no one so advantageously to greet the congressional building as is that on the west end of Jenkins heights, which stand as a pedestal waiting for a monument.… Some might, perhaps, require less labor to be made agreeable, but, after all assistance of arts, none ever would be made so grand.” On that very pedestal now rises the Capitol of the United States.

As for the “Presidential Palace,” L’Enfant made his choice with the object, he says, of “adding to the sumptuousness of a palace the convenience of a house and the agreeableness of a country meat,” which are the three main qualities actually combined in the present White House. He selected a spot which Washington had himself noticed as a convenient one, at some distance from Congress, it is true, but that would not matter much, L’Enfant thought, with his old-world notions of etiquette, for “no message to nor from The President is to be made without a sort of decorum which will doubtless point out the propriety of committee waiting on him in carriage, should his palace be even contiguous to Congress.” Since it was a question of driving, it little mattered whether the drive was to be a little more or less long.

For different reasons President Washington approved of that distance; major e longinquo amicitia, he apparently thought. “Where and how,” he once wrote to Alexander White, “the houses for The President and other public officers may be fixed is to me as an individual a matter of moonshine, but … the daily intercourse which the secretaries of the departments must have with The President would render a distant situation extremely inconvenient to them; and not much less so would one be close to the Capitol, for it was the universal complaint of them all, that while the legislature was in session they could do little or no business, so much were they interrupted by the individual visits of members (in office hours) and by calls for papers. Many of them have declared to me that they have often been obliged to go home and deny themselves in order to transact the current business.” In that respect, carriage or no carriage, distance would have its merits.

L’Enfant’s letters and the notes accompanying his plans show that everything in the future city had been devised, indeed, with an intention: ever-flowing fountains and a cascade for health and beauty; an avenue of noble buildings, leading from the Capitol to the Presidential House, and increasing the dignified appearance of both: “The grand avenue,” he wrote, “connecting both the Palace and the Federal House will be most magnificent and most convenient,” with a number of handsome monuments, a very characteristic one being a temple for national semireligious celebrations, “such as public prayer, thanksgivings, funeral orations, etc., and assigned to the special use of no particular sect or denomination, but equally opened to all.” It would also be a pantheon for the illustrious dead, “as may hereafter be decreed by the voice of a grateful nation.” A column, as yet never built, was “to be erected to celebrate the first rise of a navy, and to stand a ready monument to consecrate its progress and achievements.” The squares were to be allotted, one to each of the States forming the Union: “The centre of each square will admit of statues, columns, obelisks, or any other ornaments … to perpetuate not only the memory of such individuals whose counsels or military achievements were conspicuous in giving liberty and independence to this country, but also those whose usefulness hath rendered them worthy of general imitation, to invite the youth of succeeding generations to tread in the paths of those sages or heroes whom their country has thought proper to celebrate.” This was a way, L’Enfant considered, of fortifying the Union and of giving to the very city that educational value to which he attached so much importance.

Chief among those patriotic objects was to be, at some distance north of the place where the Washington monument now rises, “the equestrian figure of George Washington, a monument voted in 1783 by the late Continental Congress.” And L’Enfant must certainly have hoped that the author would be his illustrious compatriot, the sculptor Houdon, on whose behalf we have seen him writing to Congress, in 1785, as to the probable cost.

Distant views and prospects were, of course, to be used to the best advantage: “Attention has been paid to the passing of those leading avenues over the most favorable ground for prospect and convenience.” But, above all, L’Enfant was persistent in his request that, on no account, the grandeur of his conception be in any way curtailed: it was to remain commensurate with the greatness of the United States of future times. The plan “must leave to posterity a grand idea of the patriotic interest which promoted it.” He foresaw much opposition to some of his ideas, but besought the President to stand by him, and especially to prevent any dwarfing of his views: “I remain assured you will conceive it essential to pursue with dignity the operation of an undertaking of a magnitude so worthy of the concern of a grand empire … over whose progress the eyes of every other nation, envying the opportunity denied them, will stand judge.”

To make a man of that temper and enthusiasm, having a reason for each of his propositions, accept hints and change his mind was almost an impossibility. In vain did Jefferson object “to the obligation to build the houses at a given distance from the street.… It produces a disgusting monotony; all persons make this complaint against Philadelphia.” In the same record of his views, however, and much more to his credit, Washington’s secretary of state is seen foreseeing the sky-scraper and its dangers: “In Paris it is forbidden to build a house beyond a given height, and it is admitted to be a good restriction. It keeps down the price of grounds, keeps the houses low and convenient, and the streets light and airy. Fires are much more manageable when houses are low,” as was only too well evidenced since in the fires at Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

As for the President himself, he had well-determined, practical ideas on some points, such as the befitting distance between the places of abode of Congress and of the chief of the state, and, what was of more import, the necessarily large extent of the ground to be reserved for the building of the future capital. On the rest, with his habit of trusting those who knew, he seems to have left free rein to L’Enfant. Submitting to him certain suggestions, some from Jefferson, he allows him to use them or not, as he pleases, and he personally seems to incline toward not: “Sir, although I do not conceive that you will derive any material advantage from an examination of the inclosed papers, yet, as they have been drawn under different circumstances and by different persons, they may be compared with your own ideas of a proper plan for the federal city.… The rough sketch by Mr. Jefferson was done under an idea that no offer worthy of consideration would come from the landholders in the vicinity of Carrollsburgh, from the backwardness which appeared in them, and therefore was accommodated to the grounds about Georgetown.”

Criticism of L’Enfant’s plan turned out to be insignificant, and the approbation general. “The work of Major L’Enfant, which is greatly admired, will show,” Washington said, “that he had many objects to attend to and to combine, not on paper merely, but to make them correspond with the actual circumstances of the ground.” Jefferson, who had the good taste not to stick to his own former suggestions, was sending, a little later, copies of the plan to Gouverneur Morris, then minister to France, for him to exhibit in various cities as a thing for the United States to be proud of: “I sent you by the way of London a dozen plans of the city of Washington in the Federal territory, hoping you would have them displayed to public view where they would be most seen by those descriptions of men worthy and likely to be attracted to it. Paris, Lyons, Rouen, and the seaport towns of Havre, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Marseille would be proper places to send them to.”

Three assistants had been given to L’Enfant, two of the Ellicot brothers (Andrew and Benjamin) and Isaac Roberdeau, the major’s trustiest second. Three Commissioners of the District had been appointed, Thomas Johnson and Daniel Carroll, both of Maryland, and David Stuart, of Virginia. They notified L’Enfant, on the 9th of September, 1791, that a name had been selected for the district and the city: “We have agreed that the federal district shall be called ‘the Territory of Columbia,’ and the federal city ‘the City of Washington.’ The title of the map will therefore be ‘A map of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia.’”

For the expropriation of the ground with a minimum actual outlay, an ingenious system, also applied elsewhere, had been adopted: “The terms entered into by me,” Washington wrote to Jefferson, “on the part of the United States with the landowners of Georgetown and Carrollsburgh, are that all the land from Rock Creek along the river to the Eastern Branch … is ceded to the public, on condition that, when the whole shall be surveyed and laid off as a city, which Major L’Enfant is now directed to do, the present proprietors shall retain every other lot, and for such parts of the land as may be taken for public use they shall be allowed at the rate of twenty-five pounds per acre, the public having the right to reserve such parts of the wood on the land as may be thought necessary to be preserved for ornament; the landholders to have the use and profit of all the grounds until the city is laid off into lots, which by this agreement became public property. Nothing is to be allowed for the ground which may be occupied as streets or alleys.” The President was confident that everybody would acquiesce and show good-will, “even the obstinate Mr. Burns.”

But it turned out that there were other obstinate people besides Mr. Burns, L’Enfant himself chief among them. He had evinced from the first a great fear of speculators, and was at once at war with them. “How far,” he boldly wrote to Hamilton, “I have contributed to overset that plotting business, it would not do for me to tell; besides, I am not wholly satisfied whether I would be thanked for by the people among whom you live.” The three Commissioners had notions of their own, but could never bring L’Enfant to take into account either their persons or their ideas; he would acknowledge no chief except Washington, who, gently at first, firmly afterward, sternly later, and vainly throughout, tried to make the major understand that he was one of the Commissioners’ subordinates. A great reciprocal irritation, which even the President’s painstaking diplomacy could not assuage, began between them from the first. Out of fear of speculators, L’Enfant wanted the sale of the lots to be delayed, while the Commissioners desired to make a beginning as soon as possible. The officer kept, accordingly, his plan to himself, and refused to have it shown to would-be purchasers. How, then, Washington exclaimed, could they be “induced to buy, to borrow an old adage, a pig in a poke”?

The major would not be persuaded, and, giving an early example of an unconquerable fear of what would now be called a “trust,” he persisted in refusing to show his plan to any individual or association. He had declared beforehand, in one of his reports to the President, what were his views and how things should be delayed until the plan could be engraved, distributed all over the country, and made known to all people at the same time: “A sale made previous the general plan of the distribution of the city is made public, and before the circumstance of that sale taking place has had time to be known through the whole continent, will not call a sufficient concurrence, and must be confined to a few individuals speculating … and the consequence of a low sale in this first instance may prove injurious to the subsequent ones by serving as precedents.” He was afraid of the “plotting of a number of certain designing men,” of the forming of a “society” organized “to engross the most of the sale and master the whole business.”

When one of the chief landowners of the district, Daniel Carroll, of Duddington, a relative of one of the Commissioners, decided, in spite of all warnings, to go on with the building of a house across what was to be New Jersey Avenue, matters came to a crisis. Washington tried to pacify L’Enfant, whose indignation knew no bounds. “As a similar case,” he wrote to him, “cannot happen again (Mr. Carroll’s house having been begun before the federal district was fixed upon), no precedent will be established by yielding a little in the present instance; and it will always be found sound policy to conciliate the good-will rather than provoke the enmity of any man, where it can be accomplished without much difficulty, inconvenience, or loss.”

But even at the request of a leader whom he worshipped, L’Enfant would not be persuaded. With no authority from the Commissioners, he sent his faithful Roberdeau to raze the house to the ground, which was but partly done when the Commissioners had Roberdeau arrested. L’Enfant thereupon came in person with some laborers, and saw the work of destruction perfected (November 22). He barely escaped arrest himself. Washington, who, as he wrote to Jefferson, was loath to lose “his services, which in my opinion would be a serious misfortune,” severely remonstrated now with the major. “In future I must strictly enjoin you to touch no man’s property without his consent, or the previous order of the Commissioners,” adding in kindlier tones: “Having the beauty and regularity of your plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person or thing were obliged to yield to it.”

But so they are, thought L’Enfant. For him the city was his city, his child, and a father has a right to rear his child as he pleases. Remonstrating went on some time. Jefferson came to the rescue of the President, used the fairest means, asked the major to dine with him “tête à tête,” so as to quietly discuss the federal city, the hour for the meal differing rather widely from ours: “Mr. Jefferson presents his compliments to Major L’Enfant, and is sorry to have been absent when he was so kind as to call on him, as he wishes to have some conversation with him on the subject of the federal city. He asks the favor of him to come and take a private dinner with him tomorrow at half after three, which may afford time and opportunity for the purpose.—Saturday January 7, 1792.” Nothing resulted. Another landowner, Notley Young, had been found in December building a house which had, “contrary to expectation, fallen into a principal street. But I hope,” Washington wrote the Commissioners, “the major does not mean to proceed to the demolition of this also.”

On no point would L’Enfant yield, so that on March 6, 1792, Jefferson wrote to the Commissioners: “It having been found impracticable to employ Major L’Enfant in that degree of subordination which was lawful and proper, he has been notified that his services were at an end.”

A consolation and a comfort to him was the immediate signing by all the landowners of the district, except two, of a testimonial “lamenting” his departure, wishing for his return, praising his work, “for we well know that your time and the whole powers of your mind have been for months entirely devoted to the arrangements in the city which reflect so much honor on your taste and judgment.”