Main Street Of America


I f, on that cold, foggy morning of March 12, 1791, Burnes had happened to look out of an upstairs window, he might have seen a stranger on horse- back riding through the forest that grew on the rise back of his fields. On such a day, the stranger could not possibly be out for pleasure; nor was he hunting, for he carried no weapon. As Burnes might sourly have surmised, this was “Major Longfont” (or “Langfang,” as Washington spelled it), bent on more violence than an army: the destruction of every farm in sight, the razing of the forests, and the obliteration of pretty little Goose Creek. In the Major’s mind, marble temples and palaces were rising from forest, swamp, and potato field: a “President’s Palace” just north of the Burnes farmhouse; on Jenkins’ Hill (”a pedestal waiting for a superstructure,” as he described it later) an imposing “Congress House.” At its foot would be five fountains and a great cascade, emptying into the Tiber; a “temple” for national celebrations “such as public prayer, thanksgivings, funerals, orations, etc., and assigned to the special use of no particular sect or denomination, but equally opened to all”; a pantheon for tombs of national heroes; a column “to celebrate the first rise of a navy”; and, of course, a suitable monument to the Father of his Country (see “George Washington’s Monument” in the December, 1968, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Then, through the low, swampy area between the hill and the “Palace,” he would cut his grand boulevard.

The Tiber and two other creeks were in the path of this majestic street, but L’Enfant did not concern himself with such trivialities; if he wanted an avenue in that place, it was for underlings to get rid of the creeks. His letters of this period show nothing but optimism and excitement. In April he wrote to Alexander Hamilton that “no position in America can he more susceptible of grand improvement than that between the eastern branch of the Potomac and Georgetown.” He hoped and felt confident that the city would soon fill up with people.

In July, 1791, the clearing of the forests began. A few foundations were dug, and brick kilns were erected where they would be handy. Andrew Ellicott and his assistants had finished surveying for the central and most important components of the city—the President’s House, the Congress House, and the grand avenue that was to connect them. However, the clearing of this grand avenue had to be delayed until David Burnes, who was finally persuaded to sell his lands, had harvested the fields that stood in its path. The surveyors were now working on the other avenues that were to radiate from Capitol Hill.

As progress grew, so did problems. Major L’Enfant had an unfortunate lack of tact, and great impatience with lesser intelligences. Although he had been ready to lay down his life for the theory of democracy, his temperament was autocratic; a working democracy, with all its bureaucrats and red tape, was a disagreeable surprise to him. Fearing land speculation, he refused to allow even the appointed commissioners to see his completed plan. Necessity obliged him to show it to Ellicott, but he considered the plan to be his alone to do with as he wished. On August 19 he sent it to Washington, along with copious notes. Pennsylvania Avenue was to be 160 feet wide, with ten feet of sidewalk on each side, then thirty feet of gravel walk planted with trees, and eighty feet in the middle for a carriageway.

At about this time the commissioners, tired of being ignored and anxious to get on with the development of the city, advertised a sale of lots to be held on October 19. Aware of the commissioners’ antagonism toward the chief planner, Jefferson and James Madison met with them in Georgetown and tried to smooth things out. As a result of the meeting, L’Enfant, who was in Philadelphia, was asked to arrange for the engraving of 10,000 copies of his map. Perhaps he was slow in placing the order, or perhaps the engraver was slow in filling it; in any event, no copies were ready in time for the sale of lots. Washington did not blame L’Enfant, but he was annoyed when he learned of the Frenchman’s continuing refusal to allow the circulation of hand-drawn copies, even to Congress. L’Enfant insisted that in this way he was preventing speculators from buying up all the best lots before the general public had a chance at them. But the sale was disappointing, and Washington wrote sympathetically to one of the commissioners, “none who knew what they were about would be induced to buy, to borrow an old adage, ‘a pig in a poke.’ ”