Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 34 City Planning and Foreign Disputes

pPART of the deal between Jefferson and Hamilton over assumption had been the eventual transfer of the capital of the United States to the banks of the Potomac. As was natural under the circumstances, and because it came within the duties of his Department, Jefferson took an active interest in the project from the very beginning.

Congress had passed a Residence Act authorizing the acquisition of land for the capital; and Jefferson made a series of notes for proceedings to be had under that Act. He estimated the eventual size of the Federal territory as 100 square miles, and called for the appointment of three commissioners to purchase or accept by gift such present quantities of land as the President deemed proper. He thought that one square should be allotted for the Capitol and offices of government, one for a Market, and nine for public walks. He proposed that the streets be laid out at right angles as in Philadelphia, but that they should be wide, straight and spacious; and not in any event to be narrower than 100 feet, with footways of 15 feet for pedestrians. The commissioners, he characteristically insisted, even though they would be subject to the President's direction, "should have some taste in architecture."

As he went along with the plans, his own architectural enthusiasm kindled. "I doubt much," he declared, "whether the obligation to build the houses at a given distance from the street, contributes to its beauty. It produces a disgusting monotony. All persons make this complaint against Philadelphia. The contrary practice varies the appearance, & is much more convenient to the inhabitants."

On February 2, 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott was designated to lay out and survey the new city; while Thomas Johnson, David Stuart and Daniel Carroll were appointed Commissioners. The next month, Major Peter Charles L'Enfant was directed to assist Ellicott, particularly with reference to the site of the town itself and its buildings. Interestingly enough, Jefferson made another appointment to the survey, which the Georgetown Weekly Ledger commented on in the following language. That on-thespot southern newspaper announced the arrival of Major Ellicott, "attended by Benjamin Banniker [sic], an Ethopian, whose abilities as a Surveyor and Astronomer clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments was without foundation."2 The sarcastic reference was, of course, to Jefferson's animadversions in the Notes on Virginia.

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