The High Art Of George Hadfield

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Hadfield and Thornton presented their conflicting ideas to General Washington. The President had his own problems, but he took the time to write a long letter to the commissioners. In the first paragraph he seems definitely on the side of Hadfield, but he then says: “I have not sufficient knowledge of the subject to judge with precision. … You can decide with more safety than I am enabled to do, on the measures proper to be persued under the embarrassment which has arisen from the diversity of opinion.”

The commissioners replied that Dr. Thornton and James Hoban, the architect who designed the White House, both felt strongly that Hadfield’s plan could not be executed “so as to secure stability to the building.” These two witnesses were prejudiced, one because he didn’t want his design supplanted, the other because he hoped to supplant Hadfield. Thornton then tried to ruin his superintendent’s reputation. He wrote Washington a malicious letter pointing out Hadfield’s supposed mistakes and got the commission to try to bully the President once more into agreeing that Hadfield was incompetent. Washington replied:

“In the decision on the case which has been referred to me, much will depend on the real abilities of Mr. Hadfield—of which I can form no adequate knowledge.—If he is the man of science he is represented to be, and merits the character he brings; If his proposed alterations can be accomplished without enhancing the expense, or involving delay;—If he will oblige himself to carry on the building to its final completion … I should have no hesitation in giving it as my opinion that his plan ought to be adopted—otherwise his mortification must be great, and it would in a manner, be defeating the purpose of his coming hither.—On the other hand if there be any cause to suspect him of ignorance, or misrepresentation, the case may be altered and caution become necessary, before he should be indulged.”

All the if clauses in Washington’s letter could be answered affirmatively, and the buildings Hadfield designed after his dismissal prove his “real ability.” But Thornton wanted Hadfield’s “mortification,” and he persuaded the commission to reject his superintendent’s plans out-of-hand. Hadfield’s chagrin was great, as President Washington predicted; but he accepted the more menial role that limited him to superintending another’s designs. Years later he said he had relatively little to do with the appearance of the Capitol.

His modesty in this respect is the more remarkable, for Latrobe had urged him to claim more credit and thus diminish Thornton’s pretensions. As Latrobe wrote him in 1804: “I am now at open war with Dr. Thornton. He has written to me a letter in which he asserts my report to the Commissioners on the public buildings to be false in terms of which according to the fashion ought to produce a rencountre with a brace of pistols.…” He went on to extol Hadfield’s talents, taste, and knowledge as “more easily admired by me, than rivaled.…”

This was high praise from a great architect, but Hadfield’s capabilities were handicapped by a complicated personality that brought him close to a nervous breakdown. His character was a curious mixture of diffidence, modesty, self-confidence, moodiness, irascibility, and contentiousness. He was too creative to be the perfect supervisor and executant of another’s designs. When he was on his own, he showed taste, a personal style, and elements of genius; under the orders of a commission he despised, he was frustrated and unhappy. He stayed on, but he fought a running battle with Thornton, and he complained of his treatment to three Presidents. In his Journal , Latrobe summarized his friend’s unhappy career with great sympathy: “George Hadfield, once a promising young artist sent hither by the English Society of the Dilettanti at the requisition of General Washington, and employed to direct the public buildings, was too young to possess experience and education. Proficient more in the room of design than in the practical execution of great work, he was no match for the rogues then employed in the construction of public buildings, or for the charlatans in architecture who had designed them. All that he proposed, however, proved him a man of correct tastes, of perfect theoretic knowledge, and of bold integrity. He waged a long war against the ignorance and dishonesty of the commissioners and of the workmen. But the latter prevailed, for General Washington, led by his feelings and possessing no knowledge of the subject, sided against him. Thus has Hadfield lost the most precious period of his life, that of the practical study of his profession in the first works he might have executed. …”