Builders For A Golden Age

As early as his term in the Continental Congress just before he went to France, Jefferson had argued in favor of a federal capital on one of the waterways flowing into the Chesapeake. As soon as he joined Washington’s administration he went to work with the same end in view. On June 20, 1790, he was writing Monroe: It is proposed to pass an act fixing the temporary residence of ia or 15 years at Philadelphia, and that at the end of that time it shall stand ipso facto & without further declaration transferred to Georgetown. In this way, there will be something to displease & something to soothe every part of the Union, but New York, which must be contented with what she has had.

Once the residence bill had passed, Jefferson felt there was no time to lose. He and the President needed no bargains to make them work together for Washington City. They were both Virginians. Always happiest when they looked to the West, they both believed the Potomac valley was the natural route to the Mississippi. Washington, as a dealer in western lands, an accomplished merchant of town lots, and an able promoter, was deeply involved in the Potomac and Ohio canal. Jefferson’s vocation as an architect, his local patriotism, and his conviction that if the eastern and western states were to remain united, a cheap and easy passage through the Appalachians must be opened at once, combined to involve all the great enthusiasms of his life in the project.

When Congress adjourned in August to meet in Philadelphia in the fall, Jefferson and Madison, who was still a bachelor, traveled home together. These jaunts in Jefferson’s phaeton were getting to be increasingly important to both men as their intimacy increased. They could talk as they drove. They studied the flora and fauna. They examined the buildings. They stopped at the best inns. The care with which they chose their meals did not escape the eyes of their political enemies, who would soon be accusing them of scorning their “native victuals.”

They pushed on to Georgetown, where Congressman Daniel Carroll took them riding, with a cavalcade of the local landowners, over the tract of farmland and meadow that lay between Rock Creek and muddy little Goose Creek, which Jefferson already was glorifying by the name of Tiber. After dinner they rowed in a boat up to the Little Falls and admired the romantic beauty of the river. It’s quite possible that, looking back from the water at the richly wooded lands of the saucer-shaped depression which his imagination was already filling with the white-columned porches and the noble domes of the federal city-to-be, Jefferson was able, against the blue highlands of Washington County that hemmed it about, to count seven hills.

When they drove down to Mount Vernon, they were well primed with the lay of the land. The plan of the city was the chief subject of their conversation with Washington. The three of them seem to have agreed that the best site on the Maryland shore was somewhere between the wharves of Georgetown, at the head of navigation of the tidal estuary of the Potomac, and the Eastern Branch, for which Jefferson soon dug up the old Indian name of Anacostia. Jefferson wanted the city laid out in squares (on the plan of Babylon, he said), like Philadelphia, though he wondered whether that city’s ordinance placing the houses at a certain distance from the street didn’t tend to produce “a disgusting monotony.” It is likely that for this conversation with Washington he sketched out the little plat that has come down to us of a gridiron of streets fronting on the creek.

Jefferson was in favor of a certain conformity of height and of a harmony of style. He had shipped home from France—now somewhere among the immense number of crates that were headed for Philadelphia—a collection of engravings of the best modern dwellings he had seen in Europe, where he felt builders and architects would be able to find hints for the style of private houses. The public buildings should be modeled on the antique, either in the spherical forms that stemmed from the domed buildings of the Romans, or the cubical that originated in the colonnaded and cunningly proportioned temples of the Greeks. The water front along the shallow Tiber should be preserved for public walks and the houses for government officials.

Washington, as he had shown in his rebuilding of Mount Vernon, had a taste for architecture himself and gloried in the spacious laying-out of grounds. The following month he himself rode round the edges of the marshes and up under the great trees on the hills between Rock Creek and the Eastern Branch to establish definitely where the limits of the city should be. He chose for the federal district a region ten miles square straddling the Potomac. The southern point of the square would include Alexandria and its wharves as far south as Hunting Creek. He hoped to find a way of taking in Bladensburg to the east. As the reporter for the Times and Patowmack Packet of Georgetown put it, the President “with the principal citizens of this town … set out to view the country adjacent to the river Patowmack in order to fix on a proper selection for the Grand Columbian Federal City.”

Next day he rode over the hills toward the northern right angle of the square in the direction of Elizabeth Town (now Hagerstown), where he was received by enthusiastic citizens on horseback and saluted by a company of militia presenting arms amid the ringing of church bells. Bonfires blazed and the windows were illuminated. At a supper served to him at the tavern, the President presented the toast, “The River Potowmac. May the residence law be perpetuated and Potowmac view the Federal City.”