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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 BRIGHT part of L’Enfant’s life was over. His fame was great, and appeals continued for some time to be made to him when important works were contemplated. But his same tendency to ever see things “en grand,” his unyielding disposition, his increasing and almost morbid fear of speculators wrecked more than one of his undertakings.

Almost on his leaving his work at Washington he was asked to draw the plans of the first manufacturing city, devised as such, in the United States, and which is to-day one of the most important in existence, Paterson, N. J. “Major L’Enfant, it is said,” wrote Washington, who still retained a friendly feeling for him, “is performing wonders at the new town of Paterson.” The moving spirit was Hamilton, under whose influence had been founded the “Society for the Establishing Useful Manufactures.” The chief point was to transform into a city a spot where only ten houses were in existence, and to make of it an industrial one by turning into use the Falls of the Passaic. Several letters of the major to Hamilton, giving an account of the work, in which faithful Roberdeau was helping, and of the increasing difficulties with all sorts of people, are preserved in the Library of Congress. After one year’s toil, L’Enfant was once more notified that his services were no longer wanted.

He is found in the same year and the following one working as an engineer at Fort Mifflin, on the Delaware, and as an architect at a mansion in Philadelphia which was to surpass in magnificence any other in the States. It had been ordered of him by Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, and the richest man in America. Here was, if ever, an occasion to do things “en grand.” L’Enfant, however, did them “en plus grand” than even the financier had dreamed; improvements and afterthoughts, the use of marble for columns and façades increased the delay and the expense. His being busy at Paterson had also been at first another cause of complaint. “Dear Sir,” Morris beseechingly wrote him from Philadelphia, “I had like to have stopped my house for fear of wanting money; that difficulty being removed, it will now be stopped for want of Major L’Enfant.” The roof had at last been put on, and one could judge of the beauty of the ensemble, quite remarkable, as we can see from a sketch by Birch the Elder preserved in the Philadelphia Library, when Morris’s catastrophe occurred, putting an end to the work, and swallowing part, if not all, of L’Enfant’s savings.

In his delight at being intrusted with the plan of the federal city he had never said a word about any remuneration, and he had not copyrighted his plan. At the time of his dismissal Washington had written to the Commissioners: “The plan of the city having met universal applause (as far as my information goes), and Major L’Enfant having become a very discontented man, it was thought that less than from two thousand five hundred to three thousand dollars, would not be proper to offer him for his services; instead of this, suppose five hundred guineas and a lot in a good part of the city were substituted?”

The offer was made; L’Enfant refused, without giving reasons. More and more gloomy times were in store for him; mishaps and disappointments multiplied. He had laid great store on the selling of copies of his plan, but since he had not copyrighted it, no royalty on the sale was reserved for him. He protested against this, against the way in which the engraving had been made, with grievous “errors of execution,” and against the suppression of his name on it, “depriving me of the repute of the projector.” Contrary, however, to the fear expressed at first by Washington, that out of spite he might, in his discontent, side with the many who disapproved of the vast and difficult undertaking, he remained loyal to it, and “there is no record of any act or word that tarnishes his life history with the blemish of disloyalty to the creation of his genius. He bore his honors and disappointments in humility and poverty.”

Poverty was, indeed, at his door, and soon in his house. Haunted by the notion of his wrongs, some only too real, some more or less imaginary, he sent to Congress memoir after memoir, recalling what he had done, and what was his destitution, the “absolute destruction of his family’s fortune in Europe,” owing to the French Revolution, his being reduced “from a state of ease and content to one the most distressed and helpless,” living as he did, upon “borrowed bread”; but he would not doubt of “the magnanimity and justice of Congress.”

The family’s fortune had been reduced, indeed, to a low ebb, his own lack of attention to his financial affairs making matters worse. His inability to properly attend to them is only too well evidenced by some letters from French relatives, showing that, while he was himself in absolute want, he neglected to receive the pension bestowed on him by the French Government, and which, in spite of the Revolution, had been maintained. He had also inherited from the old painter, his father, a small farm in Normandy, but had taken no steps about it, so that the farmer never ceased to pocket the revenues.

One of these letters, which tells him of the death of his mother, who “died with the piety of an angel,” shows what reports reached France as to the major’s standing among his American friends: “All the persons whom I have seen and who know you, assured me that you enjoyed public esteem. This is everything in a country of which people praise the morals, the virtues, and the probity as worthy of our first ancestors.”

On two occasions, after many years, Congress voted modest sums for L’Enfant, but they were at once appropriated by his creditors. He was, moreover, appointed, in 1812, “professor of the art of military engineering in the Military Academy of the United States,” a nomination which, in spite of the entreaties of James Monroe, then secretary of state, he declined. He is found in September, 1814, working at Fort Washington, when fifty men with spades and axes are sent him.

He survived eleven years, haunting the lobbies of the Capitol, pacing the newly marked avenues of “his” city, watching its growth, deploring the slightest deviation from his original design, for, as Washington had early noticed, he was “so tenacious of his plans as to conceive that they would be marred if they underwent any change or alteration,” visiting the friends he had among the early settlers. “Mr. W. W. Corcoran, who lately departed this life in the city of Washington, full of years and honor … had a very distinct recollection of the personal appearance of L’Enfant, the latter having been a frequent visitor at his father’s house. He described him to me as a tall, erect man, fully six feet in height, finely proportioned, nose prominent, of military bearing, courtly air, and polite manners, his figure usually enveloped in a long overcoat and surmounted by a bell-crowned hat—a man who would attract attention in any assembly.”

He ended his days, the permanent guest of the Digges family, in their house near Washington. His death occurred there in 1825, and he was buried in their property at the foot of a tree. An inventory of his “personal goods and chattels” showed that they consisted in three watches, three compasses, some books, maps, and surveying instruments, the whole being valued at forty-six dollars.

The federal city, Washington had written in 1798 to Mrs. Sarah Fairfax, then in England, will be a great and beautiful one “a century hence, if this country keeps united, and it is surely its policy and interest to do it.” It took, indeed, a great many years, and for a long time doubters could enjoy their doubts, and jokers their jokes. The Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visited the incipient town in 1797; he found that it possessed one hundred and fifty houses, scattered here and there; the house for the President was ready to be covered the same year, and the only wing of the Capitol yet begun was to receive its roof the year following, both being “handsome buildings, in white stones very well wrought.” But the unredeemable fault, in his eyes, was the very magnitude and beauty of the plan. “The plan,” he wrote, “is fine, cleverly and grandly designed, but it is its very grandeur, its magnificence, which causes it to be nothing but a dream.” The distance, so heartily approved of by Washington, between the President’s house and the Capitol, seemed to the traveller a serious objection; the raising of five hundred houses would be necessary to connect the two buildings; not one is in existence. “If this gap is not filled, communication will be impracticable in winter, for one can scarcely suppose that the United States would undergo the expense for pavement, footpaths, and lamps for such a long stretch of uninhabited ground.” This wonder has, however, been seen.

For a long time, for more than half the present duration of the city’s life, deriders could deride to their heart’s content. Few cities have ever been so abundantly nicknamed as Washington, the “wilderness city,” the city “of magnificent distances,” the “village monumental,” the city, as reported by Jean-Jacques Ampère, the son of the great scientist, who visited it in 1851, of “streets without houses, and of houses without streets.” He saw in its fate “a striking proof of this truth that one cannot create a great city at will.” But this truth, as some others, has proved an untruth.

The growth was slow, indeed, but constant, and when the century was over, Washington’s prophecy and L’Enfant’s foresight were justified by the event. A city had risen, ample and beautiful, a proper capital for a wealthy and powerful nation, one quite apart, copied on no other, “not one of those cities,” as was remarked, in our days, by one of Washington’s successors, Mr. Roosevelt, “of which you can cut out a piece and transplant it into another, without any one perceiving that something has happened.”

Then at last came L’Enfant’s day. What he had always expected for “his” city took place; what he had never expected for himself took place also. In January, 1902, both the “Park Commission,” composed of Daniel H. Burnham, Charles F. McKim, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and F. L. Olmsted, and the Senate committee presented their reports on the improvement and development of Washington; the conclusions were: “The original plan of the city of Washington, having stood the test of a century, has met universal approval. The departures from that plan are to be regretted, and wherever possible, remedied.” It was thus resolved to revert, as much as circumstances allowed, and in spite of a heavy outlay, to several of L’Enfant’s ideas, especially to one which he considered of greatest importance, and which had been kept so long in abeyance, the giving of its proper character to that “grand avenue” between the Capitol and the White House, meant to be “most magnificent and most convenient.” It is now going to be both.

As for L’Enfant himself, one more appropriation, this time not to go to his creditors, was voted by Congress on account of the major, and it was resolved that his ashes, the place of which continued to be marked only by a tree, should be removed to Arlington National Cemetery, to lie in that ever-growing army of the dead, former members of the regiments of that Republic for which he had fought and bled. His remains were brought to what had been “Jenkins’s Hill,” and placed under the great dome of the Capitol. In the presence of the chief of the state, President Taft, of representatives of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Society of the Cincinnati, and other patriotic and artistic societies, and of a vast crowd, on the 28th of April, 1909, orations were delivered by the Vice-President of the United States, James Sherman, and by the Chief Commissioner of the District, Henry B. McFarland, the latter amply making up, by his friendly and eloquent address, for the long-forgotten troubles of his predecessors with L’Enfant. The Vice-President courteously concluded thus: “And turning to you, Mr. Ambassador … I express the hope that the friendship between our nations, which has existed for more than a century, will be but intensified as time passes, and that we will in the future join hands in advancing every good cause which an all-wise Providence intrusts to our care.” The hearse, wrapped in the three colors of France and America, was accompanied to Arlington by the French naval and military attachés, and an escort from one of those regiments of engineers to which the major himself had belonged.

A handsome monument was unveiled two years later by Miss E. C. Morgan, the great-grand-daughter of William Digges, who had befriended L’Enfant in his last days, the chief speeches being delivered by President Taft, and by the secretary of state, Elihu Root. “Few men,” Mr. Root said, “can afford to wait a hundred years to be remembered. It is not a change in L’Enfant that brings us here. It is we who have changed, who have just become able to appreciate his work. And our tribute to him should be to continue his work.” The monument, by W. W. Bosworth, who, like L’Enfant had received in Paris his artistic education, is in the shape of a table, on which has been engraved a facsimile of the original plan of the city by the French soldier-artist. From the slope where it has been raised can be seen, on the other side of the river, the ceaselessly growing federal capital, called Washington, “a revered name,” another French officer, the Chevalier de Chastellux, had written, when visiting, in 1782, another and earlier town of the same name in Connecticut, “a revered name, whose memory will undoubtedly last longer than the very city called upon to perpetuate it.”